The tell-tale heart door Edgar Allan Poe

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Boekcover The tell-tale heart
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  • 5 april 2022
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Boekcover The tell-tale heart
The tell-tale heart door Edgar Allan Poe
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Factual information about the book

Title: The Tell-Tale Heart
Author: Edgar Allan Poe
First published in: 1843
Genres: horror, gothic literature


Disclaimer: The gender of the narrator is not mentioned in the story. For the sake of simplicity, I am going to assume the narrator is male.

The unnamed narrator starts off by trying to convince the reader that he is, in fact, not crazy. He does admit to being a very nervous person, however, he claims that this only sharpened his senses— not destroyed — not dulled them. He is going to tell the story of how he murdered an old man because of his eye. This old man lived in the same apartment as the narrator. This man never hurt him in any way, and the narrator was actually quite fond of him. However, the man had a clouded, blue "vulture-like" eye, which the narrator feared and hated.

This is why the narrator plots to murder this man. The narrator once again tries to convince the reader he is sane by saying that someone insane would not plan out such a precise, well-measured plan. The narrator secretly shows up to the old man’s bedside at night, holding a lantern. He does this seven days in a row, watching him sleep in the light of the lantern. But his vulture-like eye is always closed, which prevents the narrator from murdering him somehow. At daytime, the narrator pretends nothing happened and stays kind to the man.

On the eighth day, the narrator decides that he will murder the man tonight. He chuckles at the idea. On the eight night, the old man wakes up after the narrator makes a noise with his lantern. The old man feels a presence in his room and asks who’s there, but the narrator remains quiet. The room is pitch black, since the blinds are closed. The man becomes scared and the narrator hears a dull, pounding sound, which he interprets as the man’s heartbeat. The narrator opened his lantern, and the vulture-like eye gets exposed. Worried that the neighbours might hear the old man’s heart pounding because it is so loud, the narrator decides that now is a good time to kill the man.

He pulls the old man off his bed and smothers him with the mattress until he does not hear his heart pounding anymore. The narrator dismembers his body, making sure not a single drop of blood touches the floor. He removes the planks from the floor of the old man’s room and hides all the body parts there. Just after he is done, the police knock on his door because the neighbours thought they heard the old man scream.

The narrator is confident the police will not catch him and talks to them in a pleasant, easy manner. He tells the officers that the old man is out of town visiting a friend and that he screamed after having a nightmare. He lets the police do a house search, but they do not find anything. They sit down at the very place the man was hidden, but the police do not suspect a thing. However, the narrator starts getting uncomfortable, since the officers will not leave and he hears a strange ringing in his ears.

The sound grows louder, and the narrator realises it is a ticking noise. He continues to speak to the police officers, but the sound gets louder and louder. The police officers do not seem to hear anything. The narrator becomes convinced that it is the heart of the old man beating and becomes terrified. The narrator is convinced that the police officers hear it too, and that they are just trying to mock him by continuing their friendly chatter. Then, the narrator cannot take it any longer and confesses to the murder. He tells the officers to rip open the floorboards to find the body of the old man.


The narrator (round character): The narrator is both the protagonist and villain of the story. Even though he remains unnamed and ungendered, and the reader does not get to know much about the narrator, he is still considered a round character because of the changes he goes through throughout the story. In the beginning, he is calm and collected, looking forward to killing the old man. At the end of the story, the sound of the alleged heartbeat of the man drives him crazy, which leads to him being restless and paranoid. What does stay the same throughout the story, is the narrator’s over-sensitivity. From the beginning to end, he insists he has a disease that sharpens his senses, especially his hearing, but also his vision. His over-sensitivity is what makes the narrator hate the man’s blue eye so much. The narrator spends the whole story trying to convince the reader he is sane, instead of feeling remorse over his actions. This makes the reader believe he is not actually sane even more (see ‘Theme’).

The old man (flat character): The reader knows even less about the old man. He seems to be a rich, older man, but his relationship with the narrator remains unclear. They must have a close relationship though, since the narrator can easily access his room, and has friendly talks with him every day. The old man could be a family member, but the narrator could also be his servant, tenant or caretaker. Anyhow, his blue, vulture-like eye seems to be the only part of him that is relevant to the story, since more about him is not mentioned.


‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ is written chronologically. The time that this story covers is around eight days: the protagonist visits the old man for seven days, and kills him on the eighth night. He spends the eighth day dismembering and hiding the body until shortly before 4 AM, when the police officers show up at his house. The story is written in past tense since it is told in retrospect. There are no flashforwards or flashbacks used. There are time jumps of several hours, since only the night of the first seven days is described. Time acceleration and delay are also used, since the first seven days are described swiftly and the last night and morning are described in detail.
The story consists of four pages.

Physical setting

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There are two main settings: the house the narrator shares with the old man where the murder takes place and the place from which the narrator tells his story, maybe a prison or an asylum for the criminally insane.

The story itself takes place in one building; the apartment of the old man and the narrator. The most important place of the story is the old man’s room, since this is where the narrator spends most of his nights, and where he ends up murdering the man. It’s a small room, that gets pitch black at night because of its light-blocking blinds. This room fits the dark, gloomy setting of the story, making it a perfect place to build up suspense. (See chapter ‘Confinement’).

It is possible that the story is narrated from an interrogation room, jail cell or asylum, as it is clear that the events have already happened and that the narrator has confessed to the murder. The narrator might not be trying to convince the reader that he is sane, but the officer interrogating him or one of his roommates in prison/an asylum.

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Writing style

The style of the story matches the character of the narrator, because of its heavy use of exclamation points, dashes, question marks, that shows his disoriented point of view and his desperation to convince the reader he is sane. Short sentences are used, which makes the reader want to know more. There is emphasis placed on words that are important to the story to draw attention. The story is written suspensefully and visually, while using a wide range of words to describe what is happening. It is written hyperbolically for the maximization of suspense.

“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.”


The story is written from first-person narrative, with the unidentified narrator being the first person. The narrator faces the reader directly, trying to prove his sanity to them. The narrator is considered unreliable because of he is paranoid and delusional, and confused about what he feels and thinks. Therefore, it is unclear whether the things he says are actually true or not. The choice of first-person narrative is good for this story because it allows the reader to get inside the head of the narrator, knowing exactly what he thinks and feels.


Themes of the book

The main theme of the story is madness. It is easily concluded that the narrator of ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ is not sane. He murders an innocent old man he loves because he has a blue, vulture-like eye, which of course is not a sufficient reason. His claims of not being crazy only make him more of a madman to the reader, since a sane person does not feel the need to convince someone they’re sane. Yes, the narrator plotted the murder with ultimate precision and accuracy, but that does not prove he is sane. Killing an innocent man, chuckling at the idea of it, is insane.

Other abstract motifs are:

  • Delusion and hypersensitivity. Not only is the narrator insane, but one could also argue that he is delusional, since he hears and sees things that are not there; such as the heartbeat. However, like the narrator himself says, it can also just be ‘nervousness’; oversensitivity to, for example, his own heartbeat. So, it is unclear whether the narrator actually sees and hears things that are not there, or that his mind amplifies existing sounds and visions.
  • The narrator is also suffering from paranoia, especially in the end of the story. The reader might think he is paranoid at the beginning, by how obsessed he is by hiding the body and cleaning, but his paranoia seems to be justified when the police does actually show up at his doorstep. However, at the end of the story, when the narrator is hearing the supposed heartbeat of the old man, his paranoia is unjustified. The officers are simply talking to him, not hearing anything unusual, but the narrator insists that they do hear it and that they are mocking him.
  • This paranoia might be caused by guilt. While the narrator keeps trying to convince the reader that his reason for killing him is justified, once the police came by, he might have finally realized what he had done and started doubting himself. He keeps trying to convince the reader he is sane because he needs the listener to validate his actions or free him from the guilt he carries. The sound of the heart beating beneath the floorboards also represents the narrator's guilt.
  • The most important event of the story is the death, the murder, the essentially motiveless murder, of the old man. It shows the events leading up to his death, the death itself, and the consequences of his death. Therefore, death is an important part of the story.
  • The scene where the narrator is very intense and suspenseful primarily because of how confinement was used to build up suspense. Would this scene have played out in the living room, then it would not have been as intense, since would be many things that could go wrong; the old man could try to escape, for example. But no, it takes place in his small bedroom, with the blinds closed. It is pitch black, and the narrator is in front of the only door; the old man is defenceless. The room is also representative for the state of mind the narrator is in; just like the old man cannot see his surroundings, the narrator cannot ‘see’ his thoughts, he cannot think clearly anymore.

Two leitmotifs of the story are:

  • The motif of the heartbeat runs through the story like a thread. When the narrator is alone with the old man, the narrator knows the old man is scared, and thinks he can hear his heart beating. However, this could have also been the narrator’s heartbeat, since it was a quite nervous moment; this is more likely. Then, when the narrator is smothering the old man with the mattress, he waits until his heartbeat stops. Then, at the end, he thinks he hears the heartbeat of the old man again and freaks out. However, this could once again be his own heartbeat, since your heart tends to beat faster when you are nervous. Your own heartbeat is also much easier to hear than one of someone else. So, in the end, the heartbeat is his own heartbeat, which he interprets as that of the old man, because of his guilt of murdering him.
  • The old man’s eye. The most important feature of the old man is his eye, which the narrator thinks looks like a vulture. The narrator fears his eye, thinking it is evil, which is his sole reason for murdering him. He does not even want to murder the old man himself, he just wants to close his eye forever. Therefore, the eye stands for evil and death.

The title of the story is ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’. This is about the most important phenomenon of the story, the heartbeat the narrator hears. ‘Tell-tale’ (verradelijk) means revealing something or exposing something. Because of the heart that the narrator was hearing, he confessed to the murder; he revealed his crime. Therefore, the heart was tell-tale for the crime the narrator committed.

Romantic themes

This story is written in 1843, during the Romantic era. This literary work is a good example of dark Romanticism, a literary subgenre of Romanticism, for multiple reasons.

  • (Supernatural) horror genre. Horror, especially the supernatural horror genre, was very popular among the dark Romantics. While the modern reader might easily think that the heartbeat the narrator hears is his own, and therefore the story is not supernatural, nobody around that time ruled out the possibility of some kind of higher power making the narrator hear the heartbeat.
  • Mental instability. During the Romantic era, people focused primarily on emotions and the human spirit. However, this also meant that the dark side of the human spirit came to light. So, a common theme amongst dark Romantics where irrationality and insanity, especially of the protagonist, just like in ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’.
  • Grotesque was very popular with the Romantic horror genre, which we can see in ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’. The way the eye of the old man is described, and the way the dismembering of his body is described, is very grotesque, very hideous.
  • Unknown setting, time and characterization. This story is not the only piece of Romantic literature that does not identify the place, the time or the characters of the story. This technique was often used in the Romantic era to let the reader focus on the premise of the story only; so that the reader would not be distracted by their contemporary ideas.
  • Bizarre subjects. Many dark Romantics despised literature about something mundane, something common. They thought literature should be about something that the reader would not encounter in their own life. This was also the viewpoint of Poe, whose subject matter often dealt with living corpses, frightening experiences, horrors and other situations the reader has never imagined before.


Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) was an American writer, poet, editor, and literary critic. He was born as a child of two actors, but his father abandoned his family in 1810 and his mother died in 1811. He was taken in by another couple, who never formally adopted him but raised him throughout his youth. Later, troubles arised with his adoptive father because of Poe’s debts and the cost of his education. He attended the University of Virginia but left after a year because he did not have the money to attend anymore. In 1827, he enlisted in the United State Army. Around this time, he anonymously published his first book. He was temporarily on good terms with his adoptive father after his adoptive mother died, but they eventually parted ways. Poe later failed as officer cadet, wanting to be a poet and writer.

Poe began writing for literary magazines and periodicals, and became known for his own style of literary criticism. ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ was one of those works of periodical literature. In 1836, at age 27, Poe married his 13-year-old cousin. She passed away from tuberculosis eleven years later. They did not conceive any children. In 1845, Poe published his successful poem "The Raven”. He planned for years to produce his own journal, but before it could be produced, he passed away in 1849, at age 40. His cause of death is unknown.


This was the one of the only older literature works that I actually knew about before choosing it for my literature list. I thought the premise was interesting. It is not a genre I would normally read, since I do not read horror, but this story was an exception. While I liked that it was short so that I did not have to spend a lot of time reading it, I would not have minded if it was a little longer. I would have liked it if they would have given some context to the story, I feel like that would have made the story more interesting. However, this story was easy to read and interesting, which makes it one of my favourite literary works on my literature list.



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