.......One 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.
.......At 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.”
.......On 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?
.......Although 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?
.......Shouting, 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 to do.
.......At 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?”
.......After 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.
.......In 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.
.......The 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.
.......When 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?
.......In 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.
......."Villains! 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 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 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.
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:
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 heart!"
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":
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.
They heard!–they suspected!–they KNEW!–they were making a mockery of my horror!
It increased 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.]
Meanwhile, the hellish tattoo of the heart increased.
It is the beating of his hideous heart!
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.