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The Tell-Tale Heart

by Edgar Allan Poe

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What is the main idea of "The Tell-Tale Heart"?

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The main idea in Poe's story "The Tell-Tale Heart," as in his other perfect-crime story "The Black Cat," is that murder will out. Shakespeare expresses this idea poetically in both Hamlet and Macbeth. In Hamlet the Prince says to himself:

Hum, I have heard
That guilty creatures sitting at a play
Have, by the very cunning of the scene,
Been struck so to the soul that presently
They have proclaimed their malefactions.
For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak
With most miraculous organ.    II.ii
Hamlet is right, of course, Claudius reveals his guilt and fear during the play- within-a-play when he sees the murderer enact his own fratricide.
And Macbeth tells his wife:
It will have blood, they say. Blood will have blood.
Stones have been known to move, and trees to speak.
Augurs and understood relations have
By magot pies and choughs and rooks brought forth
The secret’st man of blood.   III.iv
Macbeth has already revealed his guilt at the inaugural banquet when he sees the ghost of Banquo sitting in his place at the center table.   In Charles Dicken's novel Oliver Twist (1837) there is a magnificent chapter describing Bill Sikes' growing terror after he has murdered his paramour Nancy Hanks. It seems as if everyone in London can read his guilt in his face or read it in his body language in every gesture he makes. Everywhere he wanders he is followed by his dog, who is faithful to him in spite of all the abuse it receives from its vicious master. Sikes knows he must get rid of that animal, because everyone knows he is usually accompanied by his dog. The police will naturally suspect him of the girl's murder and will be looking for a man with a dog. But when he tries to drown the poor creature, his obvious intentions only frighten it and make it widen the distance between them--but not stop following. Even the dog seems to know Bill Sikes' guilty secret.   The familiar saying "Murder will out" originated in "The Nun's Priest's Tale" in Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales (1475). The following excerpt is from a modernized version of the Old English.
Murder will out, we see it every day.
Murder's so hateful and abominable
To God, Who is so just and reasonable,
That He'll not suffer that it hidden be;|
Though it may skulk a year, or two, or three.
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Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" tells the story of a madman (the narrator) describing in detail how he plans and then carries out the murder of an old man with whom he shares a house. The narrator repeatedly reminds the reader of his sanity, yet his actions clearly show that he is not. He holds no hatred for the old man; instead, it is the old man's "evil" eye that forces him to kill the man. It is a psychological thriller that creates a monstrous character who explains his murderous motives matter-of-factly before he just as casually "dismembered the corpse. I cut off the head and the arms and the legs."

Because the narrator who tells the story is a man obsessed, those things that obsess him are repeated throughout the story.  (Summary, Magill's Survey)

The narrator believes he is committing the perfect crime; but unlike Poe's character in "The Cask of Amontillado," who succeeds in getting away with murder, the narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart" fails in this regard. His own guilty conscience, a theme of the story, leads to his demise; other themes include: The "eye"; and the passage of time, as symbolized by beating of the heart. Little is known about the narrator or the old man, and the narrator's mysterious background and motives aid in building suspense until the end.

“The Tell-Tale Heart"... seems at first to be a simple story of madness; however, as Poe well knew, there is no such thing as “meaningless madness” in the short story. The madness of the narrator in this story is similar to the madness of other Poe characters who long to escape the curse of time and mortality but find they can do so only by a corresponding loss of the self—a goal they both seek with eagerness and try to avoid with terror. (Summary, Magill's Survey)

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