There are two physical settings in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”: the house the narrator shares with the old man where the murder takes place and the location from which the narrator tells his story, presumably a prison or an asylum for the criminally insane. However, the most important setting for the story is within the obsessed mind of the narrator. The old man is hardly more than the evil eye that so infuriates the narrator, the source of his mysterious obsession.
The central question on which the story depends is, why does the narrator kill the old man? He says he has no personal animosity toward him, that he does not want his money, that the old man has not injured him in any way. In fact, he says he loves the old man. The only reason he can give is the evilness of the old man’s eye. Although some critics have suggested that the eye is the “evil eye” of superstition, which the narrator feels threatens him, there is no way to understand his motivation except to say the narrator must be mad. Still, the reader feels compelled to try to understand the method and meaning of the madness. For Poe, there is no meaningless madness in a short story.
The key to understanding the mysterious motivation in the story is Poe’s concept of a central idea or effect around which everything else coheres, like an obsession that can be identified on the principle of repetition. Thus, if the reader is alert to repetitions in the story, these repeated themes become the clues to the mystery. Determining motifs foregrounded by repetition helps the reader distinguish between details that are relevant to the central theme and those that merely provide an illusion of reality. Poe, the creator of the detective story, was well aware of the importance of discovering all those details that matter in a case and then constructing a theory based on their relationship to each other
To understand what the eye means in the story, the reader must take Poe’s advice in his essays and reviews on short fiction and determine how all the various details in the story seem bound together to create one unified theme and effect. In addition to the details about the eye, there are two other sets of details repeated throughout the story: the narrator’s identification with the old man and the idea of time. When the narrator sticks his head in the old man’s chamber at night and hears him groan, he says he knows what he is feeling, for he himself has felt the same terror many times himself. At the moment the narrator kills the old man, as well as the moment when he confesses the crime, he thinks he hears the beating of the old man’s heart; however, of course, what he hears is the beating of his own heart. When the police question him about the old man’s scream in the night, he says it was his own in a bad dream.
The narrator makes several references to time. The beating of the old man’s heart sounds like the ticking of a watch wrapped in cotton; the old man is said to listen to death watches (a kind of beetle that makes a ticking sound) in the wall; time seems to slow down and almost stop when he sticks his head in the old man’s chamber. To understand this obsession with time and its association with the beating of a heart, the reader must relate it to the title and ask, what tale does a heart tell? The answer is that the tale every heart tells is that of time—time inevitably passing, every beat of one’s heart bringing one closer to death. As in many other Poe stories, “The Tell-Tale Heart” suggests that when one becomes aware of the ultimate destiny of all living things—that humans are born only to die—time becomes the enemy that must be defeated at all costs.
By connecting the repeated theme of the narrator’s identification with the old man to the obsession with the eye, the reader can conclude that what the narrator wishes to destroy is not the eye but that which sounds like “eye” (after all, he says that his sense of sound especially has been heightened). That is, the word “eye” sounds like the word “I,” the self. This connection relates in turn to the theme of time. The only way one can escape the inevitability of time is to destroy that which time would destroy—the self. However, to save the self from time by destroying the self is a paradox that the narrator can only deal with by displacing his need to destroy himself (the I) to a need to destroy the eye of the old man. By destroying the old man’s eye, the narrator indirectly does succeed in destroying himself—ultimately by exposing himself as a murderer. Of course, one could say, this is madness; indeed it is. However, it is madness and motivation with meaning, a meaning that Poe wishes us to discover by careful reading of the story.
One of Poe’s major contributions to the development of the short story was his conception of plot not merely as a series of events, one thing after another, but as the calculated organization of all those details in the story that relate to and revolve around a central theme. It is no wonder that his own obsession with this aesthetic principle would lead him to create that great “reader” of hidden plot or pattern, Auguste Dupin, who would later become the model for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s great detective Sherlock Holmes. “The Tell-Tale Heart” is indeed a murder mystery in which the narrator concocts a plot to kill the old man. However, the real plot of the story is Poe’s elaborate pattern of psychological obsession and displacement, as one man tries to accomplish what all human beings wish to do—defeat the ticking of the clock that marks one’s inevitable movement toward death.