This story by Edgar Allan Poe, is a psychological story. It is an ambiguous investigation of a man’s paranoia. The story shows how the narrator stalks his victim as if he was an intelligent animal. There are times when Poe shows us that his character is worse than a beast as when he tortures the old man and slowly kills him. What makes the story more shocking is that the narrator tries to justify his actions, until he is finally caught.
The story begins with the narrator admitting that he is a very nervous person, whose senses are sharpened as a result of this nervousness. He can hear the smallest sounds even from heaven, hell and earth that normal people cannot hear. It is this over sensitivity that plays an important role in the story. Though he suffers from paranoia, he tells us that he is not mad. His actions on the other hand, prove otherwise. For example- the reason for which he wishes to kill the old man itself is stupid- he wants to kill him because he has a ‘vulture-like blue eye’ that scares him. Although he loves the old man as a person, he is obsessed with his eye, and is always planning out ways to kill him.
This whole plan to murder someone because of an eye shows us, that he is indeed mad. But the narrator goes on to say that one must not call this obsession madness, but rather, they must look at how wisely, and cleverly he plans the whole deed. Every night at twelve o’clock for 7 days, he would slowly open the door gently, and quietly enter the room. Because he is so careful, he sometimes takes up to an hour to go in. After that he would slowly open the lantern and let the light fall on the man’s face. But so far, when the light fell on his face, the eye was closed. So he let him live and pretended to continue their friendship as if nothing had happened.
On the eighth night, however, there is a change. When the narrator opens the lantern, he makes a sound that wakes up the old man. Because of the darkness, the old man cannot see anyone in the room. Though he sees that no one moves, he cannot go back to sleep. He has become like the narrator, paranoid, and seems to hear every little sound. As the old man lies awake, the narrator decides it is time to check once again, and so he comes out of the dark, and opens the lantern. The light falls on the man’s ‘vulture-eye’, and this makes him angry ad violent. In this state of madness he can hear the sound of a beating heart. It is here that we have our first ambiguity about ‘whose heart does he hear?’ It is a well known fact that in moments of stress and fear one’s own heartbeat increases so rapidly that we feel every beat. So, does the narrator hear his own heart beat or the old man’s?
As he waits, the heartbeat seems to become louder. Afraid that this sound will wake the neighbours the narrator drags the old man to the floor and suffocates him with the mattress. When he is dead, he narrator is happy that the eye will not torment him anymore. He cuts up the body into pieces and hides it under the floor boards of the room itself. As he does this he is very happy. He has succeeded.
But just as he finished his work the door bell rings at 4 A.M. The police were there to investigate some noises that the neighbours heard coming from the house. The narrator lets them in, completely sure that they cannot suspect him as he has not left any evidence. He even leads them to the old man’s room, in a fit of madness, and asks them to sit there and have a drink with him.
But all the time, the narrator can hear the beating sound of a heart, growing louder and louder in his ears. He wonders how the policemen cannot hear anything- and if they are only pretending they cannot hear it. He becomes more and more paranoid, and his common sense too leaves him. Eventually the guilt of what he had done, makes him shout out that he killed the old man and buried his body parts in the room.
The story is a study of character. But it is also a story of horror and suspense. The actions and the images used are scary and are meant to evoke horror. This kind of story is of the genre called Gothic, a style of writing that was very famous during the 18th and 19th centuries. Poe is one of the most famous Gothic story writers. Gothic writing is characterised by concepts like darkness, death and dying, alienation and isolation, madness, violence, horror and inhumanity in the behaviour of one person toward another or within an individual himself. In Tell Tale Heart, the narrator is the character whose actions are a representation of these concepts. ‘Darkness’ is both literal (the room is dark when the killing happens) and metaphorical ( his mind is full of darkness/evil). It is in darkness that the narrator kills the old man, using such violent means (suffocation) bringing into the story the concept of Death and Dying.
Alienation and isolation too have both literal and symbolic meanings – the two men are both alone in their home; they are separated from society because the man is old, and the narrator has mental issues. The most important element of the Gothic though, is the element of violence, horror and inhumanity. The narrator first plays with the old man (inhumanity), arouses his fear and paranoia, and only then kills him using the most violent of means – suffocation. To make matters worse, he laughs while cutting up the body and burying it in the same room. But, according to Poe, all these actions are the result of madness and psychotic behaviour. This behaviour makes the narrator dangerous as his thoughts and his actions are unpredictable and without sense.
Yet he is a character with a guilty conscience that shows itself in his hearing of the beating heart- not that of the old man, but his own, telling us that he feels excited to kill the old man, but is also guilty. It forces him to confess to betray his own actions to the police.