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The Tell-Tale Heart

by Edgar Allan Poe

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"The Tell-Tale Heart": Point of View and Themes of Madness, Violent Tendencies, and Discovery


Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" is narrated from a first-person point of view, allowing readers to delve into the mind of the unreliable narrator. The themes of madness are evident through the narrator's obsessive and paranoid behavior. Violent tendencies are showcased in the narrator's meticulous planning and execution of the murder. The theme of discovery emerges as the narrator's guilt leads to the revelation of the crime.

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What point of view does Poe use to portray madness in "The Tell-Tale Heart"?

In "The Tell-Tale Heart," Poe narrates the story through the first person point of view, a narrator who comes across as being completely unreliable and even mad.   The narrator's roommate, an old man, has a filmy eye.  It disturbs the narrator to the extent that he begins planning murder.   The filmy eye is the reason the narrator gives for why the old man must die, but the discerning reader would have already seen this for what it really is--the narrator is insane, really crazy.

In fact, the narrator even addresses this:

"You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing. But you should have seen me. You should have seen how wisely I proceeded..."

The inherent creepiness of this is that the narrator's tone at the beginning of the story is so matter-of-fact, as he is spying on the old man, creeping into his room at night to look at him while he sleeps, only to ask about his health and well-being the next day at breakfast. 

The narrator wants to prove his sanity to the reader, so he goes about this by trying to convince the reader of how methodically he  throught through his plans of premeditated murder.   

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How does the point of view reveal the theme of "The Tell-Tale Heart"?

In the short story "The Tell-Tale Heart" by Edgar Allen Poe, the perception of the narrator is a marvellous example of how a madly disturbed person can be both crazy and yet highly intelligent at the same time. The narrator is clearly deluded, as the circumstances he is describing seem so at odds with what he is telling us, the audience. Yet, there is method in his madness and this gives awy the theme. For example, his language and demeanour is all over the place, urgent and panicky and madly impatient one minute - yet cold, calm and cool as a cucmber the next. He has lucid moments where his clarity of thought and coolness of planning even manges to convince the visitors that he is a perfectly normal host. But his guilt and paranoia are bound to win through in the near-perfect crime..

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How is the theme of 'violent tendencies' represented in "The Tell-Tale Heart"?

In Poe's short story "The Tell-Tale Heart", the writer uses the horror theme and the dark side of humanity to show violent tendencies exist in the human heart.   Poe believed that a piece of writing should produce a single effect on the reader, and was the first to write detective and horror stories which certainly lend themselves to a single effect.  In this story,the narrator waits at night. listening for the old man, carefully carrying through his plan to kill him.  He even says that he was never so good to the old man than the week before he killed him.    The narrator of the story insists that he is sane while the reader knows that he is truly insane  After killing the old man, the narrator can still hear the beating of the old man's heart even though no one else can which shows the effect of his guilty conscience.  When the police arrive to check out the report of a scream, the tension builds and the narrator becomes more and more agitated, finally screaming out his guilt.  Poe doesn't have his just say that he is guilty, he has him scream it out all the while the reader is wondering if the narrator is going to kill the police because of his great guilt.  I believe that this story is the classic case where Poe uses his single effect to show that violence exists in the human heart and only needs our consent to be used as a weapon.

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How is the theme of discovery developed in Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart"?

Near the end of the story, police arrive at the narrator's home. They tell him,

A shriek had been heard by a neighbour during the night; suspicion of foul play had been aroused; information had been lodged at the police office, and they (the officers) had been deputed to search the premises.

In other words, the police have been dispatched to discover the source of the cry that the narrator's neighbors heard. The narrator actually encourages them to search! He assures them that the cry was his own and that the old man is out of town. He brings chairs into the very room in which the old man is buried and asks the policemen to sit down. He declares that they "were satisfied. [His] manner had convinced them. [He] was singularly at ease." However, it is at this point, when they are convinced that there is nothing to discover, that the narrator begins to become unhinged, almost as though he craves discovery. His symptoms sound like guilt: his head begins to ache, his ears ring, he grows pale, he becomes agitated, his breathing accelerates, and so on. He believes that he hears the old man's heart beating beneath the floorboards, though this is likely also another symptom of his guilt (it is his own heart beating so quickly and loudly to him). The narrator soon confesses to the crime he's committed, as he is sure the police have already discovered it. Although he does not appear to recognize his guilt, the narrator's behavior provides evidence that he does, in fact, feel guilty for his actions and that this guilt compels him to crave discovery.

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How is the theme of discovery developed in Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart"?

Poe's story is about secrets -- secret feelings, and secret deeds. So, if we think about discovery as "finding" something, in a way the story is about the fear of being "found out" or discovered. There are many examples of this in the story. From the beginning, we as readers are put in the position of having already "found out" something about the narrator -- the narrator is addressing us, and the story begins in mid-conversation, as if we already have discovered his madness: "Why do you say that I am mad?" In the part of the story where he looks in on the old man in the night, the narrator is specifically trying to avoid detection or discovery -- "He could not guess that every night, just at twelve, I looked in at him as he slept." But it is the night that he is detected in the dark, looking down at the old man, and his "discovery" in the faint gleam of the lamp of the old man's "vulture eye" -- that actually causes th narrator to murder him. The secret of of the murder must be concealed -- the body of the old man is hacked up and hidden under the floorboards -- but the secret cannot be concealed from the police for long. It is the narrator himself who makes the discovery of the body for the police -- the hallucinatory sound of the beating heart driving him to do it. Perhaps the particular nature of the narrator's madness is a morbid need to reveal all his secrets -- the deeper the secret, the greater the need for discovery.

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How does the point of view contribute to the overall meaning of "The Tell-Tale Heart"?

In "The Tell-Tale Heart," Poe uses a first-person narrator, as he often does in his Gothic tales, to highlight the psychological processes and the breakdown of the protagonist/narrator. The narrator begins by addressing the reader directly:

True! — Nervous — Very very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease has sharpened my senses — not destroyed — not dulled them.

He admits that he has a "disease" and is "dreadfully nervous," but he feels that this gives him an advantage. He goes on to explain how he "heard all things" and asks the reader to "observe how healthily — how calmly I can tell you the whole story." This statement, ironically, highlights his insanity precisely because he seems so oddly insistent on his sanity. He recognizes that the reader might find him insane and thus unreliable. He is immediately defensive about how "calm" he is.

The story goes on as the narrator tells his account of a murder. He plans his crime very diligently, even admitting to being "kinder to the old man . . . during the whole week before I killed him." The narrative style continues to read as frantic and excitable as the narrator tries to convince the reader he is no "madman." However, the syntax and tone indicate just the opposite.

After the murder, the narrator hides the body of the old man and cleans the crime scene. He is very proud of his work and feels invincible ("for what had I to fear?"). He even seems joyful about the prospect of the police coming to investigate the room, because he thinks he has outsmarted everyone. However, it's here that his extraordinary hearing comes back to haunt him: the narrator thinks he hears the old man's heartbeat beneath the floorboards, where the body is buried. He relies how he speaks to the police "with a heightened voice" as his frenzy builds. The repetition of the word "Louder!" and its accompanying exclamation show the panic inside the narrator's mind as he is tortured by this supposed heartbeat. He is compelled to reveal the murder by lifting the floorboard to unearth the mysterious sound.

The narrative perspective allows Poe to illustrate to the reader how the narrator talks himself into his own delusions and how his extrasensory "gifts" are a double-edged sword that lead to self-incrimination. The first-person narrative exposes the internal monologue of the character so that we can understand his madness and the irony of the final scene.

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