"The Tell-Tale Heart"
Edgar Allan Poe
The following entry presents criticism of Poe's short story "The Tell-Tale Heart" (1843). See also, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym Criticism and "The Fall of the House of Usher" Criticism. For information on Poe's complete career, see NCLC, Volumes 55, and 117.
Among the many strange and complex short stories of Poe, "The Tell-Tale Heart" has come to be known as one of the most mysterious and psychologically intriguing. Poe's preoccupations with death, with madness, and with troubled human relationships all find their culmination in this brief narrative. The murder of the old man and its aftermath, which form the center of the story, are told with dazzling clarity, a clarity that itself obscures the meaning of the act and calls into question the emotional stability of the unnamed narrator. The subjectivism of this story, the confusion of the line between reader and character within the narrative, and the use of language support the claim that Poe prefigures and indeed develops many of the tropes usually associated with more recent fiction.
"The Tell-Tale Heart" was written and published during the most furiously productive phase of Poe's life, when he lived in Philadelphia with his young wife Virginia (a cousin) and her mother. During this period he was also editing the literary journal Burton 's Gentleman's Magazine, and in 1840 he had collected his previously published tales into Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, including the popular "The Fall of the House of Usher" and the grim "King Pest." Now in his forties, Poe had become a well-known writer of short fiction, even though his education was uneven (he left the University of Virginia during his first year) and he experienced constant financial struggles. Early works of poetry had been largely neglected by the literary scene, but five stories were published in the Philadelphia Sunday Courier in 1832. From that point onward, Poe's stories appeared in journals throughout the United States. Yet periodic setbacks in his fortunes (his wife's illness, continuing alienation from his uncle John Allen, who had raised him, and his inability to secure a stable source of income) triggered fits of depression, which Poe tended to aggravate by turning to alcohol. In the stories of this period, the mood of Poe's
works varies considerably, between the fantastic narrative of a sleep-walker in "Mesmeric Revelation," the strangely wrought "Life in Death" a study of the relationship between art and life, and the horrific portrayal of murder in "The Black Cat." The last story is one that is often linked to "The Tell-Tale Heart," as both have the form of a narrated confession of violence and murder without directly addressing the reason for the crime. These two stories mark Poe's increasing interest in and ability to portray the psychologically gruesome and the supernatural, as well as his return to poetry.
Plot and Major Characters
The sparse plot of "The Tell-Tale Heart" concerns the "murder aforethought" of an old man, who is never named nor described fully, by the narrator, who is also never identified. Its narration is clearly retrospective but otherwise unlocated; the circumstances of the confession of this crime are never described, and so it seems that the narrator is speaking directly and passionately to the reader. The sequence of events is simple enough: the narrator is disturbed by the eye of an old man; he complains that "one of his eyes resembled that of a vulture—a pale blue eye, with a film over it." The narrator decides to rid himself of this eye by killing the old man. This is accomplished after seven painstaking nights of creeping into the man's room in order to see if the offending eye is open. It is only on the eighth night that the old man opens his eyes, and the crime is committed. How the man is actually killed is not described in detail: the narrator merely says that he pulls "the heavy bed over him." This same night, he dismembers the body and hides it beneath the floorboards of the man's room. Soon after, three police officers, who also remain anonymous and characterless, arrive (presumably to investigate the terrified shriek of the old man). Although the narrator takes pride in his calm comportment toward the officers as they sit directly above the hiding-place of the old man's body, he discerns a noise, "a low, dull, quick sound" that he identifies as the heartbeat of the old man. In rage and desperation, convinced that the police officers also hear this noise and have detected his guilt, he confesses to the crime. At this point the narrative abruptly ends.
The slow and apparently reasonable beginning of the narrative gradually quickens toward its feverish conclusion; the language of the story, particularly the use of dashes to express the obscure connections of the tale and the repetitions that mark the emphatic denial of insanity, is one of its most striking features. The nineteenth-century concern with death and madness appear in many of Poe's stories, but in "The Tell-Tale Heart" these themes seem to have been distilled into an unparalleled intensity. The strange vacillation between bare narration (the reader is given no setting beyond the walls of the house, no history beyond the events of the plot, and no characterization at all beyond what may be gleaned from the narrator's excited tale) and the magnification of critical moments (the narrator's patient vigil at the door of the old man's room and the repetition of the heartbeat that provokes the narrator's confession). Indeed, as in dreams, the sense of time in the story is a distorted reflection of "ordinary" time; it is this strangeness, along with the terrible clarity of the narration and the vociferous protestations of sanity, that lead the reader to suspect the emotional health of the narrator. The confession is not an explanation, although it superficially appears to be one: the eye of the old man, which becomes an obsessive object of the narrator's attention. The internal tension of the narrator, which leads him to understand the terror of the old man and to anticipate the responses of his listener/reader, dramatically underscores the uncertain status of the narrative: as reality or hallucination, involving two persons or a single split subject, and the audience to which it is directed.
One of Poe's most popular and anthologized stories, "The Tell-Tale Heart" is considered a stunning example of the deep connections between the Gothic tale and modern fiction, especially in its innovative use of the subjective narrative and its psychologically rich portrayal of a human situation that remains simultaneously strange and familiar in its intimacy. Poe's popularity in Europe, exemplified by Jacques Lacan's celebrated study of "The Purloined Letter", reflects his works' affinities with psychoanalytic tropes, such as the unconscious, repression, and the significance of the gaze. Many critics claim that the madness or dreamlike quality of the narrative is unambiguous, and have gone so far as to diagnose the narrator with paranoid schizophrenia, a medical definition unknown in Poe's age. The frequently cited obsession with time and mortality that inhabits Poe's writing is evident in "The Tell-Tale Heart" as well. This has led some recent scholars to argue that the narrator is struggling against his own death and in James W. Gargano's words "the tyranny of time," which he has projected onto the figure of the old man. The narrative has suggested to others, particularly Christopher Benfey, an internalized conflict between the need for interpersonal contact and the desire to protect oneself from the vulnerability that arises with such contact. The style of writing draws the reader into the narrative by appearing to transcribe directly the passionate confession of a fascinating if ultimately repulsive character. The combination of surrealism and immediacy that constitutes the peculiarity of the narrative disrupts simple or conventional interpretations. The psychological complexity of both the content and the form of "The Tell-Tale Heart" has continued to grip both the critical and popular imagination, and anticipates more recent fictional explorations into the concealed intricacy of the human condition.