illustration of a human heart lying on black floorboards

The Tell-Tale Heart

by Edgar Allan Poe

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The narrator's self-deception and ultimate betrayal in "The Tell-Tale Heart"


In "The Tell-Tale Heart," the narrator's self-deception is evident as he insists on his sanity while describing his meticulous plan to murder the old man. His ultimate betrayal occurs when his overwhelming guilt and paranoia lead him to confess the crime to the police, despite his initial confidence in having committed the perfect murder.

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When does the narrator lie in "The Tell-tale Heart"?

An unreliable narrator is a narrator that is not telling the reader the complete truth.  The most common type of unreliable narrator is a child or a mentally ill person.  In “The Tell-tale Heart” we have an unreliable narrator who lies to himself and to us by claiming that he is not mad, when he is actually a murdering psychotic.

The narrator continually states that he is not insane, and he is actually very clever.  He describes how he had nothing against the old man, but had to kill him because of his “evil eye.”  Clearly, there’s no insanity there!

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How does the narrator contradict himself in "The Tell-Tale Heart"?

The central contradiction in the story is the narrator's assurance that he is not insane, when the story he tells clearly shows that he is. This begins with the opening lines of the story, when the narrator anxiously declares that he has not "lost control of his mind" and that, in fact, his illness has made his mind "more powerful," especially the sense of hearing. More contradictions of this sort follow.

For instance, the narrator claims that a "madman cannot plan" and uses his plan to murder the old man as evidence of his sanity. In a similar way, the narrator argues that the care he used in dismembering the body of the old man shows how sane and rational he is. A final contradiction of sorts ends the story; even though the narrator kills the old man to silence the sound of his heart, the narrator nevertheless continues to hear it—clearly, this is a hallucination, but one that belies his claim of "powerful hearing" and also contradicts his apparent desire to get away with the crime.

On the other hand, the point of view of the story encourages us to see things through the eyes of the narrator. In that case, we get a sense for why he killed the old man and the kinds of compulsions that can drive someone to commit murder.

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How does the narrator's heart betray him in "The Tell-Tale Heart"?

In a way, the narrator was betrayed by his own heart if we consider his conscience his heart.  He killed the old man without any thought of the consequences, because he had an evil eye. He even admitted that the old man had done nothing against him.  Yet he killed him.

At first, the narrator was so convinced he would get away with murder that he let the police in, and even invited them to sit right above the old man’s dismembered body, which he had hidden under the floorboards.  Yet, soon something started to go wrong.  He could swear he heard a heart beating.

It grew louder—louder—louder! And still the men chatted pleasantly, and smiled. Was it possible they heard not? Almighty God!—no, no! They heard!—they suspected!—they knew!—they were making a mockery of my horror!-this I thought, and this I think.

The narrator’s conscience, or heart, is making him hallucinate the beating of the old man’s heart.  The old man is dead.  His heart is not beating.  The narrator does not really hear it.  The police do not hear it.  Yet, in his head it is there.  It convinces him to betray himself, and give himself up, and tell the police where the old man’s body is.

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