The Tell-Tale Heart, Edgar Allan Poe - Essay

Edgar Allan Poe


(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 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.

Major Themes

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Marie Bonaparte (essay date 1949)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Tell-Tale Heart," in The Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe: A Psycho-Analytic Interpretation, Imago Publishing Company, 1949, pp. 491-504.

[In the following excerpt, Bonaparte offers a Freudian reading of "The Tell-Tale Heart, " asserting that the old man in the story resembles Poe 's stepfather, on whom the author sought to enact his Oedipal revenge.]

"True!—nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?" begins the hero of "The Tell-Tale Heart"1 who, like his fellows in "The Black Cat" and "The Imp of the Perverse," writes from behind prison bars, where his crime has consigned him....

(The entire section is 6074 words.)

Patrick F. Quinn (essay date 1957)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "That Spectre in My Path," in The French Face of Edgar Poe, Southern Illinois University Press, 1957, pp. 216-56.

[In the following excerpt, Quinn considers the details Poe uses to convey the particular type of madness exhibited by the narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart. "]

To read "The Man of the Crowd" in conjunction with "The Tell-Tale Heart" is to become aware immediately of a number of resemblances between them. In the latter story, too, there is an old man; only this time it is not he who is "The type and the genius of deep crime," but rather the narrator himself. The narrator is the criminal; the story is an account of his crime and its discovery. If the...

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E. Arthur Robinson (essay date 1965)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Poe's 'The Tell-Tale Heart'," in Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 19, No. 4, March, 1965, pp. 369-78.

[In the following essay, Robinson discusses the principles of thematic repetition and variation of incident in "The Tell-Tale Heart" and demonstrates how the story's two major themesthe psychological handling of time and the narrator's identification with his victimare dramatized in Poe's other works.]

Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" consists of a monologue in which an accused murderer protests his sanity rather than his innocence. The point of view is the criminal's, but the tone is ironic in that his protestation of sanity produces an...

(The entire section is 3926 words.)

James W. Gargano (essay date 1968)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Theme of Time in The Tell-Tale Heart'," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 5, No. 4, Summer, 1968, pp. 378-82.

[In the following essay, Gargano analyzes the symbolism in "The Tell-Tale Heart" and contends that the images in the tale point to the fact that, unbeknownst to the narrator, his real foe is not Death, but Time.]

The critic who wishes to read Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" as a mere horror story may be content to accept its incidents as unmotivated and mysterious. How, the critic may argue, can the story be rationally explained when the narrator himself is at a loss to account for the frenzy inspired in him by his victim's "evil eye?" The...

(The entire section is 2592 words.)

John E. Reilly (essay date 1969)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Lesser Death-Watch and 'The Tell-Tale Heart'," in American Transcendental Quarterly, Vol. 2, Second Quarter, 1969, pp. 3-9.

[In the following essay, Reilly asserts that the narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart" is a paranoid schizophrenic who really hears the rapping of the death-watch insect (a species of beetle or louse which makes a noise that is said to presage death), which he mistakes for the beating of the old man's heart.]

Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" is a genuine mystery story, one which thus far has eluded satisfactory solution. The mystery surrounds the source of the sound which drove Poe's deranged narrator to murder an old man and...

(The entire section is 5069 words.)

John W. Canario (essay date 1970)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Dream in 'The Tell-Tale Heart'," in English Language Notes, Vol. 7, No. 3, March, 1970, pp. 194-97.

[In the following essay, Canario argues that the narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart" is the "deranged victim of a hallucinatory nightmare" about death.]

Hervey Allen observed in a footnote to Israfel that the logic of Poe's stones is "The mad rationalization of a dream."1 This observation is especially applicable to "The Tell-Tale Heart," which becomes fully understandable only when the narrator is recognized as the deranged victim of an hallucinatory nightmare.

Most commentators on the story have praised it either for its...

(The entire section is 1070 words.)

Daniel Hoffman (essay date 1972)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Madness!," in Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe, Doubleday and Company, 1972, pp. 226-32.

[In the following essay, Hoffman examines the motif of the eye in "The Tell-Tale Heart" and explores the relationship of the deranged narrator and his victim.]

There are no parents in the tales of Edgar Poe, nary a Mum nor a Dad. Instead all is symbol. And what does this total repression of both sonhood and parenthood signify but that to acknowledge such relationships is to venture into territory too dangerous, too terrifying, for specificity. Desire and hatred are alike insatiable and unallayed. But the terrible war of superego upon the id, the endless battle between...

(The entire section is 2353 words.)

David Halliburton (essay date 1973)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Tales: 'The Tell-Tale Heart'," in Edgar Allan Poe: A Phenomenological View, Princeton University Press, 1973, pp. 333-38.

[In the following essay, Halliburton draws attention to Poe's use of sound and his depiction of the narrator as both victimizer and victim in "The Tell-Tale Heart. "]

The moon in "Irene" watches the sleeper and worries about the harmful effects of an influence it does not recognize as its own. The first William Wilson watches his sleeper, the other Wilson, with full knowledge of the harm he intends, then fails to inflict it. The relation of the sleeper and the watcher in "The Tell-Tale Heart" is similar but more extreme. Here the...

(The entire section is 1998 words.)

Paul Witherington (essay date 1985)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Accomplice in 'The Tell-Tale Heart'," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 22, No. 4, Fall, 1985, pp. 471-75.

[In the following essay, Witherington argues that the reader of "The Tell-Tale Heart, " seduced by the narrator into participating vicariously in his crime, is transformed into "An active voyeur" and "An accomplice after the fact" in the old man's murder.]

"Poe's narrator tells a plain and simple story, which leaves no doubt that he is mad," T. O. Mabbott says in his preface to "The Tell-Tale Heart."1 Most readers would agree, not only because the murder of an old man seems motiveless, but also because the narrator's confession comes across...

(The entire section is 2133 words.)

Gita Rajan (essay date 1988)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Feminist Rereading of Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart'," in Papers on Language and Literature, Vol. 24, No. 3, Summer, 1988, pp. 283-300.

[In the following essay, Rajan asserts that the narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart" is female, and contends that a new, gender-marked rereading of the tale, as filtered through theories of narrativity inspired by Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan, and Hélène Cixous, reveals "The narrator's exploration of her female situation in a particular feminist discourse. "]


Some contemporary feminists and theorists argue that there is a difference between masculinist and feminist discourse in literary texts. French...

(The entire section is 7196 words.)

Paige Matthey Bynum (essay date 1989)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Observe how healthily—how calmly I can tell you the whole story': Moral Insanity and Edgar Allan Poe's 'The Tell-Tale Heart'," in Literature and Science as Modes of Expression, edited by Frederick Amrine, Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1989, pp. 141-52.

[In the following essay, Bynum asserts that Poe and his reading audience alike were familiar with the thencurrent debate about "Moral insanity" and points out that while readers of "The Tell-Tale Heart" are drawn into the mind of a deranged killer, they still identify with the terror of his victim because of their frame of reference outside the text.]

David R. Saliba has recently argued that Edgar Allan Poe's...

(The entire section is 4882 words.)

Brett Zimmerman (essay date 1992)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "'Moral Insanity' or Paranoid Schizophrenia: Poe's 'The Tell-Tale Heart'," in Mosaic, Vol. 25, No. 2, Spring, 1992, pp. 39-48.

[In the following essay, Zimmerman demonstrates that Poe's narrator in "The Tell-Tale Heart" displays characteristic signs of what was in Poe's day classified broadly as "Moral insanity" and today diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenia. Zimmerman also makes the case that Poe's sophisticated insight into his character's psychology suggests the author did considerable research into his protagonist's condition using scientific texts and journals in order to lend accuracy and verisimilitude to his tale.]

In our time, creative writers are...

(The entire section is 4644 words.)

Richard Kopley (essay date 1995)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Hawthorne's Transplanting and Transforming The Tell-Tale Heart'," in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 23, No. 2, Autumn, 1995, pp. 231-41.

[In the following excerpt, Kopley offers insights into the critical reception, principal themes, and structure of "The Tell-Tale Heart" as he argues that that Nathaniel Hawthorne, Poe's contemporary, used elements of the story in his novel The Scarlet Letter.]

Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel The House of the Seven Gables (1851) has long been recognized as having an affinity with Edgar Allan Poe's tale "The Fall of the House of Usher" (1839), especially with regard to setting and characters;1 a reader may...

(The entire section is 3329 words.)

Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Quinn, Arthur Hobson. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998, 804 p.

Definitive biography of Poe, originally published in 1941. Includes background information and a brief analysis of "The Tell-Tale Heart."


Davidson, Edward. Poe: A Critical Study. Cambridge: Bellknap Press of Harvard University, 1957, 296 p.

Landmark study of Poe's place in American literature and the Romantic tradition that makes brief mention of "The Tell-Tale Heart."


(The entire section is 440 words.)