The main themes in "The Tell-Tale Heart" are the fragility of sanity, guilt versus innocence, and the unrelenting passage of time.
- The fragility of sanity: the narrator’s attempt to prove his sanity, his erratic mannerisms while he explains his meticulous plans for killing the old man only prove his madness.
Guilt versus innocence: 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 unrelenting passage of time: the recurring references to time and aging emphasize the narrator’s obsession with time and its effect on his psyche.
Themes and Meanings
This is largely a study in human terror experienced on two levels, both horrifying to behold. First, there is the narrator, the maniac, driven by his compulsive hatred of the “evil eye” to kill a man he says he loved. He is a case study in madness, tormented by that satanic eye that he simply must destroy. His madness is quite convincing and profoundly disturbing because it seems so capricious and meaningless. Indeed, seldom has the mystery and the horror of mental illness been so vividly portrayed. The “eye” also has a double meaning. The narrator is driven to self-destruction, though his suicidal urges are objectified in the old man’s diseased eye.
The other level of terror is that experienced by the old man. His terror is made all the more realistic because it is related from the perspective of his tormentor, the mad narrator, who takes sadistic delight in knowing that the old man is quaking in his bed. Given the appearance of three police officers not long after the murder, one is tempted to speculate that the old man knew more than the narrator thought he knew. Perhaps he had conveyed his suspicions to a neighbor, or perhaps the young man has been demented for years, and the old man has been caring for him. If he did suspect the narrator, the terror that the old man felt during the hour before his death must have been excruciating.
The story is replete with double meaning and irony. The narrator destroys the “evil eye,” thus ensuring his own destruction, or incarceration at least. Fearful that the neighbors would hear the heartbeat growing increasingly louder, the anxious maniac yells as he bludgeons the old man, and the neighbors certainly heard that. The arrival of three police officers suggests that they knew something was amiss and that the old man had tipped off someone, though the narrator is sure that his victim suspected nothing. There is also the beating of that tell-tale heart. Was it really the old man’s heart, or was it the narrator’s own heart betraying him? The mystery—and the story is to a considerable extent a mystery—is thus maintained to the very end. The irony is exquisite, a tribute to the literary genius of Edgar Allan Poe.
Guilt and Innocence
The guilt of the narrator is a major theme in ‘‘The Tell-Tale Heart.’’ The story is about a mad person who, after killing a companion for no apparent reason, hears an interminable heartbeat and releases his overwhelming sense of guilt by shouting his confession to the police. Indeed, some early critics saw the story as a straightforward parable about self-betrayal by the criminal’s conscience.
The narrator never pretends to be innocent, fully admitting that he has killed the old man because of the victim’s pale blue, film-covered eye which the narrator believes to be a malignant force. The narrator suggests that there are uncontrollable forces which can drive people to commit violent acts. In the end, however, Poe’s skillful writing allows the reader to sympathize with the narrator’s miserable state despite fully recognizing that he is guilty by reason of insanity.
Sanity and Insanity
Closely related to the theme of guilt and innocence is the issue of sanity. From the first line of the story—‘‘True!—nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am, but why will you say that I am mad?''—the reader...
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