The Tell Tale Heart Summary

Edgar Allan Poe

The Tell Tale Heart

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The Tell Tale Heart Summary

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“The Tell Tale Heart” is a short, but highly effective, horror story written by Edger Allen Poe and published in 1843. It is told from the first person point of view of a murderer who tries to convince the listener of his methodical sanity despite the otherworldly events that lead to his capture.

The narrator lives with an old man who possesses one filmy, pale blue, “vulture-like” eye that the narrator despises. It is unclear what relationship the two have, or if there are any other circumstances leading to the events. The narrator assures the listener that he harbored no hate for the man other than complete revulsion for the eye. He describes how the hatred of the eye grew so much he decided to murder the old man. He lays out his plan, insisting to the listener that his careful detail means that he could not possibly be insane.

For seven nights, he shines a thin ray of light through a crack in the door onto the man’s eye, but each time the eye is closed, and the narrator is unable to complete his plan. On the eighth night, the narrator’s hand slips and makes a noise, waking the old man. The narrator doesn’t draw back. After a few minutes, he opens the lantern and the sliver of light finds the eye open. He hears the man’s heart beating wildly from terror, and he strikes. He smothers the old man with a pillow.

Afterward, he dismembers the man and lays the pieces under the floorboards. When the police arrive, they claim that neighbors heard a scream, but the narrator insists that it was only he crying out from his nightmares. He is so sure they will never find evidence of his wrongdoing that he pulls up chairs and invites them to sit down directly over the spot where the old man is buried.

After a while, the narrator grows uncomfortable and feels a ringing in his ears. It grows louder and louder, and soon he is convinced that it is the heartbeat of the murdered man coming from under the floorboards. As the sound grows louder, the narrator becomes terrified of the wild beating of the heart. He is convinced that the officers not only hear the beating, but that they also know of his guilt. Finally, the narrator breaks down and confesses, telling the officers to tear up the floorboards so they can find the pieces of the old man.

The story begins “in medias res” or in the middle of a conversation already in progress, though we are unsure of the identity of the listener, and relies on the concept of an unreliable narrator. We do not know if the narrator is sane or not. His insistence that he is sane is undermined by the events of the story, and by his own admission that he suffers from a disease of nerve sensitivity.

It is also unclear if the narrator was imagining the sound of the heart. We don’t know if the sound was mistaken for a heart, or if he were hearing his own heart beating. It could also be purely his imagination. The uncertainty only heightens the fear and discomfort.

One of the major themes is that of guilt. The narrator is obsessed with committing the perfect crime, but his guilt ultimately leads to his destruction. The sound of the heart beating, or his perception that it is the man’s heart, leads him to confess when all evidence suggests that the officers were totally unaware of his guilt. Had he not let his nerves get the better of him, he might have gotten away with it completely.

The story examines the delicate balance of human nature. The narrator claims he is a sane man, but he is driven to an evil act by his discomfort and hatred for something so simple as a cloudy eye. Likewise, the narrator separates the old man himself, whom he claims to love and with whom he claims no grievance, from his evil eye.

Another theme is what pushes a person over to the dark side is different for each person, and it is difficult to know what small thing will finally do it. The narrator’s insistence that he is completely sane belies the fact that he committed such a ghastly crime against someone he claimed to love.

It is possible that Poe wished to illustrate that irrational fear could provoke this dark side. Others have suggested that the eye represents some kind of patriarchal supervision. Remove the eye, remove the consequences. However, the guilt of the author proves to be the most serious consequence of all and one that he cannot, in the end, escape.

The narrator is unable to escape punishment for his crime. He is caught because he is consumed by guilt. His confession leaves us unsure if the events are imagined or just misinterpreted. All we know is that despite the narrator’s insistence on his sanity, we are left with the aftermath of madness.