The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe

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Introduction

(Short Story Criticism)

"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 Characters

The 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...

(The entire section is 48,392 words.)