illustration of a human heart lying on black floorboards

The Tell-Tale Heart

by Edgar Allan Poe

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Why doesn't the narrator in "The Tell-Tale Heart" commit the perfect crime and what makes him confess?

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The mentally deranged unreliable narrator in Poe's classic short story "The Tell-Tale Heart" fails to commit the perfect crime when he confesses to the police that he murdered the old man and hid his body underneath the floorboards of his home. Moments before murdering the old man, the defenseless victim lets out a loud cry that the narrator's neighbors hear. The neighbors then inform the authorities, who show up at the narrator's home to investigate the noise complaint. Although the narrator takes precautions by chopping the old man's body into pieces and carefully hiding the pieces underneath his floorboards, he is not able to maintain his composure in front of the policemen. The mentally deranged narrator becomes overwhelmed with guilt and begins to experience auditory hallucinations. While the policemen have a casual conversation after they investigate the home, the narrator believes he hears the old man's heart beating beneath the floorboards. The narrator ends up losing his nerve and confesses that he murdered the old man before urging the officers to remove the floorboards. Overall, the insane narrator does not commit the perfect crime, because he confesses to the police and is punished for murdering the old man. When the narrator became overwhelmed with guilt, he began experiencing auditory hallucinations, which is why he confessed to his crime.

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The narrator planned to commit the perfect crime and failed. "The Tell-Tale Heart" belongs to that sub-genre of stories called "Perfect Crime Stories." Poe may have actually invented this sub-genre, as he invented so many others. In the "Perfect Crime Story" the perpetrator thinks he is so clever that he can get away with murder, but something always gives him away. In Poe's story the murderer gives himself away because his guilt, fear, and mental instability cause his imagination to run away with him. He thinks he hears the victim's heart beating, and the sound begins to seem so loud to him that he believes the investigators must be hearing it too but are only playing mind-games with him, waiting for him to break down and confess. The moral of Poe's story, as with all "Perfect Crime Stories," is that there is no such thing as a perfect crime. Poe wrote one famous story in which the murderer planned a perfect crime and actually got away with it. That story is "The Cask of Amontillado."

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