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Edgar Allan Poe’s "The Tell-Tale Heart": A Literary Analysis

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"The Tell-Tale Heart" by Edgar Allan Poe: schizophrenia or two different men in a macabre scene?

"The Tell-Tale Heart" by Edgar Allan Poe: schizophrenia or two different men in a macabre scene?

Analysis of Edgar Allan Poe’s "The Tell-Tale Heart"

All short stories have several elements. In the Tell-Tale Heart, five elements show a literature learner a more profound understanding of not only the essence of the story, but also of Edgar Allan Poe’s reason for creating the said story.

By spending time and effort in digging deeper into the details, the milieu, the relevant historical backdrop, and the biography of the writer, one begins to see the beginning, the true motive, and the purpose of prose or poem. It is only in doing these things that a person may unlock the why's and how’s of literary pieces such as “The Tell-Tale Heart.”

The Tale That Is “The Tell-Tale Heart”

“The Tell-Tale Heart” is one of the creations of Edgar Allan Poe, known as the man who pioneered detective and solve-a-crime stories (Meyers 1992). The said short story is about an anonymous narrator who seems to prove that he is sane yet exhibits a rather contrasting behavior for having confessed the murder of an old man with an ‘evil vulture blue eye.’

The story progressed with the narrator spending seven nights plotting the crime against the old man, yet he professes to love the man except for his ’eye’ (May 2009). On the eighth night when he startled the old man from his sleep and fearing the neighbors would hear the man’s shriek and heavily pounding heartbeat, the narrator succeeded in killing, dismembering, and hiding the man’s body under the floorboards.

A neighbor who heard of the shriek reported the event to the police who quickly visited and investigated the following morning. In the very room where the body is buried, the narrator calmly entertained the police who never suspected ill-will from the former.

However, a ringing and increasing pounding heartbeat terrorized the narrator and he had no choice but to confess his crime to the authorities. This concludes the story, which is set in the 19th century Boston house, where the old man and the narrator lived.

Character Analysis

The characters are fascinating because of the absence of clear-cut descriptions. There was no sure definition of their gender, occupation, or motive. Lines such as the narrator’s statements throw little light on him and other characters. Notice how he described himself with "True! - nervous - very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?" (May 2009).

In fact, this line is repeated several times in the story, as if consoling himself or stressing his sanity to anyone, yet there was no sure audience for his statements. At the beginning of the story alone, the narrator described the old man with the lines:

“True, I'm nervous. Very, very dreadfully nervous. But why would you say that I'm mad? See how calmly, how precisely I can tell the story to you. Listen. It starts with the old man. And old man in an old house. A good man, I suppose. He didn't harm me, I didn't want his gold, if gold there was. Then what was it? I think... I think it was... his eye. Yes, that eye, the eye. That. His eye staring. Milky white film. The eye, everywhere, in everything! Of course, I had to get rid of the eye.” (May, 2009, 118).

Notice how he seems to revere the old man by calling him ‘good’, yet he seems obsessed with getting rid of his eye.

He continues to describe him: “I loved the old man! He had never wronged me! He had never given me insult!" and yet he would resort to killing him later the eighth day.

After finally being bothered by the heartbeat of the old man’s heart, the narrator confessed his deed to the police, which he described with the lines "'Villains!' I shrieked, 'dissemble no more! I admit the deed! - tear up the planks! - here, here! - it is the beating of his hideous heart!'" (May, 2009, 121).

These lines show the description of the characters through the eyes of the narrator. By also referring to these lines which are sometimes repeated in the story, other details of the remaining elements are revealed.

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The Conflict in the Story

The conflict element of the story is the narrator’s obsessed anger with the old man’s eye, as earlier presented in the description of the old man. He also had problems with his true interpretations of what is happening around him as referenced in his line “'Many a night, just at midnight, when all the world slept, it has welled up from my own bosom, deepening with its dreadful echo, the terror that distracted me” (May 2009) referring to the groans of the old man while asleep.

This pretense of being in control of the situation and of his psychological stability has been overshadowed by other lines supporting hi insanity. As a matter of fact, the compounding factor of the old man’s nightly moans and the narrator’s insane desire to peek through the old man’s room is already a conflict of interest.

Why would he want to see the old man’s evil eye at night unless he is enticed or obsessed with it? In any case, this leads to the climax which painted his evil deed of the eventual killing of the old man.

The climax is shown when the narrator kills the old man as he stated in the lines:

“For an hour I did not move a muscle. I could feel the earth turn... The eye... Hear the spiders spinning. In the house, the grinding grumble of decay. And then, something else. Dull and muffled, and yet... Of course! It was the beating of the old man's heart. He knew! So strong for such an old man. Louder then, and still louder, for all the world to hear, I know! I had to stop it! [Narrator screams as he strangles the old man] Then it was over. The heart was still. The eye was dead. I was free!” (May, 2009, 131).

Again, this leads to the theme of insanity simply due to the disparity of love and goodness for the old man versus his hatred for his moans and evil eye. Following this deed, the narrator had no choice but to redeem himself from utter darkness; this leads us to the resolution of the case.

The resolution is presented with the words of the narrator saying:

“Then I heard it. It might have been an ant, a clock. But no. Louder, and still louder. They must hear it, and yet they sit and talk and talk. Of course, they must! They know, they do! They're torturing me, watching me, letting it beat so that I... That I... Stop it! Stop it, you devils! Yes, yes, I did it! It's there, under the floor! Oh, stop it! It is the beating of his hideous heart!” (May, 2009, 135).

Obviously, there is something psychologically very wrong with the narrator for stating such lines.

Owing to these many elements, the theme presented in the story is that of insanity. The repetitive lines of the narrator stating that he is clarifying his emotion of nervousness, not madness; his seemingly reverence towards the old man yet a plot and an act taking his life; plus his calm acceptance of the police yet eventual addressing them as ‘villains; plus his fear of the moans and evil eye yet nightly peeking at the old man during midnight are all but total signs of insanity (Meyers 1992).

All of these constitute the grand imagery of mystery and illusion leading to insanity. The components show that there was much more than the mere play on words and the deliberate use of vagueness in order to distill a shroud of doubt among the readers.

This enables the story to become unclear, leaving the reader on the edge of his/her seat looking for solid evidence to understand what “The Tell-Tale Heart” truly means or suggests. Whether it pertains to a single persona trapped in a schizophrenic dilemma or two people living together under a macabre condition is but a facade.


May, C. E. (2009). “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults. USA: Gale Group, Inc. pp. 112 – 136.

Meyers, Jeffrey (1992). Edgar Allan Poe: His Life and Legacy (Paperback ed.). New York: Cooper Square Press. Pp. 12 -1 5.

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