What happens in The Tell-Tale Heart?
The unreliable narrator of this classic short story denies accusations that he is mad. He begins to tell a tale to prove his sanity. He recalls being inspired to kill the old man who he was living with and notes that he was made nervous by the man’s “evil eye.”
One night, the narrator slips into the old man’s bedroom, removes him from his bed, and drags the bed over his body to kill him. He cuts him into pieces and buries the body under the floorboards.
When the police come to question him, he is disturbed by the sound of the old man’s heart, which he perceives to be still beating beneath the floorboards. He is so disturbed that he confesses and tells the police where to find the body.
‘‘The Tell-Tale Heart’’ was first published in 1843 in the Boston Pioneer, and revised into its current form for an 1845 edition of The Broadway Journal. Like ‘‘The Black Cat,’’ it is a murder story told by the acknowledged killer himself. Here, however, the narrator’s stated purpose is not confession but the desire to prove his ‘‘sanity.’’
The dramatic monologue begins with the unnamed (and highly unreliable) first-person narrator issuing a challenge of sorts: ‘‘True!—nervous, very, very dreadful nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?’’ He declares at once that he suffers from a ‘‘disease,’’ but implies that because it has not dulled his senses, he cannot be called mad. The narrator points out that his mental disorder has actually caused his senses, especially his hearing, to become more acute. When he claims to have heard many things in heaven and hell, we realize, of course, that his super-human sensory experiences are delusions. But having posited (and immediately undercut) the first argument in his proof, the narrator turns to a second plank. The calm manner in which he will now tell us the whole story is in itself evidence of his sound mind.
The narrator says that he cannot recall when the idea of killing the old man ‘‘entered’’ his ‘‘brain.’’ He never discloses the exact nature of his relationship to the victim. The old man and his killer seem to live in the same house, and this would suggest a family bond of some kind, and, from here, a father-son relation with ample room for subconscious motives. But the narrator conspicuously omits direct confirmation that the old man is his father (or uncle, etc.), saying only that he loved his victim and that he did not covet the old man’s wealth. In mid-sentence, as if he just realized it (or made it up), the narrator declares that it was one of the old man’s eyes, a pale-blue, film-covered eye like that of a vulture, that he could not stand. As if jogging his own memory (or, again, making it up on the spot), the narrator further recollects that when this ‘‘evil eye’’ fell upon him, his blood ran cold.
The motive established, the narrator proceeds to recount the cunning deliberation, the caution, that he used in preparing to take the old man’s life, submitting it as evidence of his rationality. To allay any suspicions that his intended victim might have, the narrator greeted the old man each morning during the week before the crime with encouraging words, asking him about how he had slept the night before. But each midnight as the old man slept, the narrator carefully lifted the latch on his bedroom door, moved his head inside the room itself, and opened a lantern’s shutter so slightly that only a narrow beam of light pinpointed the ‘‘vulture’’ eye. For seven nights in a row, the deed could not be committed because the ‘‘accursed’’ eye was closed.
On the eighth night, however, an opportunity (to hear the killer tell it) arose. Moving as slowly as the hands of a clock, he opened the bedroom door and felt a sense of exhilaration at the thought that the old man did not even dream that a foul deed was afoot. Unable to suppress his glee, the...
(The entire section is 2,211 words.)