Poe Study Guides
Tell-Tale Heart" is a short story in the horror genre. It focuses on a
mentally unstable man who murders an old man with an "evil eye."
Tell-Tale Heart" was first published in the winter of 1843 in The Pioneer,
a Boston magazine.
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 genderstories
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.
who hears a shriek coming from the house of the narrator and the old man,
then reports it to the police.
Officers who search the narrator's house after a neighbor reports hearing
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 impulsivelyand
then had to pay for his deed.
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.
Michael J. Cummings...©
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 vulturea
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.
midnight, he would turn the knob on the door of the old mans 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."
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, Whos 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, wonderingthe
narrator speculatedwhat he had heard. The
wind? A mouse? A cricket?
he did not hear the old man lie down again, the narrator opened the lantern
slot just a sliver, then wider. The beam fell upon the open vulture eye.
Then the narrator heard a low, muffled soundthe
beating of the mans heart! Or so he believed. The heartbeat louderthen
louder and louder. Would a neighbor hear it?
the narrator rushed into the room. After the old man shrieked, the narrator
quickly threw him to 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
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?"
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 everythingthoroughly.
After they entered the old mans chamber, the narrator pointed out that
the old mans possessions had not been disturbed.
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.
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 noisewhich
had the cadence of a ticking watch but a much louder soundpersisted,
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.
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?
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.
I shrieked, "dissemble no more! I admit the deed!tear
up the planks!here, here!it
is the beating of his hideous heart!"
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Theme 1: A human
being has a perverse, wicked sideanother
selfthat 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
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
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.
Beats Like a Heart
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
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
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!"
in other works of his, Poe uses many figures of speech. Examples are the
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 cautionwith
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 hasmade
a single chirp."
There was nothing to wash
outno stain of any kindno
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 ityou
cannot imagine how stealthily, stealthilyuntil
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.
my fury as the beating of a drum stimulates the soldier intocourage. [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.]
and observe how healthily, how calmly,
I can tell you the whole story.
Meanwhile, the hellish
of the heart increased.
It is the beating of his
I was never kinder to the
old man than during the whole week before I killed him.
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 coupleJohn
a successful businessman in Richmond, Va., and his wife. Allan was believed
to be Poes 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.
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.
Questions and Essay Topics
Write an essay that compares
and contrasts the narrator of "The Tell-Tale
Heart" with the narrator of "The Black
Cat." In the latter story, the narrator is also mentally unstable even
though he maintains at the beginning of the story that he is not.
Is the narrator stricken with
What is the difference between
guilt and remorse?
If you were the narrator's attorney,
what would be your approach in defending him?
Write an essay about people
who maltreat others because of their physical appearance..