The Tell-Tale Heart is one of Poe’s most famous short stories, and it’s the one I chose as the centerpiece of my book, The Poe Consequence.. It’s about an unnamed narrator who tells the story of a murder he committed to prove he is sane, but in the telling of the story, we see that he is not. The nameless narrator kills an old man for one bizarre reason: the old man’s vulture eye.
He held nothing against the old man. No grudge, no conflict, no contention. He also denies having killed for greed. But this vulture eye – a pale blue eye with a film over it – unnerved him, haunted him. So much was his obsession over the eye that he plotted to kill the innocent elderly man to be rid of the eye once and for all.
By today’s standards, it would seem that this short story of murder, obsession and guilt isn’t very frightening. Our exposure to horror movies has built a trend of producing stories that only throw us into a momentary state of shock. But The Tell-Tale Heart is a psychological thriller intended to disturb the mind and the subconscious. It tells us what delusions and our obsessive brains are capable of. The story starts with the narrator trying to convince the audience that he is not mad, that his condition is due to a disease causing a heightened sense of hearing. He tells the story chronologically but he focuses on what he feels, thinks and experiences more than the actions he takes. The Tell-Tale Heart takes us into the mind of a madman.
Who is the Narrator?
So many art, film and theater adaptations of The Tell-Tale Heart portray the narrator as a man, but in fact, no names or pronouns were used to refer to the narrator, so the character’s sex cannot be known for certain. Edgar Allan Poe used the first person point of view for many of his prose, with the vast majority of these containing echoes of a male protagonist, such as The Man of the Crowd and The Fall of the House of Usher. It’s probably safe to assume, therefore, that the murderer is a man.
There is no explanation on how the narrator came to live in a house with the old man who is presumably not his kin. The nature of their relationship is unclear throughout the story.
The audience can also assume that the murderer is much younger than the victim due to the narrator repeatedly referring to the victim as an “old man” and the implied reverence for him: “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.”
The details of characters’ background are all vague, and this completely contrasts the details of the plot. This, however, is exemplary of Edgar Allan Poe’s mastery in the use of words.
Mad he may be, but reckless in the execution of the murder he is not. The narrator carefully orchestrated the killing. Every midnight for seven days, he cautiously snuck his head inside the old man’s chamber, ready to put an end to the vulture eye. But each night, he could not perform the murder, for the eye was always closed. But on the eighth night, the old man woke up to find his murderer staring at him.
It was at this moment when the narrator starts hearing a rhythmic thumping sound. It was the beating of the old man’s heart! The thumping grew louder and louder, and fueled the narrator’s fury even more. In a fit of anger, the narrator leaps into the room, drags the old man to the floor and suffocates him with his bedding.
The grisly deed is done. But even then, the beating would not stop for several minutes.
The corpse is concealed under the floorboards but not without being dismembered first.
What Does The Heart Symbolize?
Guilt? Hallucination? Paranoia? The heart that won’t stop beating could be all of these things. In the end, the unnamed narrator was overcome with guilt and confessed his crime because the dead heart under the floorboards would not stop beating. But was this really the dead man’s heart? It could very well have been the narrator’s own heartbeat he was hearing.
Whether or not the heartbeat was all in his head, it’s the very thing that led to his own destruction.