"The Tell-Tale Heart" Edgar Allan Poe
The following entry presents criticism of Poe's short story "The Tell-Tale Heart." See also "The Cask of Amontillado" Criticism and "The Fall of the House of Usher" Criticism.
This trademark horror tale shows Poe at the height of his imaginative and artistic powers, with its boldly original story line, exquisitely rendered form, and psychological complexity. The simple 2,200-word first-person narrative is the confession by a murderer to a grisly but apparently motiveless crime. The protagonist's madness is obvious from the beginning, but in his retelling of the story, the line between truth and hallucination is left blurred, disarming the reader and making the events in a madman's imagination seem chillingly real. In his discussions of the short story form, Poe insisted that each element of a story contribute to its total effect, and "The Tell-Tale Heart" is a perfect demonstration of this injunction. Every carefully crafted nuance of the tale contributes to its overall unity, from the narrator's protestations about his sanity in the opening lines to his confession in the last; the stylistic device of repeated phrases echoing the obsessiveness of the narrator's mind; and the interwoven symbolism creating a frighteningly charged effect.
The story's date of composition is uncertain, but there is evidence to believe it was written in mid-1842 shortly after Poe, then living in Philadelphia, suffered his third heart attack. In late 1842 Poe sent the tale off to the magazine Boston Miscellany for possible publication. It was rejected by editor Henry T. Tuckerman with the comment, "If Mr. Poe would condescend to furnish more quiet articles, he would be a most desirable correspondent." Poe turned the story over to his friend James Russell Lowell, who paid the financially strapped, unemployed author $10 and published it in the January 1843 issue of his monthly magazine, The Pioneer. The source of the story seems to have been Daniel Webster's description of an actual murder in Massachusetts in 1830, but, as critics have pointed out, Poe may also have found inspiration for the tale in horror stories by Charles Dickens and Edward Bulwer Lytton, William Shakespeare's Macbeth, and the circumstances of his own life.
Plot and Major CharactersThe tale opens with the narrator insisting that he is not mad, avowing that his calm telling of the story that follows is confirmation of his sanity. He explains that he decided to take the life of an old man whom he loved and whose house he shared. The only reason he had for doing so was that the man's pale blue eye, which was veiled by a thin white film and "resembled that of a vulture," tormented him, and he had to rid himself of the "Evil Eye" forever.
After again declaring his sanity, the narrator proceeds to recount the details of the crime. Every night for seven nights, he says, he had stolen into the old man's room at midnight holding a closed lantern. Each night he would very slowly unlatch the lantern slightly and shine a single ray of light onto the man's closed eye. As he enters the room on the eighth night, however, the old man stirs, then calls out, thinking he has heard a sound. The narrator shines the light on the old man's eye as usual, but this time finds it wide open. He begins to hear the beating of a heart and, fearing the sound might be heard by a neighbor, kills the old man by dragging him to the floor and pulling the heavy bed over him. He dismembers the corpse and hides it beneath the floorboards of the old man's room.
At four O'clock in the morning, the narrator continues, three policemen come asking to search the premises because cause a neighbor has reported a shriek coming from the house. The narrator invites the officers in, explaining that the noise came from himself as he dreamt. The old man, he tells them, is in the country. He brings chairs into the old man's room, placing his own seat on the very planks under which the victim lies buried. The officers are convinced there is no foul play, and sit around chatting amiably, but the narrator becomes increasingly agitated. He soon begins to hear a heart beating, much as he had just before he killed the old man. It grows louder and louder until he becomes convinced the policemen hear it too. They know of his crime, he thinks, and mock him. Unable to bear their derision and the sound of the beating heart, he springs up and, screaming, confesses his crime.
Most critics agree that there are two primary motifs in the story: the identification of the narrator with the man he kills and the psychological handling of time. The narrator says he understands his victim's terror just as he is about to murder him, and the beating heart he mistakes for the old man's may well be his own. Throughout the story the narrator is obsessed with time: the central image of the heart is associated with the ticking of a watch, the nightly visits take place precisely at midnight, and time seems to slow and almost stop as the murderer enters the old man's chamber. Another major theme is that of the eye, which some critics consider to have a double meaning, as the external "eye" of the old man is seen in contrast to the internal "I" of the narrator. Several commentators have pointed out that the symbolism in the work is highly structured and intertwined, so that the various themes—of death, time, nature, inner versus outer reality, the dream, the heart, and the eye—work together for accumulated effect. Other concerns by critics analyzing the story include Poe's influences in writing the story, the nature of the narrator's psychological disturbance, and the relationship between the narrator and the reader of the tale.
Reaction to "The Tell-Tale Heart" upon its initial publication was mixed. The critic Horace Greeley commented in 1843 that the story was at once "strong and skillful" yet "overstrained and repulsive." Other reviewers found it "An article of thrilling interest" and "very wild and very readable." As a testament to its popularity, the sketch was reprinted in several magazines and newspapers in 1843 and 1845; however, it did not appear in a collection of stories during Poe's lifetime. It has been suggested that Poe's contemporary Nathaniel Hawthorne admired and was influenced by the tale, and a little over a decade after Poe's death Fyodor Dostoevsky, writing a preface to Russian translations of "The Black Cat," "Devil in Belfry," and "The Tell-Tale Heart," praised the American writer's enormous talent and imagination. Over the next eighty years critics generally referred to the tale only in passing, sometimes admiringly and sometimes with distaste, when discussing Poe's other horror stories. Arthur Hobson Quinn's 1940 critical biography, however, which did much to bolster Poe's reputation as a serious writer, accorded the story slightly fuller treatment, asserting it to be "An almost perfect illustration of Poe's own theory of the short story, for every word contributes to the central effect." Later critics have agreed with that assessment, commenting on the story's unity of structure and economical yet powerful use of imagery. The tale has generated many different interpretations, from Marie Bonaparte's Freudian analysis, which sees the victim as a symbol of Poe's stepfather, to Gita Rajan's feminist reading, which views the protagonist as a woman. Perhaps because of its readability and the startling situation it describes, the tale has always enjoyed popular appeal, and ranks with "The Raven," "The Cask of Amontillado," and "The Fall of the House of Usher" not only as one of Poe's best-known works, but as one of the most familiar stories in American literature.