The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe

The Tell-Tale Heart book cover
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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.

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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 that distracted me."

The narrator's own terror and awe is related to his obsession with time. He associates the central image of the beating of the heart with the beating of a clock; he says the old man listens, just as he has done, to the death watches (a kind of beetle that makes a ticking sound) in the wall; he emphasizes how time slows down and almost stops as he sticks his head into the old man's room. To comprehend the meaning of time for the narrator, we must consider the significance of the title and ask: what tale does the heart tell? Although at the end of the story, the beating heart beneath the floor gives the murderer away, more generally, every heart tells the tale of passing time—each beat bringing one closer to inevitable death.

The narrator's strong identification with the old man and his obsession with the eye, suggests that the narrator really wishes to destroy the "I," that is, himself. The only way to defeat time is to destroy that which time would inevitability destroy, that is, the self. But to save the self by destroying the self is a paradox that the narrator cannot overcome. Indeed, by destroying the old man's eye, the narrator indirectly destroys himself in the end by exposing himself as the murderer.

Characters

(Short Stories for Students)

Narrator
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...

(The entire section is 916 words.)