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Poe Study Guides
Michael J. Cummings...©
narrator has been so nervous that he jumps at the slightest sound. He can
hear all things on heaven and earth, he says, and some things in hell.
But he maintains that he is not mad. To prove his sanity, he says, he will
calmly tell the reader his story.
day, he decided to take the life of an old man for no other reason except
that he had an eye resembling that of a vulture–“a pale blue eye with a
film over it." Over time, it became so unbearable to look upon it that
the narrator had no other choice but to get rid of the old man. The way
he went about the task, with such calculation and cunning, demonstrates
that he is not mad, the narrator says.
midnight, he would turn the knob on the door of the old man’s bedroom.
Then he would open the door ever so slowly. In fact, it would take him
an hour to open the door wide enough to poke his head into the room. Would
a madman have been so cautious? Then he would open a little slot on his
lantern, releasing light, to check the hideous eye. For seven straight
nights, it was closed, “and so it was impossible to do the work," he says,
“for it was not the old man who vexed me but his Evil Eye."
the eighth night, the narrator opened the door with greater caution than
before. As before, the room was completely dark. He was about
to shine the lantern when the old man sat up and said, “Who’s there?" The
narrator did not answer but remained in place, not moving a muscle, for
an entire hour. All the while, the old man continued to sit up, wondering–the
narrator speculated–what he had heard. The wind? A mouse? A cricket?
he did not hear the old man lie down again, the narrow open the lantern
slot just a sliver, then wider. The beam fell upon the open vulture eye.
Then the narrator heard a low, muffled sound–the beating of the man’s heart!
Or so he believed. The heartbeat louder–then louder and louder. Would a
neighbor hear it?
the narrator rushed into the room. After the old man shrieked, the narrator
quickly threw himto the floor and pulled the bed on top of him. The heart
continued to beat, but only softly. Moments later, the beating stopped.
The narrator checked his pulse. Nothing. The old man was dead. After moving
the bed aside, the narrator took up three floorboards, secured the old
man between the joists, and replaced the boards. The narrator felt proud
of himself, for there was no blood to wash out, no other task of any kind
4 a.m., just when he had finished his work, the narrator answered a knock
at his front door. When he opened it, three policemen entered, saying a
neighbor had reported hearing a shriek, possibly indicating foul play.
They needed to search the premises. “I smiled," the narrator says,
“for what had I to fear?"
welcoming the police, he told them the shriek was his own; he had cried
out during a dream. He also told them that the old man who lived in the
house was away in the country. Next, he took the police all over the house,
inviting them to search everything–thoroughly. After they entered the old
man’s chamber, the narrator pointed out that the old man’s possessions
had not been disturbed.
his swelling self-confidence, the narrator brought in chairs and invited
the policemen to rest. “I myself, in the wild audacity of my perfect triumph,
placed my own seat upon the very spot beneath which reposed the corpse
of the victim," the narrator says.
police appeared completely satisfied that nothing criminal had occurred
in the house. However, they continued to chat idly, staying much longer
than the narrator had expected. By and by, he began to hear a rhythmic
ringing in his head. While he was talking with the police, the noise–which
had the cadence of a ticking watch but a much louder sound–persisted, becoming
more distinct. A moment later, he concluded that the rhythmic ringing was
outside of him. Still, he talked on, now more loudly. The policemen did
not seem to hear the noise.
it grew even louder, the narrator rose and began arguing with the officers
about trivial matters, punctuating his conversation with wild hand movements.
He also paced back and forth. Then he raved and cursed and dragged his
chair over the floorboards, all in an apparent attempt to drown out the
noise he was hearing. Meanwhile, it grew still louder, and louder, and
louder. How was it possible that they could not hear it?
fact, they must have heard it, the narrator decided. And they must have
suspected him of a crime all along. Their calm manner and idle chatter
were part of a ruse to mock him. Unable to brook their counterfeit behavior
any longer, unable to endure the sound any longer, the narrator brought
the whole business to a crashing climax.
I shrieked, "dissemble no more! I admit the deed! – tear up the planks!
– here, here! – it is the beating of his hideous heart!"
The story opens in an undisclosed
locale, possibly a prison, when the narrator tells readers that he is not
mad. To defend his sanity, he tells a story which he believes will prove
him sound of mind. His story is set in a house occupied by the narrator
and an old man. The time of the events in the story is probably the early
1840's, when Poe wrote the story. The action in the narrator's story takes
place over eight days.
The Narrator: Deranged
unnamed person who tries to convince the reader that he is sane. The narrator's
gender is not identified, but Poe probably intended him to be a man. Here
is why: Poe generally wrote from a male perspective, often infusing part
of himself into his main characters. Also, in major short stories in which
he identifies the narrator by gender–stories such as "The Black Cat," "The
Cask of Amontillado," and "The Fall of the House of Usher"–the narrator
is male. Finally, the narrator of "A Tell-Tale Heart" exhibits male characteristics,
including (1) A more pronounced tendency than females to commit violent
acts. Statistics demonstrate overwhelmingly that murder is a male crime.
(2) Physical strength that would be unusual in a female. The narrator drags
the old man onto the floor and pulls the bed on top of him, then tears
up floorboards and deposits the body between joists. (3) The narrator performs
a man's chore by bringing four chairs into the old man's bedroom, one for
the narrator and three for the policemen. If the narrator were a woman,
the policemen probably would have fetched the chairs. But they did not.
The Old Man: Seemingly
harmless elder who has a hideous "evil eye" that unnerves the narrator.
who hears a shriek coming from the house of the narrator and the old man,
then reports it to the police.
Officers who search the narrator's house after a neighbor reports hearing
Type of Work Short
story in the horror genre that focuses on the psyche of the narrator .
"The Tell-Tale Heart" was
first published in the winter of 1843 in The Pioneer, a Boston magazine.
Theme 1: A human
being has a perverse, wicked side–another self–that can goad him into doing
evil things that have no apparent motive. This is the same theme of
another Poe story, "The Black Cat." The narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart"
admits in the second paragraph of the story that he committed a senseless
crime, saying: "Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved
the old man. He had never
wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire."
However, he does note that his evil deed, murder, was not entirely unprovoked;
for the old man he killed had a hideous eye that unnerved him. Unable to
look upon it any longer, he decided to kill the old man.
Theme 2: Fear
of discovery can bring about discovery. At the end of the story, the
narrator begins to crack under the pressure of a police investigation,
hearing the sound of the murdered man's beating heart, and tells the police
where he hid the body. Fear of discovery is the principle under which lie
Theme 3: The evil
within is worse than the evil without.. The old man has a hideous,
repulsive eye; outwardly, he is ugly. But, as the narrator admits, he is
otherwise a harmless, well-meaning person. The narrator, on the other hand,
is inwardly ugly and repulsive, for he plans and executes murder; his soul
is more repulsive than the old man's eye.
The story is told in first-person
point of view by an unreliable narrator. The narrator is obviously deranged,
readers learn during his telling of his tale, even though he declares at
the outset that he is sane. As in many of his other short stories, Poe
does not name the narrator. A possible explanation for this is that the
unnamed narrator becomes every human being, thereby enhancing the universality
of the short story. In other words, the narrator represents anyone who
has ever acted perversely or impulsively–and then had to pay for his deed.
Beats Like a Heart
From time to time, Poe uses
a succession of short sentences or word groups, creating a rhythm not unlike
that of a heartbeat. Note the following examples from the story:
Object there was none. Passion
there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never
given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye!
Yes, it was this!
I scarcely breathed. I held
the lantern motionless. I tried how steadily I could to maintain the ray
upon the eye. Meantime the hellish tattoo of the heart increased.
Was it possible they heard
not? Almighty God! – no, no? They heard! – they suspected! – they KNEW!
– they were making a mockery of my horror! – this I thought, and this I
think. But anything was better than this agony! Anything was more tolerable
than this derision! I could bear those hypocritical smiles no longer! I
felt that I must scream or die! – and now – again – hark! louder! louder!
louder! LOUDER! – "Villains!" I shrieked, "dissemble no more! I admit the
deed! – tear up the planks! – here, here! – it is the beating of his hideous
As in other works of his,
Poe uses many figures of speech. Examples are the following:
Anaphora is a figure of speech
in which a word or phrase is repeated at the beginning of a clause or another
group of words. Anaphora imparts emphasis and balance. Here are boldfaced
examples from "The Tell-Tale Heart":
I heard all things
in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell.
With what caution–with
what foresight, with what dissimulation, I went to work!
He had been trying
to fancy them causeless, but could not. He had been saying to himself,
"It is nothing but the wind in the chimney, it
is only a
mouse crossing the floor," or, "It is merely a cricket which has
made a single chirp."
There was nothing to wash
out–no stain of any kind–no blood-spot whatever.
suspected!–they KNEW!–they were making a mockery of my horror!
Death in approaching him
had stalked with his black shadow before him and enveloped the victim.
[Here, Death is a person.]
So I opened it–you cannot
imagine how stealthily, stealthily–until at length a single dim ray like
the thread of the spider shot out from the crevice and fell upon the vulture
eye. [The simile is the comparsion of the ray to the thread of the spider
with the use of the word like.
my fury as the beating of a drum stimulates the soldier into
courage. [The simile is the
comparison of the heartbeat to a drumbeat.]
His room was as black as
pitch with the thick darkness. . . . [The simile is the comparison of the
darkness to pitch.]
and observe how healthily, how calmly,
I can tell you the whole story.
Meanwhile, the hellish
of the heart increased.
It is the beating of his
I was never kinder to the
old man than during the whole week before I killed him.
Edgar Allan Poe was born
on January 19, 1809, in Boston. After being orphaned at age two, he was
taken into the home of a childless couple–John Allan, a successful businessman
in Richmond, Va., and his wife. Allan was believed to be Poe’s godfather.
At age six,
Poe went to England with the Allans and was enrolled in schools there.
After he returned with the Allans to the U.S. in 1820, he studied at private
schools, then attended the University of Virginia and the U.S. Military
Academy, but did not complete studies at either school. After beginning
his literary career as a poet and prose writer, he married his young cousin,
Virginia Clemm. He worked for several magazines and joined the staff of
the New York Mirror newspaper in 1844. All the while, he was battling
a drinking problem. After the Mirror published his poem “The Raven"
in January 1845, Poe achieved national and international fame. Besides
pioneering the development of the short story, Poe invented the format
for the detective story as we know it today. He also was an outstanding
literary critic. Despite the acclaim he received, he was never really happy
because of his drinking and because of the deaths of several people close
to him, including his wife in 1847. He frequently had trouble paying his
debts. It is believed that heavy drinking was a contributing cause of his
death in Baltimore on October 7, 1849.