The Tell-Tale Heart

“infobox Book “
name The Tell-Tale Heart
image caption Modern cover
author Edgar Allen Poe
country America
language English language
genre(s) Gothic literature
publisher NA
release date 1843
media type Hardback and Paperback
pages 9

The Tell-Tale Heart is a short story which was written and published in 1843 by the mid-nineteenth century American horror and Gothic author, Edgar Allan Poe. It follows an unnamed narrator whose psychological state is extremely precarious, though he insists that he is sane. This narrator has murdered an old man who he describes as having a ‘vulture eye’. This was not a crime of passion, but was carefully planned by the narrator in advance of him carrying out the act. He is also calculated in how he tries to cover up the deed. For instance, after he murders the old man he cuts his body up into pieces and hides them under the floorboards of his house. However, ultimately the narrator’s psychological state begins to decline even further over time as he is haunted by a hallucination in which he believes that he can still hear the old man’s heart beating underneath the floorboards of his house. This is the ‘Tell Tale Heart’ of the story’s title.

Poe’s story is a classic example of nineteenth-century Gothic literature. There is a mysterious element to much of the story here. For instance, we do not know what the relationship is between the narrator and the old man whom he has killed. Similarly, it is unclear what the ‘vulture eye’, which the narrator claims the old man had and which is part of his reason for killing him, actually is. Is this something malevolent that the old man was involved in or is it indicative of a veiled secret of some kind? All of these ambiguities and mysteries surrounding the narrator and his victim are in stark contrast to the detailed narrative of how the old man is killed and what happens thereafter.

After the initial crime the story is largely concerned with the psychological collapse of the narrator. Throughout he is almost trying to convince the reader that he is perfectly sane, even as the beating of the old man’s heart beneath the floorboards of his home gradually drives him mad. This takes on a macabre note for much of the story. For instance, at one juncture in the story the narrator argues that the beating of the dead  man’s heart beneath the floorboards has actually benefited him as it has made his hearing better.

As he continues with this line of narration the narrator begins to reveal slightly more details about his relationship to the old man and what brought about the murder. He notes that originally he did not hate the old man and even loved him, as the old man had done nothing to harm him or do wrong by him. However, over time as the narrator became more and more aware of the ‘vulture eye’ which the old man was possessed of the narrator developed a cold, strange feeling towards the old man. This grew worse over time and eventually the narrator decided that he had to kill the old man so that the ‘vulture eye’ could never look at him again. It is evident to the reader that the ‘vulture eye’ is a figment of the narrator’s warped psychological state.

This leads to him describing in some detail how he murdered the old man. Every night for a week he snuck into the old man’s room with the intention of killing him, but in each instance he found that he could not bring himself to commit the act, as the old man’s eyes were closed and so the ‘vulture eye’ was not looking at him. However, on the eighth night the old man awoke when the narrator enters his room. As a consequence the narrator is finally able to murder the old man as he is forced to look on the ‘vulture eye’.

Following the murder the police are tipped off by a neighbour that there is a strange noise coming from the old man’s house. When they arrive to question the narrator, he is betrayed by his own growing madness, despite his efforts to convince the reader of his sanity. As the police question him he begins hearing the old man’s heart beating louder and louder underneath the floorboards. As this occurs he is compelled to reveal his crime to the police. Thus, in the end the narrator’s madness, wrought by his guilt over killing the old man, forces him to reveal his crime. As the story ends we assume he will now be punished by the full force of the law.

Character Summaries

The narrator

The unnamed, unreliable narrator kills the old man because he can’t stand the old man’s vulture eye. He spends the entire story trying to persuade us that he is in fact completely sane.

The old man

The old man is murdered by the narrator because of his strange, vulture-like eye. He is then chopped up and hidden under the floorboards, but the phantom beating of his heart causes the narrator to go mad and reveal his crime to the police.



The Tell-Tale Heart Summary