The Tell-Tale Heart Additional Summary

Edgar Allan Poe


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

This is a chilling tale of madness and murder. “True!—nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am,” admits the narrator, “but why will you say that I am mad?” In a vain effort to prove his sanity by detailing how carefully he planned the gruesome deed, the narrator makes it abundantly clear from the first that he is dangerously deranged. Little is revealed about him, or about the old man that he kills. He did not hate the old man; indeed, he says he loved him. However, he had to kill him because he was tormented beyond distraction by the old man’s eye—“a pale blue eye, with a film over it.” In the first two paragraphs, the narrator draws the reader into the terrifying yet fascinating world of madness that has led him to murder.

Having decided to kill the old man, the narrator recalls with obvious pleasure how calculatingly he set about to do it. For seven successive nights, he slipped into the old man’s room just after midnight. He moved ever so slowly, first lifting the latch and then gradually insinuating himself into the room. Once inside, he would open his darkened lantern so that a single ray of light fell on his tormentor, that “vulture eye.” On each of those nights, however, the eye remained closed when the light fell on the old man’s face, and the narrator found it “impossible to do the work; for it was not the old man who vexed me, but his Evil Eye.” Although the old man possessed some wealth and was wary enough of robbers to have the shutters of his bed chamber nailed shut, the narrator insists that his victim suspected nothing. During the day, the narrator explains, he was kinder to the old man than ever before.

On the eighth night, the narrator was especially cautious, though almost ecstatic with feelings of power and triumph, certain that the old man knew nothing of what he was doing or planning to do. Reveling in the moment, he may well have laughed. At any rate, the old man startled in his bed. Moving steadily into the darkened bedroom, the narrator began to open the lantern, but his thumb slipped, and the old man cried out, asking who was there and sitting up in his bed. The narrator says that he did...

(The entire section is 892 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

A man insists that he is not mad. In spite of being dreadfully nervous, he also insists that his senses, especially his hearing, have been heightened rather than destroyed. He claims that the calm and healthy way he will tell the following story is evidence of his sanity.

He admits that he cannot say when the idea to kill the old man had come into his mind. He says he had no reason, nor passion, for killing him; the old man had never harmed or insulted him. He did not want his money. He says he loved the old man. He thinks he killed him because of the old man’s eye, like the eye of a vulture, a pale blue eye that made the old man’s blood run cold.

The narrator says that he had never been kinder to the old man than he had been during the week before he killed him. He tells the following story: Before the murder, every night at midnight, he makes a small opening in the old man’s chamber door and puts a small closed lantern inside. Taking an hour to slowly place his head in the opening so he can see the old man, he opens the lantern, allowing the light to shine on the vulture eye. He does this for seven nights, but because the eye is always closed, he does not become enraged by it. In great detail, he praises himself for his cunning, asks his listener if a mad person could have been so clever as he, and even tells the listener that he or she would have laughed if they had seen how methodically he had opened the door and placed the lantern inside the old man’s chamber.

On the eighth night, he tells the listener, he once again puts the lantern inside the chamber, but this time his finger slips, making a noise that wakens the old man, who then cries out. For an hour, the narrator...

(The entire section is 702 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Poe is often thought to be the author of stories about mad persons and murders, but attention is seldom given to the psychological nature of the madness in his stories. “The Tell-Tale Heart,” one of his best-known stories about murderous madness, is also one of his most psychologically complex works. The story is told in the first-person voice by the killer, who has obviously been locked up in a prison or in an insane asylum for his crime. He begins by arguing that he is not mad and that the calm way he committed the crime and can now tell about it testify to his sanity.

The central problem of the story is the narrator’s motivation for killing the old man. He begins by assuring his listeners (and readers) that he loved the old man, that he did not want his gold, and that the old man had not abused him or insulted him. There was neither object nor passion for his crime; instead, it was the old man’s eye. He says that when the eye fell on him, his blood ran cold and that he made up his mind to kill the old man and rid himself of the eye forever. Because the narrator provides no explanation for his extreme aversion to the eye, the reader must try to understand the motivation for the crime, and thus for the story itself, in the only way possible—by paying careful attention to the details of the story and trying to determine what thematic relationship they have to one another.

To understand a Poe story, one must accept Poe’s central dictum that every element in the work must contribute to its central effect. The determination of those elements that have most relevance to the central effect of the story, and are thus true clues rather than mere irrelevant details, is the principle that governs the communication of all information—the principle of redundancy or repetition. Because the narrator who tells the story is a man obsessed, those things that obsess him are repeated throughout the story.

In addition to the motif or theme of the eye, which lies at the center of his obsession and thus is repeated throughout, another central theme of the story is the narrator’s identification with the old man. As he plots his crime by nightly placing his head inside the old man’s bedroom door, he says the old man sits up in his bed listening, just as he himself has done night after...

(The entire section is 945 words.)


(Short Stories for Students)

"The Tell-Tale Heart" is one of a number of Poe stories that focus on an obsessed protagonist/narrator. Indeed, what holds the story together...

(The entire section is 576 words.)