The Tell Tale Heart Summary, Themes, & Analysis | LitPriest (2022)

Background of the Story

“The Tell-Tale Heart” is a story by Edgar Allan Poe written in 1843. It is about a murderer who tries to persuade his readers of his mental stability while telling the tale of the brutish act. He denies that he suffers from some mental illness and openly boasts of his cleverness and cunning behavior. He kills an old man though he loves him. He holds no grudges against him and murders him without any motive.

The old man’s “vulture-eye” makes the narrator angry and he decides to kill him. He attends to every minute detail in the process of murder; carefully kills him, disjoints every part of his body, and then buries the body parts underground in the room. He also receives the policemen with utmost comfort but, slowly and gradually, his anxiety increases. His guilty conscience constantly pricks him and reminds him of his brutal act. Eventually, he cannot bear the secret anymore and confesses his crime to the policemen.

The untrustworthy narrator does not have a solid reason to murder the old man (apart from his hatred for the old man’s eye). Furthermore, Poe has not given us detail about the narrator’s relationship with the old man. We do not know, as readers, whether the narrator is a male or a female. Poe only focuses on the events and situations which lead to the killing rather than focusing on individuals.

The story is one of the classics of Poe’s short stories and of its genre. The setting and diction used in the story make it a classic Poe story. The story is a proof of human being’s inherently evil nature. The unreliable narrator in the story brutally murders the old man irrationally and without any reason. The story also explores the paranoiac state of mind of the narrator.

The Tell Tale Heart Summary

At the start of the story, the narrator is answering an imaginary listener. He confesses that he has been ill but denies the fact that he is insane. Furthermore, he announces that the illness has given him more strength especially to his “sense of hearing”. He tells the imaginary listener that he is more vigilant now and is able to hear everything. Then he tells the listener to listen carefully as he narrates the story.

He confesses that there was no motive for what he did. He loved the old man who never harmed him. The motive behind the murder was not his wealth and gold, however, one of his eyes made him kill the old man. He hated his vulture-like eye and it persuaded him to murder the old man. The narrator says that the old man’s eye angered him so he made up his mind to kill him to shut that eye once and for all.

33 Edgar Allan Poe Quotes

Again he tries to prove his sanity by admitting that he planned carefully to murder the old man making us aware that an insane person cannot plan. He informs his readers that for seven continuous nights he would go into the old man’s room, quietly, and would wait for the exact moment to commit the crime. He would examine the old man’s eye with the help of his lantern and would find it close. He would return annoyingly as it is his “Evil Eye” which motivates him to murder him. Ironically, in the morning he would ask the old man how he spent the night.

He continues with the story and tells us that on the night of the murder he went to the old man’s room with more caution. He wonders at his cunning plan and laughs at the old man’s lack of awareness. Out of nowhere, the old man sensed something and moved. The narrator tells us that he did not feel afraid as he knew the old man could not see him in the darkness. He, quietly, entered the room. The old man suspected something and asked who was in the room.

The narrator informs us that he did not move an inch for an hour knowing that the old man is alert. Then he hears a frightening cry from the old man sitting alert in his bed. He tells us that the old man knows not of his presence but he can assume his death impending upon him. Afterwards, he gradually puts light on the old man and realizes that his hateful eye is open. It makes him angry. He does not notice his face because he is not interested in it rather it is his eye that troubles him. The sight of his eye fills him with rage.

Furthermore, as he boasts of his increased hearing sense, he hears the beating of the victim’s heart. He tries to stay calm but the beating of the old man’s heart increases his anger. The narrator becomes anxious and is unable to bear his heartbeat anymore. The narrator takes the help of the bedsheets and holds it firmly “over his head”. The old man, slowly and gradually, suffocates and his heartbeat stops. The narrator takes a sigh of relief knowing that his eye will never trouble him again.

He again challenges those who question his sanity and tells them that they should consider how he hid the dead body so as no one can find it. He disjoints every part of the dead body carefully. Then he removes the planks and hides the pieces there cautiously making sure nothing is left behind. Afterwards, he puts the planks down again, with great care, so that no one can get a clue of their removal.

When he finishes, the clock strikes four in the morning. Someone knocks at the door. He calmly opens the door and realizes that three policemen have arrived. They have been called upon by one of the neighbors who heard the shriek of the old man. They are here to investigate any mishap. He receives them calmly and tells them that he shrieked because of a nightmare. He escorts them all over the house and tells them to do their search. He even leads them to the old man’s room and offers them chairs to sit there and rest.

He confesses that his calm demeanor made the cops believe his explanation and they sat calmly there. They chat continuously and after a while, the narrator wishes they should depart. Slowly and gradually, he becomes anxious and his calmness fades away. In the meantime, he hears some sound. At first, he perceives it to be inside his head but then he realizes that the sound is not internal rather it is in the room. He talks louder and causes commotion in the room to cover it up but it gets louder with the passage of time.

He walks to and fro in the room to make some noise but its intensity increases. However, the policemen seem not to hear it and they are busy chatting and smiling as usual. The narrator thinks the policemen know and they are laughing at his stupidity. He says he constantly suffered because of their smiles and hearing that sound. Eventually, he cannot stand it anymore and confesses his crime. He tells the policemen to uncover the planks and they will find the mutilated body of the old man and his pumping heart.

Themes

Mental Health

Poe’s story shows its readers the importance of mental health. The story demonstrates that mental illness can drive a person to the vilest acts. Psychological problems can lead individuals to act dangerously without any motive. The narrator, in the story, suffers from some mental problems which lead to his destruction.

He, time and again, denies the fact that he suffers from mental illness but his awkward actions prove that he suffers from some psychological problem. He is obsessed with killing the old man for no apparent reason and scrutinizes him for seven successive nights. The narrator, being paranoiac, kills the old man out of fear but that is not an acceptable reason.

Furthermore, he also enjoys the moment when he suffocates the old man, holding the bed sheets tightly over his face. This event makes him a sadist; who enjoys inflicting pain on others. This event also shows that he has some psychological problems. Through these events, Poe demonstrates the idea that an individual’s psychological health is as important as his physical health.

Guilt

Guilt is another significant theme in the story. Although the narrator does not feel guilty of his crime openly, however, it is his guilty conscience which leads him to confess his crime. At first, he murders the old man in his room and calmly hides his dead body underground. Then he calmly receives the policemen and leads them across the house. However, in the hearts of his heart, he feels nervous with the passage of time.

Slowly and gradually, he hears sounds which he did not hear previously. He becomes anxious and tries to evade the sounds by making a commotion. However, his guilt does not leave him until he confesses his crime. He is of the opinion that the heartbeat is that of the old man’s heart but actually it is his own heart pumping with guilt. Externally, he enjoys killing the old man but his guilty conscience does not let him enjoy the brutal act.

Confinement

The theme of confinement is central to the story. The actions in the story are confined to a house only. Neither the narrator nor the old man go outside the house throughout the story. The narrator wants to break this confinement by murdering the old man but is unsuccessful. He murders the old man but never breaks his confinement.

The narrator thinks he will escape the life of confinement by killing the old man who is a threat to his freedom, according to him, but never succeeds. Instead, after killing he becomes more confined to the old man’s room. First, he would roam around the house but after killing him, he sits with the policemen in the old man’s room. He does not leave the room until he confesses his crime.

This confinement can imply that the narrator’s own psych has imprisoned him and he is unable to escape it. He thought he would gain freedom by killing the old man unaware of the fact that it is his mental confinement rather than his physical which never lets him free.

Characters Analysis

Characters are people who have some individual traits in a piece of writing. Without characters, a piece of literature looks dull. They are mouthpieces for a writer through which a writer expresses their opinions about a particular issue. Characters provide them with an outlet to contribute to the social structure. Some characters are major characters on which the writer focuses more while others are minor characters who have a supporting role in a piece of writing.

Poe’s story revolves around the unreliable narrator who murders an old man for no apparent reason. Other characters in the story are not significant. The detailed analysis of his character is given below;

The Narrator

Poe does not give us information about the narrator’s gender. We, as readers, do not know whether he is a male or a female. We assume that he is a male and that is why we use the pronoun “He” for the narrator. After reading the story we conclude that he has many problems in his character; he suffers from paranoia, he is nervous and has some physical as well as mental illness. He tries to prove his sanity for the most part of the story.

After reading the story, we assume that the narrator acts according to his natural impulses. The narrator murders the old man because he thinks the old man is a threat to his individual freedom. Being paranoiac, the narrator assumes the old man is always trying to harm him, although he confesses that he has never harmed him, he acts in advance and takes his life. He murders the old man due to his own fear.

Furthermore, the narrator suffers from some kind of physical instability. His ears are hypersensitive and he hears sounds which others do not hear. We, as readers, do not know about his past and cannot claim that he suffers from some ailment but his awkward behavior and his physical instability make us think he is not physically fit.

As Poe lived most of his life in the southern United States we can, contextually, assume that the narrator is a “Southern Gothic Hero”. The narrator may have a master-slave relationship with the old man. It may be the case that the old man as a ‘master’ mistreats the narrator as a ‘slave’. This may have urged the narrator to murder the old man to get rid of his authoritative behavior.

Lastly, the narrator may be a sadist; ‘a person who derives pleasure, especially sexual gratification, from inflicting pain or humiliation on others’, and to fulfill his sadistic impulses he may have murdered the old man without any apparent reason.

The narrator’s character in the story is an enigmatic one and arises many questions in the readers’ minds. The above analysis is not blunt realities about his characters but mere assumptions.

Literary Analysis

Edgar Allan Poe’s short story poses many questions to be answered by the readers. The reality of the narrator, the motive behind his murder, his relationship with the old man, and the issues of his mental and physical health are to be discussed in this analysis section.

The narrator is an unreliable person having no specific name. Even we do not know about his gender. Most of the critics believe that the narrator is a male, as was the norm at that time, however, others believe that it may be a female character who narrates the story. The narrator acts illogically throughout the story and follows his instincts rather than his reason. On the basis of these qualities, some critics believe that the narrator might be a female because irrationality and emotionality were associated with women at that time. Poe focuses more on the events in the story rather than the individuals, so he leaves it open for his readers to decide whether the narrator is a male or a female.

There seems to be no motive behind the narrator murdering the old man except for the old man’s ‘Evil Eye’ which the narrator dislikes. However, this excuse is not strong enough to take someone’s life. Critics believe that the narrator suffers from paranoia and his paranoiac personality leads him to commit the murder. A paranoiac person feels fear of others all the time. Same is the case with the narrator in the story. He feels afraid of the old man though he has never harmed him. In order to counter his fear, he kills the old man without any apparent reason.

On the other hand, the narrator may want individual freedom and that is why he kills the old man. He confesses himself that he was not targeting the old man’s gold or money. He may be struggling to gain freedom which may seem impossible if the old man lives so he decides to kill him. Ironically, he becomes more confined after murdering the old man. Consequently, we can say that there is no apparent reason for murdering the old man. These are mere speculations.

There are diverse opinions about the relationship between the narrator and the old man. They both live in the same house. The narrator loves the old man until he murders him. The old man never harms the narrator. Some critics opine that there is a master-slave relationship between the two. The old man serves as the master and the narrator is a slave to him. As the old man’s ‘Evil Eye’ is the object of hatred for the narrator, this relationship makes sense. The ‘Evil Eye’ represents the dominance of the old man which the narrator never accepts, so he tries to kill him to gain freedom.

Other critics believe that there is a father-son relationship between the two. However, according to my understanding of the story, this assumption is a little weak. Why, on earth, will a son kill his own father so brutally if he loves him and his father never harms him. It may happen, in some cases, but is not true for this story. A son will never go to such extremes to gain freedom from his father, according to my opinion. Finally, Poe leaves this relationship open for the readers to decide.

Furthermore, the narrator throughout the story tries to prove his sanity but his actions and his words are enough for the readers to conclude that he suffers from physical as well as mental problems. He leaves no stone unturned to prove that he is not a mad person but his actions prove otherwise. He gives logical reasons for his irrational act but fails. His motiveless murder, his sadistic attitude during the murder, and his calm demeanor after the murder prove that he suffers from some psychological problem.

He plans the murder methodically and never gives the old man a clue about his plan. However, he kills the old man without any evident reason which shows his psychological instability. His paranoiac mentality urges him to kill the old man before he could harm him. The motiveless murder also throws light on his sadistic personality. He enjoys inflicting pain upon others. He also enjoys mutilating the old man’s dead body. He does not shudder or feel any fear of doing this hideous act.

The narrator’s brutal act also refers to the inherently evil nature of human beings. He murders the old man without any rationale. This refers to the idea of the ‘Original sin’ which means that every human being has the tendency to sin or do evil acts, without any reason, because they are born sinners. William Golding in his novel Lord of the Flies also explores this idea of human being’s evil nature from birth. We can associate these ideas with the narrator as he kills the old man without any motive.

Poe’s story is a classic horror story. All elements of Gothic fiction are present in the story. The hidden corpse, the supernatural setting of the story, the horrible murder, and the mentally unstable protagonist, all these elements make it a classic example of Gothic fiction. The narrator, who is the protagonist of the story, suffers from some psychological problem and commits a murder without any obvious reason. He hears sounds which no one else hears, leading to the fact that he suffers from some mental problem.

Mystery and fear is another element of Gothic fiction which is also present in the story. The narrator, himself, is an enigmatic personality who no one knows fully. He has no name and no specific gender. He is paranoiac and his fear of being harmed leads him to murder the innocent old man. The setting of the story also conforms to the idea of Gothic fiction. The story is set in a bizarre and strange house with no detailed description. The narrator commits the murder in a dark room. The underground hiding of the corpse adds to the canny setting of the story.

The supernatural elements also add to the Gothic form in the story. The pounding heart of the dead old man comes to haunt the narrator. Whether it is the heartbeat of the old man’s heart or the narrator’s own heart is debatable, however, it increases the narrator’s anxiety. It haunts him until he confesses his crime to the policemen.

As Poe lived in times when Romanticism was at its peak so the influence of Romanticism is pretty much there in his fiction. He wrote about the strange and bizarre things and neglected literature for a didactic approach. He focused on emotions rather than rationale and wrote literature which had a direct effect on feelings and emotions. The narrator in the story acts according to his intuitions and does not care about the consequences. The Romantic influence on his writings is greater in this regard.

Settings in Romantic literature are some strange places and “The Tell-Tale Heart” is no exception. The story is, mainly, set in a horrible and bizarre room full of darkness. Poe believed that the greatest art should be set in a place which is different from the ordinary world and most of his stories are set in places which are out of this world, literally.

The influence of Romanticism is evident in Poe’s characterization. Most of his main characters have no names and no genders. The narrator in the story is also deprived of any name or gender. He focused on the overall effect of his art rather than on individuals’ importance. Lastly, the subject matter is also peculiar and unusual. According to Romantic writers, mundane subjects have no place in literature. Poe, himself hated ordinary and common subjects and dealt with the unusual. So he wrote about those subjects which amazed the common readers. He wrote literature that was horrific and not ordinary. The influence of Romanticism is evident in his writings.

The Title

The title of the story is significant. It points to the hearts of both the old man and the narrator. The old man’s heart beats rapidly when he perceives someone in his room. His heart awakens him to the danger in the room. However, the narrator gets furious and murders the old man. The next time, the pounding of the heart comes from the underground. This assumption is false because underground lies the mutilated body of the old man. This actually is the pounding of the narrator’s own heart. The narrator is nervous and his pumping heart reminds him of his guilty act. The heart “tells tales”, one of fear and the other of guilt.

Setting

The story is set in a house we, as readers know little of. Poe does not describe the house fully to his readers. The murder takes place in the bedroom of the old man which is dark and horrific.

Writing style

The structure and style of the story are very compact. It can be read in one sitting. The language is simple and there are seemingly no archaic words. There is a mixture of long and short sentences. The choice of words completely fits the subject matter in the story. Poe uses very authentic words to convey his idea in the best possible manner. It makes a powerful impact on the reader.

All the events and situations comfortably lead to the climax in the story and then pass that intent into the befitting ending. The sentences are well connected and they fittingly play their role in taking the story to the desired ending. There is not a single loose thread. The sentences contribute to the overall effect of the story. The writer very tactfully makes this story powerful by the authentic use of language.

Point of View

The story is told by an untrustworthy narrator in the first person. For the most part of the story, he tries to prove that he does not suffer from some mental problems. Throughout the story, he tries to justify his irrational actions logically.

Tone

The tone of the story is gloomy and anxious. Though the narrator is a murderer yet the readers feel sympathy for him as he suffers from severe psychological problems. After the murder, he suffers from nervousness and feels guilty of his crime. The melancholic tone of the story is intermixed with the nervous feelings of the narrator.

Symbols

The Eye

The old man’s eye is the sole object of hatred for the narrator. He wants to shut it forever. If we assume that the relationship between the two is that of a master and slave then the eye represents the authoritative gaze of the master. The narrator shuts it to free himself from the dominance of the master. However, if the narrator is a female then the eye represents the authoritative gaze of a dominant male. The narrator then wanted to free herself of male dominance and murdered the old man.

On the other hand, the narrator refers to the eye of the old man as ‘vulture-like’. Vultures like to eat sick or dead animals. As a paranoiac, the narrator fears the old man will harm him so he acts to counter his fear and murders him to protect himself from being devoured.

The Bed and Bedroom

The bed and bedroom are the places of comfort and warmth generally. However, Edgar Allan Poe negates all the comfort associated with the bed and bedroom. The narrator openly spies on the old man when he sleeps in his room. He breaches all the norms of one’s bedroom and does not consider the privacy of the old man. Ironically, the bedroom becomes a place of agony for the old man. The narrator uses bed sheets as murder weapons to suffocate the old man and hides his body underground.

The House

The house represents the subconscious of the narrator. When he hides the mutilated body of the old man underground, he symbolically hides his crime in his subconscious. Nonetheless, we can retrieve the information hidden in our subconscious mind. Same is the case with the narrator. His pounding heart reminds him of his own guilt and never stops until he confesses his crime to the policemen.

Irony

Poe uses irony to great effect in the story. Firstly, the narrator murders the old man because he hates his “vulture eye” and he deems it a flaw in his character. However, the narrator negates the fact that he also suffers from paranoia which is a severe flaw than the “vulture eye” of the old man. A person with severe illness murders a person with less severe physical flaws is ironic.

Secondly, the narrator boasts of his sanity and leaves no stone unturned to provide details that will prove his sanity to the readers. On the other hand, he gives a detailed analysis of how he murdered the old man without any reason. It is ironic because a healthy and sound person will never kill another person.He also confesses that he loves the old man who has never harmed him yet he brutally kills him. This is ironic because how can a person brutally kill a person he loves and who has never harmed him.

A person’s bedroom is a place of privacy and comfort for an individual. Poe makes the bedroom of the old man his death place, which is ironic. The narrator breaches all norms of the old man’s privacy and kills him in his own bedroom. Ironically, he uses his bed as a murdering weapon. He suffocates the old man using his bedsheets and hides his disjointed body underground in his bedroom. The old man’s bedroom, a place of warmth and comfort, becomes his graveyard.

In a nutshell, Edgar Allan Poe very tactfully conveys his message in this short story. He gives his readers an insight into the paranoiac mind of a person. Through this story, he enables his readers to not be deceived by outward expressions of an individual as he may be harmful to them inwardly. He also throws light on the significance of the mental health of an individual. He opines that psychological health is more important than physical health because it can lead individuals to their own destruction.

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