illustration of a human heart lying on black floorboards

The Tell-Tale Heart

by Edgar Allan Poe

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

“The Tell-Tale Heart” was published in the first issue of a short-lived literary magazine called the Pioneer in January 1843. The magazine was edited by the poet James Russell Lowell, who also contributed an article on the plays of Thomas Middleton to the first issue. In a footnote to this piece, Lowell compares Poe’s depiction of “bodily remorse,” the feeling of physical revulsion at having committed a murder, with that of the Jacobean playwright. This commentary situates “The Tell-Tale Heart” not only in the relatively recent genre of gothic horror, but in the much grander and more ancient tradition of tragedy. There is a strain in both Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedy, including Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus and Webster’s The White Devil, which emphasizes terror, madness, brutality, and psychological torture. Poe’s dramatic short stories are at least partly derived from this tragic tradition. However, they are even more psychologically alienating and destabilizing than a Renaissance bloodbath, since order is not restored at the end of the narrative. In fact, the reader has a sense that the world and the nature of reality are less stable by the end of the story than they were at the beginning.  

The question of the narrator’s sanity is at the center of “The Tell-Tale Heart.” He himself places it there in the first sentence of the story, aggressively or hysterically demanding that the reader justify the assumption that he is mad. As is often the case with Poe’s first-person narratives, it is never clear whom the narrator thinks he is addressing. He may be confessing his crime to the police, or pouring out his soul to a doctor or a cell-mate. One of the reasons why the reader has so little idea of the intended audience is that the narrator is always talking about himself.  The old man’s pale blue vulture’s eye upsets him, so he murders the old man, whom he has no other reason to dislike. It does not occur to him that there might be other ways of dealing with the situation, such as moving to other accommodation. Anything that upsets the narrator must simply be removed from the world.

The narrator’s psychological egotism is further emphasized by the contrast between the extreme detail with which his thoughts, feelings, sensations and impressions are described, and the vagueness of almost everything else. What is the narrator’s name? How old is he? What is his relationship to the old man? How do we even know he is male? Everything is subordinated to the narrator’s interior life, he is so fascinated with the workings of his own mind. 

All this uncertainty has led readers to create a wide variety of different versions of the narrator, who can be seen as a man, a woman, or a child, in a variety of relationships with the old man. The point of such readings is not to say the last word on the subject, but precisely to remind the reader of how many possible interpretations there are. If this is the case with literature in general (and it is), then it is even more clearly true of Poe and “The Tell-Tale Heart” in particular, since this story is so radically free of context. At the same time, Poe seems to have left these details vague because they are not important for a psychological understanding of the story, rather than because he intended the reader to guess at them.

What is important to Poe is the minute description of individual psychology and sensibility in a profoundly troubled mind. In this sense, it is interesting to compare the story with another of Poe’s studies in the psychology of a murderer: “The Cask of Amontillado,” published almost four years later, in November 1846. Here, the first person narrator, Montresor, reveals not only his name but his coat of arms, family motto, and something of his history. Like the narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” Montresor is exquisitely sensitive. He feels the slights and sarcasms of Fortunato, which he may well have imagined, so deeply that he experiences and describes them as “injuries.” However, Montresor’s motives for murder, hatred and revenge, are commonplace and, for all his sensibility, his nerves are equal to fifty years of silence and concealment. 

The narrator of “The Tell-Tale” heart, on the other hand, commits murder precisely because his nerves are so weak. He cannot bear the idea that anything as hideous as the old man’s eye should remain in the world. Once he has keyed himself up to commit the murder, which he fails to do night after night for a week, the same oversensitive nature which made him unable to endure the old man’s vulture eye causes his mind to disintegrate altogether. Throughout the process, his peculiar psychology focuses obsessively on the mechanics and the aesthetics of the killing, never on the ethics. This is why his explanation of how he killed the old man is so precise and detailed, but his explanation of why he did it seems so unsatisfactory. The extreme sensitivity of his nature caused him to obsess over the old man’s eye until he had murdered him, and then immediately to transfer his obsession to the beating of the old man’s heart until he had given himself up.

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