illustration of a human heart lying on black floorboards

The Tell-Tale Heart

by Edgar Allan Poe

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The Tell-Tale Heart Characters

The main characters in "The Tell-Tale Heart" are the narrator and the old man.

  • The narrator: the unreliable narrator delivers the story via dramatic monologue in an effort to prove his own sanity. However, his murderous actions and increasingly erratic speech reveal a distinctive lack of sanity.

  • The old man: the old man apparently lives with the narrator and the narrator claims to have loved him. However, the narrator brutally murders him, allegedly because he feared the old man's "evil eye."

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

The Narrator

It is arguable that the narrator is the only true character in “The Tell-Tale” heart. He (assuming the character to be male, though we do not even know this with certainty), informs the reader of the existence of the old man and the three police officers, but he says next to nothing about them. He is so extremely unreliable a narrator that he may have invented them, along with the story.

The narrator tells the reader nothing about the external details of his life, but he does reveal his psychology in great detail. He is prone to mood swings, feeling elation at his own cleverness in one moment and despair in the next. He greets the police officers with an effusive welcome that can hardly fail to arouse their suspicion, then quickly condemns them as dissembling villains.

The narrator is also exquisitely sensitive. He commits murder for the sake of his aesthetic preferences, deciding that the sight of the old man’s eye is so upsetting that it must disappear forever, along with its owner. His sensitivity leads him to understand the old man’s feelings—or at least to think he does—though without empathizing or caring about the terror of his victim. When he hears the “groan of mortal terror” emitted by a man who knows he is near death, the narrator reveals that he has often given such a groan himself in the middle of the night, which is why he recognizes the sound. Since he had no such immediate fears as the old man has, this suggests that he is often frightened by his own dreams or thoughts. 

The narrator’s sanity is clearly open to doubt, and whether one should call him mad or not is ultimately a matter of what one understands madness to be. Whatever the reader thinks of his sanity, he has many peculiarities, and the strangeness of his character is constantly emerging in the details he gives of his actions and reactions, and how he imagines the reader (or his audience, whoever it is) will respond. When he thrusts his head into the old man’s room, he exclaims “Oh, you would have laughed to see how cunningly I thrust it in!” This presumes an unusual sense of humor. The narrator’s use of the verb “thrust” is also unique, since he says that it took him an hour to place his head within the opening. 

The narrator’s erratic descriptions of the passage of time emphasize his lack of reliability, as do his assumptions about what the reader will find amusing, admirable, or ingenious. Even if his murder of the old man did not call his sanity into question, his self-congratulation on the cunning of smothering an old man and hiding his body under the floorboards of the house where they both live would not reflect well on his intelligence. The narrator seems to think he has committed the perfect crime, spoiled only by the incriminating heartbeat. His vanity and egotism lead him to view himself as a criminal genius; however, whatever the reality that lies behind his sensational narrative may be, this is not it.

The Old Man

All the reader learns of the old man is that he has a pale blue eye, like that of a vulture, which has a disconcerting effect on the narrator. Nothing is revealed of his inner life, except that he is terrified when he hears the narrator coming to murder him in the middle of the night, a very natural reaction. The narrator complains of no vice or unkindness on the part of the old man; he says he loves him but does not allude to any particular virtue or kindness as a reason for his love.

The old man is barely enough of a character to be called a flat character. He has been understood as a symbol of science, reason or paternalism. However, his two most suggestive attributes are an eye that will not close and a heart that will not stop beating. These are indicative of a dogged attachment to life, which could be seen as identifying the old man as the archetypal murder victim, since his main characteristic is a resistance to murder. 

The Three Police Officers 

The police officers are not differentiated at all and are given no dialogue. They are described as suave and unsuspicious. Even by the standards of this least reliable of narrators, this seems unlikely to be true. It is the job of the police to be suspicious, and the narrator’s bizarre behavior—inviting them in, asking them to search the house, then insisting that they stay and converse, all taking place at 4:00 a.m.—would be enough to arouse suspicion in anyone. The police officers are a symbol of authority and retribution, and in this unusually easy case they need only sit and wait while the murderer delivers himself into their hands.

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