The Tell-Tale Heart Themes
The main themes in "The Tell-Tale Heart" are the madness and sanity, the pressure of guilt, and the passage of time.
- Madness and sanity: the narrator’s attempt to prove his sanity as he explains his meticulous plans for killing the old man only prove his madness.
The pressure of guilt: though he claims to be innocent and justified in his actions, the narrator’s guilt manifests in the sound of the dead man’s beating heart.
The passage of time: the recurring references to time emphasize the narrator’s obsession with time and its effect on his psyche.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 891
Madness and Sanity
In the first sentence of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the narrator demands to know why his listener regards him as mad. It is a question which, coming suddenly out of nowhere, seems to answer itself. The narrator sounds deranged, not least because he keeps asking questions about his own sanity and accusing the reader of doubting it.
An anachronistic tradition has grown up of attempting to diagnose specific mental illnesses, such as paranoid schizophrenia, in the narrator. Edgar Allan Poe would not himself have thought in these medical terms. His approach to the question of madness is philosophical, similar to Hamlet’s. Like Shakespeare, Poe presents his audience with conceptual questions about what madness means. For instance, the narrator tells the reader: “Madmen know nothing.” He then goes on to boast about how cunningly he concealed his intention to murder the old man in the week before killing him. It seems reasonable to object that the charge from which he is defending himself here is incompetence, not insanity. Does it make a madman less mad if he pursues an obviously insane objective in an efficient manner? On the contrary, the efficiency itself seems to be an indication that he has none of the doubt and hesitation a sane person would have.
It is not clear to whom the narrator thinks he is speaking. He may be confessing his crime to the police after his arrest, or speaking to a judge or a doctor. He may even have thrust himself on an unfortunate cellmate. What is evident, however, is that “The Tell-Tale Heart” is both confession and defense. Since he admits to the crime almost immediately, madness takes the place of legal guilt as the accusation against which the narrator is continually defending himself. As the typical suspect only increases the perception of his guilt by continually protesting his innocence, so the narrator sounds more and more insane as he insists upon his sanity.
The Pressure of Guilt
The narrator is legally guilty of murder, a fact he freely admits, and which seems to be of no interest to him whatsoever. He also appears not to care about his moral guilt. When he explains how it was that he came to kill the old man, he seems to think that his lack of any obvious motive is a point in his favor. His only interest is in what is going on inside his own mind.
According to the narrator, it was 4:00 a.m. when he had finished skilfully disposing of the body, and three police officers knocked on the door. He smiled and welcomed them in, which is itself an unusual and therefore suspicious response for someone who is visited by the police at 4:00 a.m. To the reader, he professes great confidence, even the “wild audacity” of “perfect triumph,” but very soon, he hears a ringing in his ears, followed by a heartbeat. Whatever this heartbeat really is, and whether or not the police officers can hear it (both subjects of considerable critical debate), there can be little doubt that the volume and significance are greatly increased within the narrator’s own mind. The pressure of psychological guilt leads him to confess to the murder, though even in doing so, he retains his egotistical perspective, accusing the police officers of dishonesty, and calling them villains even as he reveals the act of villainy he has been attempting to hide. This transference of blame may be taken as further evidence of the narrator’s suppressed sense of guilt.
The Passage of Time
The narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart” tells his story with a strange mixture of vagueness and precision, though the precise details are often so strange as to make his story even less convincing. Nowhere is this more evident than in his description of the passage of time. For seven nights, he says, he “thrust” his head into the old man’s bedroom, taking an hour to do so. Since the movement of the hand that marks the hours on a clock is imperceptible, it is probably not possible for a person to move this slowly, as he would not be able to sense himself doing so. The narrator himself uses this image when he says that on the eighth night “A watch’s minute had moves more quickly than did mine.” This, however, is still sixty times as fast as he puts his head round the door.
According to the narrator, it took four hours to kill the old man and dispose of his body, though a lot of this time was spent in waiting. As he waited, the old man’s heart kept time with “a low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton.” While he suffocated the old man “for many minutes, the heart beat on with a muffled sound.” The image of the watch enveloped in cotton recurs at the end of the story when the narrator is talking to the police, signifying that time is running out for him. Having congratulated himself on his cleverness in taking his time, working in a thorough, unhurried manner when killing the old man and disposing of his body, he will now be captured in less time than it would usually take for the police to discover that a murder has been committed.