Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart"

When reading a story of this nature, one must be reminded not to take horror in Poe too autobiographically. The narrator's "nervousness" is a frequently used device of Poe to establish tone and plausibility through heightened states of consciousness. "The Tell-Tale Heart" was first published in James Russell Lowell's The Pioneer in January 1843, and it appeared again in The Broadway Journal on August 23, 1845.

- By Martha Womack

Martha Womack, better known to Internet users as Precisely Poe, has a BA degree in English from Longwood College in Virginia, and teaches English and Theatre Arts at Fuqua School in Farmville, Virginia. When Martha first began teaching American literature, she found so much conflicting information about Edgar Allan Poe that she became confused about what to teach her students. As she began to research the author's life and literature, Martha discovered that a horrible injustice had occurred, and she became determined, like many others, "to set the record straight." "This mission" has lead to ten years of research and the creation of her web site, Precisely Poe. Martha is proud and pleased to be a part of the Poe Decoder, a continual project to dispel the myth surrounding Poe, the man and his literature.
Click here to email Martha Womack.

  • Summary of the story
  • Setting
  • Characters
  • Point of View
  • Style and Interpretation
  • Theme
  • Related Information
  • Works Cited

  • Complete Text for The Tell-Tale Heart Available

  • Illustration is copyright © 1997 Christoffer Nilsson

    Other Viewpoints
    Printed publishing rights retained by the author, copyright pending. Internet publishing rights granted by the author to Christoffer Nilsson for use exclusively in Qrisse's Poe Pages. Any for-profit use of this material is expressly forbidden. Educational users and researchers must use proper documentation procedures, crediting both the publisher, Christoffer Nilsson and the author, Martha Womack.

    Summary of the story

    "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 heavens and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad?"
    "...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."
    It is impossible to say how the idea of murdering the old man first entered the mind of the narrator. There was no real motive as stated by the narrator: "Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me....For his gold I had no desire. I think that it was his eye!"
    The narrator states that one of the old man's eyes was a pale blue color with a film over it, which resembled the eye of a vulture. Just the sight of that eye made the narrator's blood run cold, and as a result, the eye (and with it the old man) must be destroyed.
    Every night at midnight, the narrator went to the old man's room. Carefully, he turned the latch to the door, and opened it without making a sound. When a sufficient opening had been made, a covered lantern was thrust inside. "I undid the lantern cautiously...(for the hindges 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...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."
    The old man suspected nothing. During the day, the narrator continued to perform his usual duties, and even dared to ask each morning how the old man had passed the night; however, at midnight, the nightly ritual continued.
    Upon the eighth night, the narrator proceeded to the old man's room as usual; however, on this night, something was different. "Never before that night had I felt the extent of my powers--of my sagacity....To think that 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...so I knew that he could not see the opening of the door....I had my head in, and was about to open the lantern, when my thumb slipped upon the tin fastening...the old man sprang up in bed, crying out--'Who's there?'"
    The narrator kept quiet, and did not move for an entire hour. The old man did not lie back down; he was sitting up. Even in that darkness, "I knew that he had been lying awake ever since the first slight noise....His fears had been ever since growing upon him. He had been trying to fancy them causeless, but could not."
    "When I had waited a long time, very patiently...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 a spider, shot from out the crevice and fell full upon the vulture eye."
    The eye was wide open. "I saw it with perfect distinctness--all a dull blue, with a hideous veil over it that chilled the very marrow in my bones....[N]othing else of the old man's face or person [could be seen]."
    "And now have I not told you that what you mistake for madness is but over-acuteness of the senses?" For at that moment, the narrator heard the sound such as a watch would make when it is enveloped in cotton. "I knew that sound well too. It was the beating of the old man's heart....It increased my fury....But even yet I refrained and kept still." The heartbeat grew "...quicker and quicker, and louder and louder every instant. The old man's terror must have been extreme."
    The time had come. "With a loud yell, I threw open the lantern and leaped into the room." The old man shrieked once. The narrator "...dragged him to the floor, and pulled the heavy bed over him." He did not die at once, but in a short time, the hideous heartbeat stopped; then the narrator removed the bed, and examined the body. "I placed my hand upon [his] heart and held it there many minutes. There was no pulsation. He was stone dead. His eye would trouble me no more."
    Next came the concealment of the body. The narrator dismembered the corpse by cutting off the head, the arms and the legs. Three planks were removed from the floor of the chamber to deposit the remains of what once had been a harmless, elderly man. The boards were replaced so carefully that no one would have been able to detect any wrong doing or foul play. There was no mess or blood stains to clean up; the narrator had cut up the body in a tub.
    It was 4 A.M. by the time this ghastly deed had been completed. A knocking was heard at the door, and when the narrator answered it, he found three men who quickly introduced themselves "...as officers of the police." They told the narrator that a neighbor had reported hearing a shriek in the night, and that they were there conducting an investigation to make sure that no foul play had occurred.
    "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." The narrator escorted the officers as they searched the premises. Nothing was disturbed; everything was in order, even in the old man's room. The narrator brought in chairs and insisted that the officers "...rest from their fatigues...." The narrator brought in another chair, and placed it upon "...the very spot beneath which reposed the corpse of the victim."
    They sat and chatted at ease, while the narrator pleasantly answered their questions. However, the narrator soon wished them to be gone. "...I felt myself getting pale....My head ached, and I fancied a ringing in my ears....The ringing became more distinct; I talked more freely to get rid of the feeling; but it continued...until, at length, I found that the noise was not within my ears....It was a low, dull, quick sound--much such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton."
    The narrator gasped for breath, and spoke "...more quickly--more vehemently." The sound steadily increased; yet the officers made no notice. The narrator "...arose and argued about trifles, in a high key and with violent gesticulations. Why would they not be gone? I paced the floor...with heavy strides....Oh, 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." Was it possible that the officers did not hear the sound ? "No, no! They heard!--they suspected!--they knew!--they were making a mockery of my horror!....I could bear those hypocritical smiles no longer! I felt that I must scream or die!" All the while the sound grew "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!"


    The story covers a period of approximately eight days with most of the important action occurring each night around midnight. The location is the home of an elderly man in which the narrator has become a caretaker.


    This story contains a nameless narrator, an old man and the police who enter near the end of the story after the mention, that they were called by a neighbor whose suspicions had been aroused upon hearing a scream in the night. The protagonist or narrator becomes the true focus of the tale. This narrator may be male or female because Poe uses only "I" and "me" in reference to this character. Most readers assume that the narrator is a male because of a male author using a first person point of view; however, this story can also be plausible when the derranged protagonist appears as a woman. Most critics would argue this point by saying that Poe would "assume" that the reader would "know" that the protagonist was male, therefore, he would see no need to identify his sexless narrator. However, Poe was a perfectionist who left very little to guesswork. Could it be that this was no accident or something that he thought would be universally understood, but that Poe was creating a story whose impact could be changed simply by imagining this horrendous and vile deed being committed by a woman?

    Point of View

    Poe writes this story from the perspective of the murderer of the old man. When an author creates a situation where the protagonist tells a personal account, the overall impact of the story is heightened. The narrator, in this particular story, adds to the overall effect of horror by continually stressing to the reader that he or she is not mad, and tries to convince us of that fact by how carefully this brutal crime was planned and executed.

    Style and Interpretation

    Poe's story is a case of domestic violence that occurs as the result of an irrational fear. To the narrator that fear is represented by the old man's eye. Through the narrator, Poe describes this eye as being pale blue with a film over it, and resembling that of a vulture. Does the narrator have any reason to fear the old man or his eye? Is it this phobia that evokes the dark side, and eventually drives the narrator to madness? Or could Poe be referring to a belief whose origins could be traced back to Greece and Rome?
    The belief in the evil eye dates back to ancient times, and even today, is fairly common in India and the countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea. References are made to it in Jewish, Islamic, Buddist and Hindu faiths. The belief centers around the idea that those who possess the evil eye have the power to harm people or their possessions by merely looking at them. Wherever this belief exists, it is common to assign the evil eye as the cause of unexplainable illnesses and misfortunes of any kind.
    To protect oneself from the power of the eye, certain measures can be taken. In Muslim areas, the color blue is painted on the shutters of the houses, and found on beads worn by both children and animals. There is also a specific hand gesture named the "Hand of Fatima," named after the daughter of Mohammed. This name is also given to an amulet in the shape of hand that is worn around the neck for protection. In some locations, certain phrases, such as " as God will" or "God bless it" are uttered to protect the individual from harm. In extreme cases, the eye, whether voluntarily or not, must be destroyed. One Slavic folktale relates the story of the father who blinded himself for fear of harming his own children with his evil eye.
    Would Poe have had knowledge of this rather strange belief? It is altogether possible that he would have, which creates another interesting twist to this story. Maybe the narrator who tries to convince us that madness is not really the issue, is telling the truth. Maybe this vile act is necessary in order to destroy the power of the old man's evil eye!


    Human nature is a delicate balance of light and dark or good and evil. Most of the time this precarious balance is maintained; however, when there is a shift, for whatever reason, the dark or perverse side surfaces. How and why this "dark side" emerges differs from person to person. What may push one individual "over the edge" will only cause a raised eyebrow in another. In this case, it is the "vulture eye" of the old man that makes the narrator's blood run cold. It is this irrational fear which evokes the dark side, and eventually leads to murder. The narrator plans, executes and conceals the crime; however, "[w]hat has been hidden within the self will not stay concealed...." (Silverman 208) The narrator speaks of an illness that has heightened the senses: "Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heavens and in the earth. I heard many things in hell." The narrator repeatedly insists that he(she) is not mad; however the reader soon realizes that the fear of the vulture eye has consumed the narrator, who has now become a victim to the madness which he had hoped to elude.

    Martha Womack

    Related Information

  • Critical Essay by Erica Duncan

  • The Poe Decoder Qrisse's Edgar Allan Poe Pages

    Works Cited

    • Bourguignon, Erika. "evil eye." The Americana Encyclopedia. 1993 edition.

    • Counterpoint in Literature. Glenview, Illinois: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1976.

    • Levine, Stuart and Susan, editors. The Short Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe: An Annotated Edition. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1990.

    • Silverman, Kenneth. Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-Ending Remembrance. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1991.