The Tell-Tale Heart Summary

In Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart," the narrator attempts to prove his own sanity in the wake of having murdered an old man.

  • The unreliable narrator explains that he loved the old man very much, but was disturbed by the old man's "evil eye," which he alleges drove him to murder.

  • After killing the old man, the narrator chops up his body and hides it beneath the floorboards.

  • The police arrive after a neighbor reports having heard a scream, and the narrator begins to hear the old man's heart beating beneath the floor. Disturbed, he admits his crime to the police.

Summary

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Last Updated on October 19, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1636

Introduction

‘‘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.’’

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Plot Summary

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 narrator chuckled aloud, causing the old man to shift suddenly in his sleep, as if he were startled. But the narrator says that he was not concerned since the room was pitch black, its shutters closed tight against thieves. This time, he slipped his head in as usual, but when his thumb slipped on the lantern shutter, the sound caused the old man to spring up in his bed and to cry out ‘‘Who’s there.’’ The narrator does not take this to be a blunder on his part. Instead, he describes his delight in being able to read the old man’s mind. Laying back down, the old man groaned, and the narrator somehow knew that this was not an expression of pain or grief, but one of mortal terror, terror of the kind that he himself had experienced. The narrator reports following the old man’s mind as he tried to reason away the sound as merely a gust of wind or a mouse moving across the floor. But the old man could not comfort himself, the narrator knows, for he could feel the presence of Death (with a capital ‘‘D’’) hovering near him.

On this night, the narrator recounts, the ‘‘evil eye’’ is wide open, and when the lantern’s rays illuminate it, the mere sight of cloudy orb infuriates him. Through his superhuman hearing, the narrator says that he is able to detect the old man’s heart beat growing faster and louder, so loud, in fact, that the narrator feared a neighbor would be awakened. Yet after resolving that the ‘‘old man’s hour has come,’’ the narrator himself yells out before leaping fully into the room and causing his victim to shriek. The cunning narrator killed the old man by dragging him to the floor and pulling the bed over his victim. Whether the old man was crushed or smothered, the narrator was certain that he was dead, but that his heart continued to beat. Again, the killer is not concerned: the sound was not loud enough to be heard by neighbors. Indeed, the narrator recalls, it stopped altogether and when he placed his hand upon the old man’s chest, he concluded that his victim was ‘‘stoned dead.’’

The narrator then details the perfection of his plan. He disposed of the corpse by dismembering the body, cutting off the old man’s head, legs and arms. He took some planks up from the bedroom floor, dumped all of the remains below in the space below, and then replaced the boards so that no human eye could ever detect that they had been disturbed. The narrator anticipates the listener’s objections that some blood must have been shed in the process, but he gleefully reports, ‘‘I had been too wary for that. A tub had caught all—ha, ha!’’

At four in the morning, three policemen came to the house. A neighbor had heard a shriek in the night, the police explained, and they wanted to search the premises. The narrator says that this did not worry him. He told the officers that the shriek was his outburst from a bad dream. The narrator led the investigating party into the old man’s bedchamber, provided chairs for them to sit, and placed his own chair directly atop the boards concealing his victim’s remains. Although he was convinced by their light conversation that the police were satisfied by his account, when they did not leave, the narrator developed a headache, and then felt a ringing in his ears. He became even more anxious when the noise grew and was convinced that it came from outside of himself. According to the narrator, his actions began to betray him: he began to pace the floor, to race, and even to foam at the mouth. He became convinced that the police could hear the sound of the old man’s heart but said nothing, thereby making ‘‘a mockery of my horror.’’ Unable to stand the agony of being ridiculed, the narrator called the detectives ‘‘villains,’’ admitted to his crime, and directed them to the source of the sound. When they picked up the planks, so the narrator tells us, they found the old man’s ‘‘hideous heart’’ still beating away.

Analysis

The narrator clearly fails to make the case that he is not insane, but is ironically accurate in his expectation that we will say that he is mad once we’ve heard him out. His efforts are, in fact, pathetic, and while there are some dramatic moments in the story, the tension that moves the tale forward is not how or when the narrator will act, but the disparity between the story as he tells it and the likelihood of what may have taken place.

We do not question that some heinous crime has occurred, but just about everything else that the narrator says evokes doubt. The narrator repeatedly boasts that he has carefully planned his crime and carried it out with caution. Yet on the eighth night, he commits not one but two mechanical blunders, and not only does he allow the old man to shriek in fright, he actually yells as he assaults his victim. The manner in which he kills the old man is ludicrous: he takes no weapon with him into the old man’s room, and somehow dispatches of the old man with a piece of furniture. Indeed, it seems as if the murder took place on a spur of the moment impulse.

His effort to conceal the body by hiding under the scene of the crime are equally ridiculous; the dismemberment of the corpse does nothing to conceal the murder, his use of a tub to catch the blood is by no means the cunning method that he takes it to be. Among the questions that abound at the story’s end, despite the narrator’s explicit account, we cannot say for sure whether he acted out before the police, or merely thought his behavior to be suspicious. In fact, given that the narrator hears things from the outside that are clearly sourced in his deranged mind, we very much doubt that the old man’s heart was still beating hours after his death. Because the narrator is so unreliable, we are essentially invited by Poe to reconstruct an alternative series of events, but we are limited in this by what the narrator chooses to tell us.

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