The Tell-Tale Heart
By Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)
A Study Guide
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Plot Summary
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Plot Summary 
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2005
. .......The narrator has been so nervous that he jumps at the slightest sound. He can hear all things on heaven and earth, he says, and some things in hell. But he maintains that he is not mad. To prove his sanity, he says, he will calmly tell the reader his story. 
.......One day, he decided to take the life of an old man for no other reason except that he had an eye resembling that of a vulture–“a pale blue eye with a film over it.” Over time, it became so unbearable to look upon it that the narrator had no other choice but to get rid of the old man. The way he went about the task, with such calculation and cunning, demonstrates that he is not mad, the narrator says. 
.......At midnight, he would turn the knob on the door of the old man’s bedroom. Then he would open the door ever so slowly. In fact, it would take him an hour to open the door wide enough to poke his head into the room. Would a madman have been so cautious? Then he would open a little slot on his lantern, releasing light, to check the hideous eye. For seven straight nights, it was closed, “and so it was impossible to do the work,” he says, “for it was not the old man who vexed me but his Evil Eye.” 
.......On the eighth night, the narrator opened the door with greater caution than before. As before, the room was completely dark. He was about to shine the lantern when the old man sat up and said, “Who’s there?” The narrator did not answer but remained in place, not moving a muscle, for an entire hour. All the while, the old man continued to sit up, wondering–the narrator speculated–what he had heard. The wind? A mouse? A cricket? 
.......Although he did not hear the old man lie down again, the narrow open the lantern slot just a sliver, then wider. The beam fell upon the open vulture eye. Then the narrator heard a low, muffled sound–the beating of the man’s heart! Or so he believed. The heartbeat louder–then louder and louder. Would a neighbor hear it? 
.......Shouting, the narrator rushed into the room. After the old man shrieked, the narrator quickly threw himto the floor and pulled the bed on top of him. The heart continued to beat, but only softly. Moments later, the beating stopped. The narrator checked his pulse. Nothing. The old man was dead. After moving the bed aside, the narrator took up three floorboards, secured the old man between the joists, and replaced the boards. The narrator felt proud of himself, for there was no blood to wash out, no other task of any kind to do.  
.......At 4 a.m., just when he had finished his work, the narrator answered a knock at his front door. When he opened it, three policemen entered, saying a neighbor had reported hearing a shriek, possibly indicating foul play. They needed to search the premises.  “I smiled,” the narrator says, “for what had I to fear?” 
.......After welcoming the police, he told them the shriek was his own; he had cried out during a dream. He also told them that the old man who lived in the house was away in the country. Next, he took the police all over the house, inviting them to search everything–thoroughly. After they entered the old man’s chamber, the narrator pointed out that the old man’s possessions had not been disturbed.  
.......In his swelling self-confidence, the narrator brought in chairs and invited the policemen to rest. “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,” the narrator says.  
.......The police appeared completely satisfied that nothing criminal had occurred in the house. However, they continued to chat idly, staying much longer than the narrator had expected. By and by, he began to hear a rhythmic ringing in his head. While he was talking with the police, the noise–which had the cadence of a ticking watch but a much louder sound–persisted, becoming more distinct. A moment later, he concluded that the rhythmic ringing was outside of him. Still, he talked on, now more loudly. The policemen did not seem to hear the noise.  
.......When it grew even louder, the narrator rose and began arguing with the officers about trivial matters, punctuating his conversation with wild hand movements. He also paced back and forth. Then he raved and cursed and dragged his chair over the floorboards, all in an apparent attempt to drown out the noise he was hearing. Meanwhile, it grew still louder, and louder, and louder. How was it possible that they could not hear it? 
.......In fact, they must have heard it, the narrator decided. And they must have suspected him of a crime all along. Their calm manner and idle chatter were part of a ruse to mock him. Unable to brook their counterfeit behavior any longer, unable to endure the sound any longer, the narrator brought the whole business to a crashing climax.  
......."Villains! I shrieked, "dissemble no more! I admit the deed! – tear up the planks! – here, here! – it is the beating of his hideous heart!" 

The story opens in an undisclosed locale, possibly a prison, when the narrator tells readers that he is not mad. To defend his sanity, he tells a story which he believes will prove him sound of mind. His story is set in a house occupied by the narrator and an old man. The time of the events in the story is probably the early 1840's, when Poe wrote the story. The action in the narrator's story takes place over eight days. 


The Narrator: Deranged unnamed person who tries to convince the reader that he is sane. The narrator's gender is not identified, but Poe probably intended him to be a man. Here is why: Poe generally wrote from a male perspective, often infusing part of himself into his main characters. Also, in major short stories in which he identifies the narrator by gender–stories such as "The Black Cat," "The Cask of Amontillado," and "The Fall of the House of Usher"–the narrator is male. Finally, the narrator of "A Tell-Tale Heart" exhibits male characteristics, including (1) A more pronounced tendency than females to commit violent acts. Statistics demonstrate overwhelmingly that murder is a male crime. (2) Physical strength that would be unusual in a female. The narrator drags the old man onto the floor and pulls the bed on top of him, then tears up floorboards and deposits the body between joists. (3) The narrator performs a man's chore by bringing four chairs into the old man's bedroom, one for the narrator and three for the policemen. If the narrator were a woman, the policemen probably would have fetched the chairs. But they did not.  
The Old Man: Seemingly harmless elder who has a hideous "evil eye" that unnerves the narrator.  
Neighbor: Person who hears a shriek coming from the house of the narrator and the old man, then reports it to the police.  
Three Policemen: Officers who search the narrator's house after a neighbor reports hearing a shriek. 
Type of Work Short story in the horror genre that focuses on the psyche of the narrator .  

Year of Publication 

"The Tell-Tale Heart" was first published in the winter of 1843 in The Pioneer, a Boston magazine. 


Theme 1: A human being has a perverse, wicked side–another self–that can goad him into doing evil things that have no apparent motive. This is the same theme of another Poe story, "The Black Cat." The narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart" admits in the second paragraph of the story that he committed a senseless crime, saying: "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." However, he does note that his evil deed, murder, was not entirely unprovoked; for the old man he killed had a hideous eye that unnerved him. Unable to look upon it any longer, he decided to kill the old man.  
Theme 2: Fear of discovery can bring about discovery. At the end of the story, the narrator begins to crack under the pressure of a police investigation, hearing the sound of the murdered man's beating heart, and tells the police where he hid the body. Fear of discovery is the principle under which lie detectors work.  
Theme 3: The evil within is worse than the evil without.. The old man has a hideous, repulsive eye; outwardly, he is ugly. But, as the narrator admits, he is otherwise a harmless, well-meaning person. The narrator, on the other hand, is inwardly ugly and repulsive, for he plans and executes murder; his soul is more repulsive than the old man's eye.   

Point of View 

The story is told in first-person point of view by an unreliable narrator. The narrator is obviously deranged, readers learn during his telling of his tale, even though he declares at the outset that he is sane. As in many of his other short stories, Poe does not name the narrator. A possible explanation for this is that the unnamed narrator becomes every human being, thereby enhancing the universality of the short story. In other words, the narrator represents anyone who has ever acted perversely or impulsively–and then had to pay for his deed. 

Prose Beats Like a Heart 

From time to time, Poe uses a succession of short sentences or word groups, creating a rhythm not unlike that of a heartbeat. Note the following examples from the story: 

    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!  

    I scarcely breathed. I held the lantern motionless. I tried how steadily I could to maintain the ray upon the eye. Meantime the hellish tattoo of the heart increased.  

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

Figures of Speech 

As in other works of his, Poe uses many figures of speech. Examples are the following: 


Anaphora is a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is repeated at the beginning of a clause or another group of words. Anaphora imparts emphasis and balance. Here are boldfaced examples from "The Tell-Tale Heart": 

    I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. 
    With what caution–with what foresight, with what dissimulation, I went to work!  
    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."  
    There was nothing to wash out–no stain of any kind–no blood-spot whatever. 
    They heard!–they suspected!–they KNEW!–they were making a mockery of my horror! 
    Death in approaching him had stalked with his black shadow before him and enveloped the victim. [Here, Death is a person.]
    So I opened it–you cannot imagine how stealthily, stealthily–until at length a single dim ray like the thread of the spider shot out from the crevice and fell upon the vulture eye. [The simile is the comparsion of the ray to the thread of the spider with the use of the word like. 
    It increased my fury as the beating of a drum stimulates the soldier into courage. [The simile is the comparison of the heartbeat to a drumbeat.]  
    His room was as black as pitch with the thick darkness. . . . [The simile is the comparison of the darkness to pitch.]
    Hearken! and observe how healthily, how calmly, I can tell you the whole story. 

    Meanwhile, the hellish tattoo of the heart increased. 

    It is the beating of his hideous heart! 

    I was never kinder to the old man than during the whole week before I killed him.
Author Information 

Edgar Allan Poe was born on January 19, 1809, in Boston. After being orphaned at age two, he was taken into the home of a childless couple–John Allan, a successful businessman in Richmond, Va., and his wife. Allan was believed to be Poe’s godfather. At age six, Poe went to England with the Allans and was enrolled in schools there. After he returned with the Allans to the U.S. in 1820, he studied at private schools, then attended the University of Virginia and the U.S. Military Academy, but did not complete studies at either school. After beginning his literary career as a poet and prose writer, he married his young cousin, Virginia Clemm. He worked for several magazines and joined the staff of the New York Mirror newspaper in 1844. All the while, he was battling a drinking problem. After the Mirror published his poem “The Raven” in January 1845, Poe achieved national and international fame. Besides pioneering the development of the short story, Poe invented the format for the detective story as we know it today. He also was an outstanding literary critic. Despite the acclaim he received, he was never really happy because of his drinking and because of the deaths of several people close to him, including his wife in 1847. He frequently had trouble paying his debts. It is believed that heavy drinking was a contributing cause of his death in Baltimore on October 7, 1849.  
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