The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe Short Story Analysis


The Tell-Tale Heart (1843) is a short story by American writer Edgar Allan Poe. This horror classic is a famous example of Gothic literature, and is also well-known for its unreliable first person narration.

Basically, an unnamed person confesses to killing their master and spends the story trying to convince us of their sanity. 

As you read, consider whether the narrator might be a woman. We are not told the gender, but I believe there’s a strong argument that the narrator is a woman.

The Annotated Tell-tale Heart

True! — nervous — very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses — not destroyed — not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily — how calmly I can tell you the whole story.

The proliferation of dashes kind of suggests… madness, though? Not sure about you, but if so meone dashes up to me and yells, “True!” I am always certain to believe everything they say.

Hearken: An archaic word for ‘listen’.

It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain; but once conceived, it haunted me day and night. 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. I think it was his eye! yes, it was this! One of his eyes resembled that of a vulture — a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees — very gradually — I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.

I am DEFINITELY NOT INTO YOU because of your money.

The guy’s eye, resembling ‘that of a vulture’ is an excellent example of resonant detail.

Different cultures have various words for the discomfort about eye contact. Sometimes it’s known as The Evil Eye. According to some belief systems, a stare on its own can cause someone harm, making a stare an act of violence worthy of retribution in its own right.

Now this is the point. You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing. But you should have seen me. You should have seen how wisely I proceeded — with what caution — with what foresight — with what dissimulation I went to work! I was never kinder to the old man than during the whole week before I killed him. And every night, about midnight, I turned the latch of his door and opened it — oh, so gently! And then, when I had made an opening sufficient for my head, I put in a dark lantern, all closed, closed, so that no light shone out, and then I thrust in my head. Oh, you would have laughed to see how cunningly I thrust it in! I moved it slowly — very, very slowly, so that I might not disturb the old man’s sleep. It took me an hour to place my whole head within the opening so far that I could see him as he lay upon his bed. Ha! — would a madman have been so wise as this? And then, when my head was well in the room, I undid the lantern cautiously — oh, so cautiously — cautiously (for the hinges creaked) — I undid it just so much that a single thin ray fell upon the vulture eye. And this I did for seven long nights — every night just at midnight — but I found the eye always closed; and so it was impossible to do the work; for it was not the old man who vexed me, but his Evil Eye. And every morning, when the day broke, I went boldly into the chamber, and spoke courageously to him, calling him by name in a hearty tone, and inquiring how he had passed the night. So you see he would have been a very profound old man, indeed, to suspect that every night, just at twelve, I looked in upon him while he slept.

Here’s the thing about psychosis: Psychotic individuals will often be cognizant of the fact that they sound crazy. But what they are seeing is true to them, with input via their senses. So they will frequently say things like, “I know this sounds crazy but…”

“Dark lantern” sounds like an oxymoron, but for people accustomed to lanterns, they came in different brightnesses. (See: A Brief History of Home Lighting to get more of a sense of how electricity changed human behaviour, and senses.)

The narrator thinks you would ‘laugh’ to see them embark upon their murder plot. We, dear readers, are complicit.

The use of ‘madman’ encourages readers to think of a male narrator, but if this is a madwoman, she is setting herself apart from those stupid madmen over there.

Those of us who get much of our information from movies and other media have been fed an incomplete and incorrect view of what psychosis looks like.

Content note: I’m about to talk about psychosis as it manifested in Lisa Marie Montgomery, an American criminal executed in 2021. Montgomery’s crime was heinous: She strangled a woman who was eight months pregnant, cut the baby out of the dead woman’s womb then kidnapped the baby. There was much talk in the aftermath about how anyone could do this to another person. Was Montgomery psychotic? If so, this would be an argument for mercy. Montgomery’s lawyers ‘believe that at the time of the crime, Montgomery was psychotic and out of touch with reality. They have been joined by a chorus of supportive voices from the legal field, including 41 former and current prosecutors, as well as human rights entities like the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.‘ (BBC)

In the end, Montgomery was executed. However, people who understand psychosis, maintain that she was psychotic even though she was also cold and calculating. One does not cancel out the other.

Dr Katherine Porterfield, a clinical psychologist who evaluated Montgomery and spent about 18 hours with her, says that psychosis does not always look the way people expect it to.

“Being psychotic, it does not mean you are not intelligent, nor that you cannot act in a planful way,” she says. “We’ve seen crime for years and years in our country in which people enact terrible violence coming out of a psychotic set of beliefs or thought process. Lisa Montgomery is no different. She enacted this in the grip of a very broken mind.”

Lisa Montgomery: Looking for answers in the life of a killer, BBC

Upon the eighth night I was more than usually cautious in opening the door. A watch’s minute hand moves more quickly than did mine. Never before that night had I felt the extent of my own powers — of my sagacity. I could scarcely contain my feelings of triumph. To think that there I was, opening the door, little by little, and he not even to dream of my secret deeds or thoughts. I fairly chuckled at the idea; and perhaps he heard me; for he moved on the bed suddenly, as if startled. Now you may think that I drew back — but no. His room was as black as pitch with the thick darkness, (for the shutters were close fastened, through fear of robbers,) and so I knew that he could not see the opening of the door, and I kept pushing it on steadily, steadily.

Sagacious: having or showing keen mental discernment and good judgement; wise or shrewd. Yes, AND ALSO PSYCHOTIC.

The author slows the pacing right down, amping up suspense. The door opens little by little, like the fuse shortening on a stick of dynamite.

I had my head in, and was about to open the lantern, when my thumb slipped upon the tin fastening, and the old man sprang up in the bed, crying out — “Who’s there?”

It’s basically a rule: A character creeping around HAS to step on a twig.

I kept quite still and said nothing. For a whole hour I did not move a muscle, and in the meantime I did not hear him lie down. He was still sitting up in the bed listening; — just as I have done, night after night, hearkening to the death watches in the wall.

If someone can stand still for an entire hour, surely they’re not psychotic, right? Incorrect. They can be.

Presently I heard a slight groan, and I knew it was the groan of mortal terror. It was not a groan of pain or of grief — oh, no! — it was the low stifled sound that arises from the bottom of the soul when overcharged with awe. I knew the sound well. 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 terrors that distracted me. I say I knew it well. I knew what the old man felt, and pitied him, although I chuckled at heart. I knew that he had been lying awake ever since the first slight noise, when he had turned in the bed. His fears had been ever since growing upon him. He had been trying to fancy them causeless, but could not. He had been saying to himself — “It is nothing but the wind in the chimney — it is only a mouse crossing the floor,” or “it is merely a cricket which has made a single chirp.” Yes, he has been trying to comfort himself with these suppositions: but he had found all in vain. All in vain; because Death, in approaching him had stalked with his black shadow before him, and enveloped the victim. And it was the mournful influence of the unperceived shadow that caused him to feel — although he neither saw nor heard — to feel the presence of my head within the room.

A narrator who believes in The Evil Eye has the same kind of brain that believes in the magic of midnight. Which raises an interesting question: If someone is living in a community where such beliefs are shared — if everyone really does believe in magical midnights and Evil Eyes, where does acculturation stop and psychosis begin? Take the witch burning times. During the European witch craze, it was commonly believed, and taken for granted, that every village contained a witch. You could even hire people to get rid of curses for you. Like, this was akin to calling the snake catchers. Supernatural beliefs can in themselves lead to murder, sometimes mass murder. No psychosis required, only folie a deux at the population level. Dangerous beliefs don’t have to be supernatural. There is only one requirement for murder, or mass murder to occur: Dehumanisation. It happened to Jewish people last century. It’s still happening today.

Chimneys are especially feared by people who believe in the supernatural. Chimneys are connected to the outside darkness, cannot be shut off, and are commonly associated with demons. (Santa is a chimney demon rendered harmless for children.)

The narrator personifies Death by giving the word the punctuation of a proper noun. At this point I wonder if the narrator is the Grim Reaper. Certainly, anyone who chooses when another will die is carrying out the task of a Grim Reaper.

When I had waited a long time, very patiently, without hearing him lie down, I resolved to open a little — a very, very little crevice in the lantern. So I opened it — you cannot imagine how stealthily, stealthily — until, at length a single dim ray, like the thread of the spider, shot from out the crevice and fell upon the vulture eye.

Another resonant image

It was open — wide, wide open — and I grew furious as I gazed upon it. I saw it with perfect distinctness — all a dull blue, with a hideous veil over it that chilled the very marrow in my bones; but I could see nothing else of the old man’s face or person: for I had directed the ray as if by instinct, precisely upon the damned spot.

We are collectively afraid of the elderly because we fear ourselves becoming old and frail and disabled and dependent, then eventually dead. Avoiding the gaze of the elderly is one (maladaptive) way to deal with the reality of being alive and also knowing that one day we will be dead. Note, too, the symbolism of the veil.

And now have I not told you that what you mistake for madness is but over acuteness of the senses? — now, I say, there came to my ears a low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. I knew that sound well, too. It was the beating of the old man’s heart. It increased my fury, as the beating of a drum stimulates the soldier into courage.

A false dichotomy: Madness (what we now call psychosis) IS an ‘over acuteness of the senses’. The narrator is probably hearing their own heart, but imagines it belonging to the old man. This links the narrator to the old man in the basest way. As soon as we really see the humanity and sadness of an elderly person’s demise, we are reminded of our own demise.

But even yet I refrained and kept still. I scarcely breathed. I held the lantern motionless. I tried how steadily I could maintain the ray upon the eye. Meantime the hellish tattoo of the heart increased. It grew quicker and quicker, and louder and louder every instant. The old man’s terror must have been extreme! It grew louder, I say, louder every moment! — do you mark me well? I have told you that I am nervous: so I am. And now at the dead hour of the night, amid the dreadful silence of that old house, so strange a noise as this excited me to uncontrollable terror. Yet, for some minutes longer I refrained and stood still. But the beating grew louder, louder! I thought the heart must burst. And now a new anxiety seized me — the sound would be heard by a neighbor! The old man’s hour had come! With a loud yell, I threw open the lantern and leaped into the room. He shrieked once — once only. In an instant I dragged him to the floor, and pulled the heavy bed over him. I then smiled gaily, to find the deed so far done. But, for many minutes, the heart beat on with a muffled sound. This, however, did not vex me; it would not be heard through the wall. At length it ceased. The old man was dead. I removed the bed and examined the corpse. Yes, he was stone, stone dead. I placed my hand upon the heart and held it there many minutes. There was no pulsation. He was stone dead. His eye would trouble me no more.

To be alive is to look death in the eye. The narrator is so afraid of dying they cannot bear to be alive (to breathe).

Tattoo here refers to an evening drum, associated with the miligary e.g. a bugle signal recalling soldiers to their quarters.

There is but one way to control life, and that is to control death.

If still you think me mad, you will think so no longer when I describe the wise precautions I took for the concealment of the body. The night waned, and I worked hastily, but in silence. First of all I dismembered the corpse. I cut off the head and the arms and the legs.

There’s a documentary series called Crimes That Shook Australia. Episode 5 of season 1 is about Katherine May Knight (a freezing works employee), who murdered and dismembered her partner, cooked up his rump as steaks and served it up on plates with vegetables, intending to feed it to his children.

I then took up three planks from the flooring of the chamber, and deposited all between the scantlings. I then replaced the boards so cleverly, so cunningly, that no human eye — not even his — could have detected any thing wrong. There was nothing to wash out — no stain of any kind — no blood-spot whatever. I had been too wary for that. A tub had caught all — ha! ha!

The fictional narrator of “Tell-Tale Heart” is far better organised than Katherine May Knight was. Knight expended zero effort on disguising her heinous crime.

When I had made an end of these labors, it was four o ‘clock — still dark as midnight. As the bell sounded the hour, there came a knocking at the street door. I went down to open it with a light heart, — for what had I now to fear? There entered three men, who introduced themselves, with perfect suavity, as officers of the police. A shriek had been heard by a neighbor during the night; suspicion of foul play had been aroused; information had been lodged at the police office, and they (the officers) had been deputed to search the premises.

If you watch/read enough True Crime one thing becomes clear: Criminals are never as smart as they think they are, and some are unbelievably lazy. Just as well.

I smiled, — for what had I to fear? I bade the gentlemen welcome. The shriek, I said, was my own in a dream. The old man, I mentioned, was absent in the country. I took my visitors all over the house. I bade them search — search well. I led them, at length, to his chamber. I showed them his treasures, secure, undisturbed. In the enthusiasm of my confidence, I brought chairs into the room, and desired them here to rest from their fatigues, while I myself, in the wild audacity of my perfect triumph, placed my own seat upon the very spot beneath which reposed the corpse of the victim.

Edgar Allan Poe keeps mentioning the smile. The reader understands this to be the deranged, inappropriate smile of a killer, but it is interpreted as a social smile by the policemen. Never trust a smile.

The officers were satisfied. My manner had convinced them. I was singularly at ease. They sat, and while I answered cheerily, they chatted of familiar things. But, ere long, I felt myself getting pale and wished them gone. My head ached, and I fancied a ringing in my ears: but still they sat and still chatted. The ringing became more distinct: — it continued and became more distinct: I talked more freely to get rid of the feeling: but it continued and gained definitiveness — until, at length, I found that the noise was not within my ears.

Roald Dahl was surely influenced by “Tell-Tale Heart” when writing his story “Lamb to the Slaughter”. Dahl’s story, too, ends with easily persuaded policemen chatting easily and eating with the criminal. If you’re arguing the narrator is female, this is your best argument: Because most (but not all!) violent criminals are men, women are more easily believed. This is why Dahl created a criminal in the form of a housewife.

No doubt I now grew very pale; — but I talked more fluently, and with a heightened voice. Yet the sound increased — and what could I do? It was a low, dull, quick sound — much such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. I gasped for breath — and yet the officers heard it not. I talked more quickly — more vehemently; but the noise steadily increased. I arose and argued about trifles, in a high key and with violent gesticulations; but the noise steadily increased. Why would they not be gone? I paced the floor to and fro with heavy strides, as if excited to fury by the observations of the men — but the noise steadily increased. Oh God! what could I do? I foamed — I raved — I swore! I swung the chair upon which I had been sitting, and grated it upon the boards, but the noise arose over all and continually increased. It grew louder — louder — louder! And still the men chatted pleasantly, and smiled. Was it possible they heard not? Almighty God! — no, no! They heard! — they suspected! — they knew! — they were making a mockery of my horror! — this I thought, and this I think. But anything was better than this agony! Anything was more tolerable than this derision! I could bear those hypocritical smiles no longer! I felt that I must scream or die! — and now — again! — hark! louder! louder! louder! louder! —

The stupid policemen smile, and the narrator’s reaction to their smiles is telling: According to the killer’s own, highly personalised morality code, their smiles are ‘mocking’ and ‘hypocritical’. Meanwhile, all through the story, they have smiled, and been cognizant of smiling, while committing the most terrible act. The killer is all about authenticity. Literally everything else is secondary to that. So long as you do something out of genuine feeling, you are justified in doing anything at all. I believe this is a fairly accurate insight into the mind of people who commit terrible violence.

But here’s a moral question for the ages: If we assume everyone acts ‘sensibly’ according to sensory input and brain wiring, even if it appears heinous in hindsight, after more information is given, is there any such thing as a true criminal? What if you were to hallucinate, tonight (let’s say around midnight), that the old man next door needs killing, and that the world would be a better place without him? What if you knew (incorrectly) that he was the next Hitler? Incorrect input aside, wouldn’t it be immoral, according to completely shared logic, to stand by and do nothing?

“Villains!” I shrieked, “dissemble no more! I admit the deed! — tear up the planks! — here, here! — it is the beating of his hideous heart!”

Sigh. By this point, weren’t you hoping the killer would simply get away with it? Earlier eras required criminals be properly punished for their crimes, because it was believed that fiction would directly influence morality, especially in fiction for children, but also in fiction for adults.

That said, sometimes contemporary writers choose for their main characters to fess up to something heinous even when they are so close to getting away with it. One modern example is The Lost Daughter, a 2021 movie directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal.

FURTHER READING

All organisms die, whether by disease, disaster, or simply old age. Yet humans seem to be uniquely blessed — or cursed — with the cognitive ability to understand our mortality. See: Pre-life, Afterlife, and the Drive for Immortality
by Lorraine Boissoneault
at the John Templeton Foundation