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The Tell-Tale Heart

by Edgar Allan Poe

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The First-Person Narrative Viewpoint in the “Tell-Tale Heart”

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The use of an unreliable first-person narrator in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" serves a number of crucial functions. By telling this story from the viewpoint of a deranged major character, Poe provides us with insight into that character's motivation in committing murder as well as his purpose in relating it to the reader, justifies the "open-ended" resolution of the story's plot, and above all, intensifies the dramatic impact of his tale. True, "The Tell-Tale Heart" could have been recounted from an alternative perspective, that of an omniscient third-person narrator, for example. But, as will be brought out in this brief study, had the author chosen this course, character motivation would not have been as sharply etched as it is, the plot's unusual form would have proven confusing, and the dramatic power of the tale would have been diminished.

There can be little doubt that the narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart" is unreliable, and is, in fact, deranged. In the very first sentence of the work, the speaker confesses that he is "dreadfully nervous" and even allows that he has a "disease." He apparently suffers from some form of paranoia or persecution complex. But whatever diagnosis that the reader makes of Poe's narrator, it is plain that the chief character of "The Tell-Tale Heart" is, in fact, mentally imbalanced. It is not merely that he commits a murder without a rational motive that convinces the reader of this. Instead, it is that by telling of the crime from a first-person point of view, the reader is forced to notice the vast internal contradictions that push Poe's narrator forward. At one point, the speaker claims that he pities old man his "mortal terror," but then immediately adds "although I chuckled at heart." At another pivotal point in story, the main character examines the old man's corpse thoroughly. He is convinced and, in turn convinces the reader, that the old man is "stone dead." Yet he will later act under the belief that the old man's heart still beats. What is clear, then, is that as the reader "listens" to the narrator, he is hearing the words of a madman.

The particular standpoint from which the "Tell-Tale Heart" is told provides the reader with insight into the major character's motivation in carrying out the murder and in telling us about it. Significantly, in the first sentence the narrator says that he "had been and am" nervous. This means that he was insane at the time the events that he describes took place and in the "present," the time of the story's narration. No object or passion stood behind the chief character's heinous deed. He allows that he even "loved" the old man. Later the narrator speaks of the "mortal "terror" that has "many a night, just at has welled up from my own bosom." The reason for the crime lies exclusively in the narrator's disturbed mind.

The narrative persona of "The Tell-Tale Heart" seems to have a hidden agenda in conveying his story to the reader. His purpose in laying open the details of his crime is to convince the reader of his sanity. When he points the reader's attention toward "how calmly I can tell you the whole story," his aim is to demonstrate a mental soundness that he seems to believe must present within him since he has been able to enact a complicated murder with a diligent eye for detail. This hidden agenda comes across unmistakably when the narrator states: "If you think me mad, you will not longer when I describe the wise precautions I took for the concealment of the body." The fact that an account of a gruesome dismemberment follows undercuts the narrator's aim of convincing us that he is sane. In a sense, the narration of the tale is a part of the crime itself.

Poe's use of an unreliable first-person point of view, also offers a basis for the resolution of the story and its open-ended form. The murderer's scheme unravels when a deputation of police come to the old man's house after a neighbor hears the sole scream that the victim issues. Ironically, the murderer during his carefully wrought crime has dismissed the scream altogether and, instead, has focused entirely on the sound of the beating heart, assuring himself that it "can't be heard through the wall." As he take the officers through the house, he is obviously deluded in thinking that his strange behavior will convince them of his innocence. The effect, of course, is exactly the opposite: it is his manner, more than the scream itself, that raises the suspicions of the police.

The plot's resolution comes in the form of the narrator's furtive confession as he himself exposes the evidence of the murder. Indeed, "The Tell-Tale Heart's" unorthodox form, especially its abrupt ending can be explained by the fact that it is told from the viewpoint of a person who is not "all there" or "whole" himself. If "The Tell-Tale Heart" ends abruptly (as it does), this can be attributed to the imbalanced mind of the narrative persona, for it is he who chooses the point at which the tale will end.

It is extremely interesting to see the narrator as he attempts to change the story's point of view. At several point in "The Tell-Tale Heart" the narrator tries to shift the perspective to a second-person point of view as when he says "You should have seen me," or, "Oh, you would have laughed to see how cunningly I thrust it (his head) in" to the old man's room. His claimed insight into the reader's mind is, of course, a form of self-deception; the reader is not as "sick" as the narrator takes him to be. The fact that we do not share the same relish for the way in which he has planned and carried out the murder, while he believes that we ""should," merely underscores just how "sick" the narrator is.

Even more relevant to the story's resolution, the narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart" acts as if he had the selective omniscience of a third-person narrator. Approaching the old man's bed on the night of the crime, the narrator claims to know what his victim "had been saying to himself." Later, his extension of this bogus claim to omniscience plays a key part in the unravelling of the deed. The narrator comes to believe that he can see into the minds of the officers who arrive at the old man's house. In the last full paragraph of the story we read: "Yet the officers heard not... Was it possible they heard not? Almighty Godi——No, No!" In both cases, the narrators’ futile efforts to take on a perspective outside his natural first-person viewpoint cannot be sustained. He fails to develop a bond with the reader to advance his hidden agenda, and he falters badly in trying to probe what the police officers are thinking as they interrogate him, or, more precisely, as he interrogates himself.

The use of a deranged first-person narrator amplifies the dramatic impact of the tale and this takes place through the story's visual, aural, and poetical dimensions. Because he sees the crime carried out from the narrator's perspective, the reader's imagination is concentrated upon the same visual elements with which the narrator is obsessed. Chief among these is the old man's cataract-covered vulture's eye. Indeed, the narrator asserts that he delays the commission of his crime for a week because he cannot carry out murder when vulture eye is closed. By using this point of view, then, Poe "makes" the reader see as the narrator sees. Extraneous details, the physical appearance of the old man, of the narrator, of the scene of the crime, are pushed into the background or absent altogether. The reader must "look" upon only that which the narrator elects to show him.

The narrator also claims that he has a supernaturally acute sense of hearing. It is by virtue of this extraordinary power that the narrator explains his ability to "hear" the old man's heat beating even after the victim is stone dead. Again, because the tale is related from the viewpoint of a first-person narrator, we also "hear" as the narrator hears, and this concentrates our attention on the key aural aspects of the story, the beating of the heart, by excluding others. In fact, going back over "The Tell-Tale Heart" we realize that not a single word of dialogue is spoken by a character other than the narrator.

Finally, because "The Tell-Tale Heart" is related to the reader in the voice of a madman, the author is able to insert dramatically effective, even lyrical, phrases into the text. There are several points where the narrator, seemingly reliving his crime, heightens dramatic tension by repeating a word, as in "cautiously, oh, so cautiously," "a very, very little crevice," and "how stealthily, stealthily." By doing so, Poe elevates the reader's tension, forcing him to "wait" for the next turn of events and he gives these passages a poetic rhythm that would have seemed forced or false had the author used a third-person point of view.

In conclusion, then, the use of a deranged first-person narrator in "The Tell-Tale Heart" performs several key functions. This particular point of view gives us insight into the workings of the chief characters mind, particularly his motive in killing the old man and his reason for telling the reader about it. When the speaker's false claims to selective omniscience fall apart and, in fact, contribute to his downfall, the value of the first-person narrative mode in "The Tell-Tale Heart" comes across even more forcefully. Most importantly, the first-person narrative perspective furnishes "The Tell-Tale Heart" with heightened dramatic power as the reader is compelled to "see" what the narrator sees (or wants him to see) and to "hear" what the narrator hears (or wants him to hear). Rendered from some other viewpoint, that of a third-person omniscient narrator "closer" to the author himself, "The Tell-Tale Heart" would amount to a report of an irrational crime and would be deprived of much of its potency.

The Twin and the Doppelganger

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A salient feature in many of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories is the concept of a nemesis appearing as a doppelganger. A doppelganger is a double—an apparitional twin or counterpart to another living person. In Poe’s stories involving a doppelganger, the protagonist identifies closely with the antagonist and vice versa. The double appears in such stories as ‘‘The Purloined Letter,’’ ‘‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’’ and ‘‘The Tell-Tale Heart.’’ The idea of the protagonist fighting a counterpart occurs so often in Poe’s works that critics often suggest that it indicates Poe’s attempts to work out, through his writings, his own inner conflicts and psychological struggles.

The identification of the narrator in ‘‘The Tell-Tale Heart’’ with the old man is a primary motif in the story. Many times throughout the story, the narrator says that he knows how the old man feels. He claims to know the groans of the old man, and that he too had experienced the same moans—not of pain or sadness but of mortal terror. It is a terror which ‘‘arises from the bottom of the soul when overcharged with awe.’’ The narrator says: ‘‘I knew the sound well. Many a night, just at midnight, when all the world slept, it has welled up from my bosom, deepening, with its echo, the terrors that distracted me. I say I knew it well. I know what the old man felt.…’’ The narrator knows such fearful restlessness first hand: ‘‘He (the old man) was still sitting up in the bed, listening;—just as I have done, night after night, hearkening to the death watches in the wall.’’ Thus the narrator and the old man are on such equal footing that they seem almost like the same person.

Ostensibly, the protagonist has no rational reason for wanting to kill the old man. Indeed, he claims the old man has never done him wrong and that he loves him and does not want his money. Why, then, is there a need for murder? ‘‘Object there was none. Passion there was none,’’ says the narrator. Neither does the narrator explain how or why exactly the old man's ‘‘pale blue eye, with a film over it’’ bothers him so greatly. In fact he only thinks it was the eye that first prompted him with murderous thoughts: ‘‘I think it was his eye! yes, it was this!’’ Critic Charles E. May, however, interprets the ‘‘eye’’ not as an organ of vision but as the homonym of ‘‘I.’’ Thus, what the narrator ultimately wants to destroy is the self, and he succumbs to this urge when he could no longer contain his overwhelming sense of guilt.

The idea of knowing the antagonist so well as to know his every move reappears in ‘‘The Purloined Letter,’’ a story about two long-time nemeses, Dupin and Minister D. In this story, Minister D. steals a compromising letter from the Queen, and Dupin attempts to recover the letter. Minister D. blackmails the Queen by threatening to divulge to the King the information gained from the letter. The Queen’s agents are unable to find the letter because they assume that the Minister thinks like them. Dupin, however, finds the letter because he knows the Minister well enough to know how he thinks. He sets up his nemesis for a fall when he replaces the letter with a counterfeit one, thereby endangering the Minister’s life when he attempts to blackmail the Queen with a worthless note. Dupin claims that he accomplishes all this because he shares the same intellect and interests as the Minister—they possess the same poetic yet mathematical mind. Dupin knows Minister D. so intimately that he knows how to hold his interest in a meeting while stealing back the letter from under his nose.

In Poe’s works involving protagonists and doppelgangers, the characters exist in a moral vacuum. Poe’s concerns with aesthetics, style, and effect on the reader override concerns with moral issues. In the struggle between Dupin and Minister D., the reader never knows whether Dupin is working for the ‘‘right’’ political cause. The reader assumes that the Queen has committed an imprudent deed and suspects that there is something very undemocratic about the police working directly for the Queen in what may be a partisan political struggle. But political positions are immaterial in Poe’s morally ambiguous stories. The fact that Dupin could possibly be aiding a corrupt or undemocratic faction while Minister D. could be a rebellious politician and brave with anti-monarchical goals is not really an issue with Poe. He never advocates a political or moral position or suggests which is the ‘‘correct’’ one. Poe rejected the position of many of his contemporaries who valued the utilitarian nature of literature and who also believed that literature should be instructive and provide moral guidance. Poe called their ideological position ‘‘the heresy of the didactic.’’ Poe’s writing aims at a concentrated effect on or emotional response from the reader; the moral positions of the protagonist, antagonist, or other characters do not play a prominent role in the stories. Morally, therefore, the protagonist and his double are identical. The elimination of the doppelganger becomes a destruction of a moral twin—sometimes a self-destructive act.

The idea of the nemesis as twin reappears in ‘‘The Fall of the House of Usher.’’ Roderick Usher is so close to his twin sister, Madeline, that the two are said to share one consciousness. In this tale, the narrator is visiting Roderick, a childhood friend who has fallen on hard times. Roderick announces that his sister is dead and entombs her in a coffin in the basement. But the narrative hints that she is still alive, for she expresses ‘‘a faint blush’’ even as the narrator and Roderick close the lid to her coffin. She appears to be suffering from catalepsy, a condition which causes muscle rigidity and an appearance of death. When she mysteriously awakens from her catatonic state late one night, she walks to her terrified brother and falls on him. Roderick and his twin then collapse, both dead. Roderick understands exactly how Madeline feels and acts; there are strong psychological and sexual links between the two. The narrator implies that the Usher family survives only via incest; Roderick and Madeline are the last members of this accursed house. Some critics thus interpret Roderick’s act of entombing Madeline alive as an attempt to end this curse. The similarities and links between Roderick and Madeline are too obvious to dismiss. One of Roderick Usher’s paintings features a burial vault lit from within, as if he knows about a life-force emanating from inside a coffin. Roderick loves his sister like no other. Their birth and death occur at the same time. Both siblings emit feelings of gloom and doom. Madeline appears wraithlike, as if she is just an apparition. Roderick too appears deathlike and feels his sister’s every move and presence; when he announces that she is outside the door and has come for him, she appears exactly as he predicts. The elimination of one sibling thus spells the end of the other. Indeed, after entombing his sister, Roderick becomes more agitated, wild, and fearful, realizing fully that his time too has arrived.

If the two siblings are in fact one in spirit, then their actions may also be interpreted as suicide rather than murder. Poe does not concern himself with the moral actions of the characters in ‘‘The Fall of the House of Usher’’; the narrator feels no immediate guilt for having aided in the entombment of a person who may possibly be alive. The story seeks primarily to stir fear in the reader, with the issue of morality marginalized. The characters operate in an inscrutable universe where all of them, particularly the protagonist and the doppelganger, are equally amoral.

Returning to ‘‘The Tell-Tale Heart,’’ one can thus argue that the murder becomes an act of suicide and that the protagonist and the antagonist are moral equals. Taking this argument one step further, one can suggest that the two characters could well be the same person. Ostensibly, the police find no trace of an old man in the house. The narrator has hidden him so well that the old man may exist only in the narrator’s mind. Some critics imply that the beating heart is really the sound of the narrator’s own heartbeat. As his excitement, nervousness, and guilt mount, his heartbeat seems to grow louder to his overly acute senses. In the end, the narrator tells the police that he was the one who shrieked, waking himself up from a nightmare and a dreamlike logic as well as destroying an enemy which might not have existed.

Critics who have studied Poe sometimes suggest that his characters resemble him both physically and temperamentally. Similarities can be seen between physical descriptions of Roderick Usher—particularly his pale face and large luminous eyes—and of photographs (daguerreotypes) of Poe. Parallels can also be drawn between the conflicts between the protagonists and antagonists in Poe’s works and Poe’s difficult financial and emotional relationship with his foster father, John Allan. Such conflicts in his writings as the struggles of the protagonist against the doppelganger and overwhelming inexplicable natural forces represent a therapeutic banishment of Poe’s own inner demons and psychological struggles.

Source: John Chua, ‘‘Overview of ‘The Tell-Tale Heart,’’’ in Short Stories for Students, Gale, 1998. Chua is a multimedia associate with the National Council of Teachers of English.

The Question of Poe’s Narrators

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In ‘‘The Tell-Tale Heart’’ the cleavage between author and narrator is perfectly apparent. The sharp exclamations, nervous questions, and broken sentences almost too blatantly advertise Poe’s conscious intention; the protagonist’s painful insistence in ‘‘proving’’ himself sane only serves to intensify the idea of his madness. Once again Poe presides with precision of perception at the psychological drama he describes. He makes us understand that the voluble murderer has been tortured by the nightmarish terrors he attributes to his victim: ‘‘He was sitting up in bed listening;—just as I have done, night after night, harkening to the death watches in the wall’’; further, the narrator interprets the old man’s groan in terms of his own persistent anguish: ‘‘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 terrors that distracted me.’’ Thus, Poe, in allowing his narrator to disburden himself of his tale, skillfully contrives to show also that he lives in a haunted and eerie world of his own demented making.

Poe assuredly knows what the narrator never suspects and what, by the controlled conditions of the tale, he is not meant to suspect—that the narrator is a victim of his own self-torturing obsessions. Poe so manipulates the action that the murder, instead of freeing the narrator, is shown to heighten his agony and intensify his delusions. The watches in the wall become the ominously beating heart of the old man, and the narrator’s vaunted self-control explodes into a frenzy that leads to self-betrayal. I find it almost impossible to believe that Poe has no serious artistic motive in ‘‘The Tell-Tale Heart’’ that he merely revels in horror and only inadvertently illuminates the depths of the human soul. I find it equally difficult to accept the view that Poe’s style should be assailed because of the ejaculatory and crazy confession of his narrator.

Source: James W. Gargano, ‘‘The Question of Poe’s Narrators,’’ in College English, Vol. 25, no. 3, December, 1963, pp. 177-81.

Edgar Allan Poe: ‘‘Tales of Mystery and Imagination’’

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‘‘The Tell-Tale Heart’’ is one of the most effective parables ever conceived. Shorn of its fantastic details regarding the murdered man’s vulture-like eye, and the long-drawn-out detail concerning the murderer’s slow entrance into his victim’s room, the story stands as an unforgettable record of the voice of a guilty conscience.

Despite its merit as a parable, ‘‘The Tell-Tale Heart’’ is marred by the insanity of the chief character. From the very first sentence his madness is apparent through his desperate insistence upon his sanity; and the preliminaries of his crime go to prove that madness. The vital weakness of Poe’s stories in this kind is his repeated use of the motive of mental abnormality. Psychological fiction (and Poe was among its earliest practitioners) depends for its effect upon the study of the human mind in its conscious state—whereas insanity is, to all intents and purposes, a condition of unconsciousness.

Is it not possible to contemplate a re-writing of ‘‘The Tell-Tale Heart’’ in a manner which would preserve its unique character as a parable of the self-betrayal of a criminal by his conscience, while at the same time vastly increasing its interest as a story of human action? As Poe writes the story, we have the spectacle of a demented creature smothering his helpless old victim without reason or provocation, other than the instigation of his own mad obsession: ‘‘Object there was none. Passion there was none.’’ This absence of motive robs the story of every vestige of dramatic interest, for it is an elementary axiom in criticism that what is motiveless is inadmissible in literary art. The provision of an adequate motive for the murder, and the subsequent commission of the murder by one who is otherwise sane, would bring the story on to the plane of credibility and dramatic interest. If the circumstances of the story were thus altered, the implacable workings of conscience and the portrayal of their cumulative influence upon the mind of the criminal, could scarcely fail to have a much more powerful effect upon the mind of the reader than is actually the case in the story as it stands.

Two things, at least, should be remembered, however, when we make these strictures in regard to Edgar Allan Poe’s work. First, that he had ever before him the aberrations of his own troubled mind—doubtfully poised at all times, perhaps, and almost certainly subject to more or less frequent periods of disorder: consequently, it was probably more nearly normal, for him, to picture the abnormal than to depict the average. Second, that literary men in general, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, were still in the trough of the wave of German romanticism, which exalted extravagant and clamorous and stormy sentimentality above the quieter, deeper, truer moods of human feeling.

Considering, then, the temperamental drawbacks by which Poe was beset, and also that the naturalistic mode in literature is the fruitage of more recent times, he should be judged by standards different from those that serve for other writers. The wonder surely is that Poe should be able still to sway modern readers with such unprepossessing material.

Source: Alfred C. Ward, ‘‘Edgar Allan Poe: ‘Tales of Mystery and Imagination,’’’ in Aspects of the Modern Short Story: English and American, University of London Press, 1924, pp. 32-44.

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Critical Overview


The Tell-Tale Heart