"The Tell-Tale Heart"
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...
(The entire section is 41,960 words.)