The Tell-Tale Heart Characters at a Glance

"The Tell-Tale Heart" key characters:

  • In "The Tell-Tale Heart," the narrator recounts his murder of an old man in an effort to prove his sanity. His speech and behavior, however, betray his lack of sanity.

  • The old man lives with the narrator and becomes the victim of murder when his “evil eye” begins to torment the narrator.

Themes and Characters

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Although there are two characters involved in the story—an old man and the younger man who lives with him—it is really about a single character. An examination of the nature of the narrator's obsession shows how Poe sets up this story about a split psyche. The narrator insists that he loves the old man, has no personal animosity toward him, does not want his money, and has not been injured by him. Instead, he says he wishes to kill the old man because of his eye! Although there is no way to understand this obsession, the reader must determine the method and meaning of the madness. For Poe, there is no such thing as meaningless madness in fiction.

It was a low, dull, quick sound—much such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton.
To understand what the old man's eye means to the narrator, it is necessary to examine the relevance of other themes and ideas. Besides the theme of the "eye," there are two primary motifs: the idea of time, and the identification of the narrator with the old man. The narrator says at various points in the story that he knows what the old man is feeling as he lies alone in bed, for he himself has felt the same things. He says the moan the old man makes does not come from pain or grief, but from mortal terror that arises from the bottom of the soul overcharged with awe. "Many a night, just at midnight, when all the world slept, it has welled up from my own bosom, deepening with its dreadful echo, the terror...

(The entire section is 498 words.)


(Short Stories for Students)

The narrator of ‘‘The Tell-Tale Heart’’ recounts his murder of an old man. Since he tells the story in first-person, the reader cannot determine how much of what he says is true; thus, he is an unreliable narrator. Though he repeatedly states that he is sane, the reader suspects otherwise from his bizarre reasoning, behavior, and speech. He speaks with trepidation from the famous first line of the story: ‘‘True—nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?'' The reader soon realizes through Poe’s jolting description of the narrator’s state of mind that the protagonist has in fact descended into madness. The narrator claims that he loves the old man and has no motive for the murder other than growing dislike of a cloudy film over one of the old man’s eyes. Poe effectively conveys panic in the narrator’s voice, and the reader senses uneasiness and growing tension in the narrative. Through the first-person narrative of a madman, Poe effectively creates a gothic tale full of horror and psychological torment, a style he termed ‘‘arabesque.’’

Old Man
The old man is known to readers only through the narration of the insane protagonist. According to the narrator, the old man had never done anything to warrant his murder. However, the old man’s cloudy, pale blue eye bothers the narrator tremendously. The narrator believes...

(The entire section is 418 words.)