The Tell Heart is one of the shortest stories by Poe. However, it still offers a profound examination of a paranoid’s mind.
The story opens with a narrator trying to defend his mental stability, nervously claiming that he has been very ill but not completely lost control of his mind. The narrator describes a horrific event involving him and an old man. His paranoia becomes implicit after reading a few paragraphs as he claims that he has been hearing sounds of various kinds. He hears sounds from heaven and hell. He claims his illness has not affected his mind but instead only made his senses stronger. His hearing is especially stronger since he fell ill and he is receiving the noises from heaven and hell. The underlying truth is that he is lying all the time even to himself and seeking to hide his fear and hatred of the old man.
The narrator feels that he has a healthy mind but he is having abnormal experiences that make him think and behave absurdly. He narrates everything in a manner like his sanity is being tested. It does not become clear what he is trying to prove but he is clearly paranoid which is evident from how he keeps sneaking into the old man’s room for several days at midnight before finally killing him.
He acknowledges that he does not hate the old man. It is instead only his eyes that appear like a vulture and make him shiver out of fear. The narrator describes the old man’s pale eyes in detail and how they filled him with horror each time he saw them. His pale eyes were like those birds of prey that tear carcasses with their beaks. Perhaps the narrator was so afraid of the old man’s eyes that he felt like a carcass whenever he saw them.
He tries his best to hide his hatred for the old man and even claims in the initial paragraphs that he loved him but the old man’s pale eyes filled him with horror and dislike. It is clear that the narrator is not a normal person. A normal person would not try to sneak into someone’s room and watch him every midnight. He does not want the old man’s wealth or anything else from him. The narrator does not seek revenge either because the old man has not wronged him and there is no personal enmity between the two. However, if he wants to kill him it is because he wants to get rid of the fear of his eyes.
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The narrator wants the readers to believe that he is not insane. It is because insane people cannot plan while he had made a wonderful murder plan. He has kept all the precaution so he does not wake his victim up and is able to safely carry out his heinous plan. Poe uses the elements of contradiction and conflict in the story beautifully to strengthen the suspense. At various points, the narrator’s arguments contradict his claim about his sanity. Before he finally killed the old man, the narrator had remained friendly to him for a week. Every night he would go to the old man’s room and peep in without waking the poor creature up. On the night of the murder, the narrator carried a light with him and kept it covered with a cloth so light did not fall on the old man’s eyes and he did not wake up.
The narrator tries to appear innocent and meek and his style of narration makes it clear that he is a hideous creature trying to disguise his real emotions. He tries to twist the story in a manner that he can safely lay the entire blame on the old man and his vulture like eyes. The narrator cannot remember how the idea first entered his mind and only that it grew so unbearable for him that he finally decided to kill the old man and shut his eyes down forever.
He contradicts himself when he claims that he is capable of planning unlike an insane man. At the same time, he is also trying to defend himself by claiming it was not a barbaric act of murdering a helpless old man. He instead tries to claim that he is helpless and unless he kills the old man, those pale eyes could turn him insane.
The narrator leaves the old man terrorized on the night of the murder. As he tries to sneak into the old man’s room, the old man wakes up and sits in his bed. He asks who is there and gets no response. The old man does not go back to sleeping as he can sense someone standing at the door.
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“He did not see me there. He could not hear me there. He felt me there. Now he knew that Death was standing there.”
The narrator did not abandon his plan and waited for an hour at the door. He stood still while the old man sat motionless in his bed unable to speak feeling terrorized, waiting for that invisible death at the door to come to him and finish its work. Perhaps the narrator was enjoying the old man’s fear while waiting at the door. However, he does not buzz for an hour and at last enters the room having decided he will finish the job tonight.
An hour had passed waiting at the door and the narrator could not wait any longer. He removes the cloth from the light so that a single ray of light falls upon the old man. The only thing the narrator sees are the eyes of the old man which freezes his blood. The narrator could hear the old man’s heart beating hard. It is not clear if it was the old man’s heart or if the narrator heard the beating of his own heart. However, he believes his hearing had grown stronger and he could hear his victim’s heart thumping. As the sound grew louder, the narrator’s anger became difficult to control. It kept growing stronger with the noise of the beating heart.
The noise had grown just so loud that the narrator grew afraid someone would hear it. Unable to control his fear and anger, he rushed into the room and crying “die, die” pounced on the old man and held the bedcovers tight over his head. While he was trying to suffocate the old man, he smiled to himself thinking he would soon be successful at killing the old man. The old man’s body had become motionless and to make sure he was dead, the narrator brought his ear close to the old man’s heart. It had stopped beating. He was cold as stone and his vulture like eyes were shut forever.
However, this was just a part of the story. To prove how clever he is, the narrator tells the rest of the story and how he buried the old man’s body. This is the more barbaric part of the story. First, the narrator cut off his head and then his arms and legs without letting a drop of blood fall on the floor. He buried it under three planks that formed the floor of the room and then put them back in a manner that nobody knew they had been moved.
At around four in the morning, the narrator heard someone knocking at the door and went to open it. There were three police officers. The old man had cried out aloud as the narrator had pounced on him and a neighbor had heard his cry. He had informed the police. The narrator was calm and invited the policemen into the house.
He told them he was having a nightmare and cried and that the old man was away to visit a friend. He took them in and allowed them to search the entire house. Finally, he took them to the old man’s room where they sat and talked. The narrator was confident that his plan was foolproof and the police would not discover the reality. They sat right where the body was buried. The policemen talked to him in a friendly manner and the narrator also responded courteously.
However, suddenly his mood changed and he started talking louder. He talked loudly to suppress the noise inside his head. It was the noise of a beating heart and it kept growing louder and then unbearable. He pushed his chair across the room but the noise was not suppressed. The policemen were still there and their faces betrayed no anger or hostility. The narrator became certain that they too heard the noise and they were playing games with him. Their smiles doubled his suffering and unable to bear it, the narrator confessed to having committed the old man’s murder and pointed to the place where he had buried the body.
The story begins unexpectedly at a point where a person is trying to claim that he is not insane and despite being the perpetrator of a horrible crime, he is not guilty. The strong suspense makes the story interesting and engaging. While the old man has vulture like eyes, it is the narrator who is the real beast and kills a helpless old man in a way only a beast would.
The poet has used two strong symbols in the story which include the old man’s eyes and the heart. The eyes symbolize death and helplessness. While those eyes can watch the narrator and are his main motivation to kill the old man, they also symbolize the truth. The truth cannot be hidden and at last it pours out. On the other hand, the heart is related to emotions and shows that while the killer can control his thoughts trying to appear sane, he cannot control his emotions and that’s why the story is titled the tell tale heart. The narrator’s heart is beating harder and he cannot control it. At last, unable to bear the anxiety, he confesses his crime to avoid an overwhelming guilt and pressure that could have burst his head. Other minor symbols in the story include the watch, the house and the light.