‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ by Edgar Allan Poe: Short Story Analysis
‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ is one of the finest macabre stories in the whole world. Its author, Edgar Allan Poe, is an American writer from the nineteenth century and is credited by some to be the creator of the horror genre in fiction. His tales of the macabre are very remarkable. This story is considered a classic in the genre of psychological suspense. The story is narrated by a person suffering from a chronic form of schizophrenia and mania. He is possessed by the obsessive-compulsive idea that he must kill a harmless old man whom he lives with. The reason for this was that he could not tolerate the sight of the elderly gentleman’s eye – an eye that was larger than its mate, almost having the look of a vulture’s eye. It was pale blue with a film coating over it. This eye which would on other occasions be a curiosity to others was pure torture for our mentally deranged narrator. He goes on in a step by step manner to eliminate the old man while the other was unaware of the trouble he was causing in the mind of his young companion.
There are so many theories about the mental state of the narrator. He claims throughout the story to only be a nervous person, which was of recent origin, but not mad. This is indicative that he was narrating his gruesome homicidal story to a psychologist or a lawyer who was in charge of him. He was being called ‘mad’ and he was aware of it. Plus, he did not like the fact that he was being called the degradable term ‘mad’. He just felt that he was a bit ‘jumpy’. He refutes the fact that he was mentally disturbed.
- He does so by telling the readers or the listener the exact way he went about killing an elderly gentleman he was living with.
- He refutes the fact that he had done anything wrong in eliminating the older man.
- He is proud of his work and likes to boast about it which comes off as unnerving and very sensational.
The relationship between the younger deranged narrator and the elderly gentleman has not been spelled out. Probably, they were uncle and nephew or master and valet. They were living under one roof together and there is the possibility that the older man thought that the younger man was interested in his gold or money. Little did he know what delusional thoughts were taking hold of the mentally disturbed narrator.
The narrator meticulously tells the story. Edgar Allan Poe has the intent to shock us and he manages to do so perfectly. The narrator takes a week to kill the weak old man in cold blood. He smothers him with the old man’s bedding and then dismembers his body. He drains the blood out in the washing tub and places the body parts of the old man under the flooring of his room. The paranoid schizophrenia is very startling to observe and difficult to digest. I’m sure it shocked every reader when it was first published in the 1800s. It is not a tale to be taken lightly and not something you can forget very easily.
The story is focused on two parts of the old man’s body which irritates the narrator:
- The old man’s vulture eye.
- The old man’s beating heart.
The narrator claims that as he was about to kill the old man, he heard the loud beating of the old man’s heart. To still the heart so that the neighbors wouldn’t hear its beating, the narrator kills the old man. Obviously, it was the guilt and paranoia of the narrator in question here. He certainly did not hear the sound of the old man’s heart; hearts don’t beat that loud you know. It was his delusion or hallucination that made him hear something which no one else could. This is a bit of a concoction of a variety of psychological disorders which motivated the killer or narrator to do what he ultimately did. The beating heart, however, was what made the ‘nervous’ narrator hysterically confess his crime to the three police officers. You can feel the tension in the lines toward the end of the story. You can feel the stressful, uncomfortable, and suffocating sensation that the narrator goes through as he entertains the three policemen the next morning in the room of the deceased. The narrator was so brazen that he purposely placed his chair right above the very place where he had dumped the body parts.
You can look at the story from a variety of angles:
- The narrator was demented enough to think that the sound of the heartbeat could be heard by the neighbors but ignored the shriek of the old man as he was smothered to death. This is a bit of obsessive-compulsive disorder or OCD partial comprehension of a situation. The poor fellow seemed to have been plagued with the worst forms of maniacal mental diseases.
- The scream of either the old man or the narrator’s triumphant ‘almost naked innocent screaming of a deranged personality’ did wake up an alert neighbor who was a light sleeper. The neighbor called the police who arrived at the narrator’s doorstep as early as four o’clock in the morning.
- You notice in the story that when the old man’s eye would be open at night only then would the narrator be ready to kill the old man. He is quite clear on the fact that he had nothing against the old man or the old man’s treasures. It was just the vulture eye that drove him insane.
- The old man’s heartbeat compounded with the narrator’s guilty conscience would make the narrator confess to his crime.
- The narrator is very calm with the police officers. He showed them through the entire house and made them sit right inside the old man’s bedroom. He was brazening but had the innocence that only a person who is mentally disturbed can have. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have seated the officers in the old man’s room. An alert psychologist of the twenty-first century would have immediately guessed the fact that since he was seating them in the room of the old man, that meant the old man indeed was in danger or already dead. Paranoia always returns to the reason for the paranoia; the delusion feeds on the mind of the mentally unstable victim.
- The narrator as he sits and speaks to the three police officers feels, nay, is certain that he can hear the old man’s pounding heartbeat beneath the floorboards. This constant pounding or beating sound is driving him to desperation. He desires that the policemen should leave lest they hear the sound themselves. The narrator starts speaking louder and louder to cover up the sound of the beating heart. He even goes to the extent of acting hysterical and grating the chair across the wooden flooring.
- If you observe the narrator made one more mistake. The very fact that he claimed to have hidden the body parts under the old man’s flooring meant that he had unscrewed them, which must have made a lot of noise that night and then had screwed them back. His innocence in wickedness is obvious to the astute reader of this Poe classic.
- The old man could have been a psychologically disturbed patient himself. If you remember in the story mention is made that the old man had boarded up all the windows of his room because he was afraid of robbers. Who boards themselves up in this manner but a psychologically disturbed person? Plus, he was mortally afraid of being killed by a robber because of his treasure. Could it be possible that he was the cause of the narrator’s paranoia? There is a possibility of this.
These are the varied ways to look at this very disturbing but a classic horror story. The narrator was foiled probably by his heart beating in his ears rather than anything paranormal. The old man was avenged even in death by the metaphorical beating of his ‘hideous heart’. The policemen seemed to be very irresponsible characters who didn’t notice the growing mania of the narrator in the room. We know this because they kept on having their chat while he was getting more hysterical by the moment.
The story ends with a question in our minds. Was there a paranormal or psychological cause of events? We know by now that Poe was aiming at psychology more than paranormal activity. He is a real genius in American Gothic literature and excels himself as the undisputed leader in this genre. The title of the story when one looks back says it all; that more than the vulture eye, it will be the ‘heart’ that will tell on the crime of the narrator:
- The old man’s heart.
- The guilty heart of the narrator.
- The narrator’s own beating heart.
I have always been a fan of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories. Strangely, it took me so long to review a short story of the horror genre penned by him. I read this story titled ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ way back in the year 1998 when I was a little girl of nine years. I remember bringing the collection of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories home to read from the Bombay Scottish School library and relished the whole story with excitement. I read the collection in a week’s time and only got my own collection in the year 2005 when I visited the Strand Bookstore in Fort area, Mumbai. For more information on my bookish life, you can read my memoirs Scenes of a Reclusive Writer & Reader of Mumbai and The Reclusive Writer & Reader of Bandra.
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