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Themes

Professor Regina Buccola of Roosevelt University explains the themes in Edgar Allan Poe's short story The Tell-Tale Heart.

The Tell-Tale Heart | Themes

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Mental Health

Though the narrator clearly and repeatedly insists he is sane, his actions, motivations, and words all demonstrate that he is not. Before killing the old man the narrator signals his mental imbalance by sneaking into the old man's room seven nights in a row at exactly the same time. Moreover, his lack of any actual motivation for his murderous animosity toward the old man, and the apparent delight he takes in executing his plan, point to his extreme emotional derangement.

However, the coherence of the narrative voice pulls the reader toward the opposite conclusion. The diction is intelligent and demonstrates thoughtfulness and insight. Until the explosive final line ("'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 narrator seems to have complete control of what he does and says. He shows awareness of his own psyche, and he shows empathy even when he's about to kill the old man. On the eighth night he sneaks into the old man's room, recognizes the old man's moan as the "stifled sound that arises from the bottom of the soul when overcharged with awe," and says he "knew the sound well."

Just as many people have attempted to diagnose Poe across the decades, many critics have attempted to pin down just what to call this narrator's condition. The entry in the Encyclopedia of Gothic Literature calls him egocentric, "psychotic and sadomasochistic." Some have labeled him "hysterical," while others have stopped at the more general labels of neurotic and obsessive.

Guilt

The narrator doesn't express outright guilt for much of the story. At first after the crime he says he is relaxed and has nothing to fear, but he then "hears" the beating heart of the man he just killed. Here the double meaning of Poe's title comes into play: the narrator thinks he hears the heart of the old man, telling the tale of his guilt, but what he really hears is his own heart, pounding with guilt. His actions in the last five paragraphs of the story further suggest guilt, and then he confesses in the last line.

Confinement

The confined setting of the story serves to heighten its drama and emotion. Though the police enter the house from the outside, the narrator literally never leaves the house (or does not mention leaving it). He is also confined with the old man, first at close quarters with the living man, unable to escape the man's eye, and then in the man's completely black chamber. Finally the narrator is contained within a room where every noise magnifies his guilt, until he snaps and confesses. He makes the site of his greatest triumph into a kind of prison cell. An argument could also be made that the narrator is trapped within his own psyche and so can never escape. In this he is like the dead man's pounding heart, which is confined first within the old man's body and then in its hiding place under the floorboards.

Tension and Time

Poe uses the marking of the passage of time to increase tension. The narrator first counts the days and marks the time at which he sneaks into the old man's room. The repeated days and the fact that he makes a point of always sneaking in at midnight builds expectation.

Poe also uses small and specific details to build tension. On the eighth night when the narrator enters the old man's room, he recognizes the old man is sitting up in bed listening and mentions that he has done the same, listening to "death watches in the wall." This is a reference to insects called deathwatch beetles that make a regular clicking sound. During the period when Poe was writing, people thought hearing these insects meant someone in the house would die soon. The beetles' sounds also heighten the story's sense of the supernatural: since the narrator heard these sounds for some time it suggests that he is just acting out the old man's fate. Poe builds on this reference in the following paragraphs, first by having the old man groan and then by explicitly stating Death had entered the room. Deathwatch beetles also bore into wood; they penetrate places that should be solid, much like the narrator penetrates the boundaries of the old man's bedroom.

Poe builds on this anticipation by introducing the sound of the old man's heart. First this just seems to be evidence of the narrator's overly acute senses, but then the heartbeat gets faster and louder, carrying the narrator with it until he kills the old man.

Once he's killed and dismembered the old man, the house is silent for a time. When the police arrive, though, the narrator once again hears and then feels a more powerful clock ticking: the beating heart of the dead man. As the living heart carried him from stillness to murder, the beating of the dead heart carries the narrator into screaming self-incrimination.

Questions for Themes

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