The Tell-Tale Heart | Study Guide

Edgar Allan Poe

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The Tell-Tale Heart | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart," published in 1843, is a dark story of madness and murder. Perhaps Poe's most well-known short story, it portrays a mentally troubled man who, tormented by the unsettling eye of his employer, murders him and hides his body under the floorboards. The story incorporates elements of hallucination, paranoia, and the uncanny (eerily supernatural), all while the narrator demands to be viewed as sane and reasonable. With its disturbing depiction of a character's psychosis, "The Tell-Tale Heart" is memorable as an iconic work of American Gothic fiction and as a cornerstone of the horror genre.

1. "The Tell-Tale Heart" was influenced by the creation of the legal "insanity plea."

In 1835 the legal definition of insanity was changed to allow the insanity plea to be more widely used in murder defense cases. This change included the creation of the notion of "moral insanity," a vaguely defined condition from which Poe's protagonist seems to suffer.

2. Some scholars believe Poe's narrator in "The Tell-Tale Heart" may have been schizophrenic.

The narrator's tendency to hear things that aren't really there, constant moodiness and paranoia, and proclivity for unprovoked violence have led some scholars to concur that he (or she) was likely written as suffering from the mental illness schizophrenia.

3. Critics disagree about the narrator's gender in "The Tell-Tale Heart."

Although the story has traditionally been read as having a male narrator, some critics have taken issue with this reading, especially given that Poe includes no gender-specific pronouns. While male narrators were the norm at the time "The Tell-Tale Heart" was written, it was also a common belief that women were irrational and prone to emotional outbursts at this time, traits that Poe's narrator clearly embodies.

4. It's unclear to whom the narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart" is speaking.

Along with the mystery of the narrator's gender, Poe does not specify whom the narrator is addressing. Critics speculate the story could be a disclosure to a judge or prison warden, a doctor, or a newspaper reporter documenting the murder. The literary biographer Kenneth Silverman noted, "The very indefiniteness makes it easy for the reader to imagine that the killer is speaking directly to him or her."

5. The first word of "The Tell-Tale Heart" is an admission of the narrator's guilt.

Poe begins his story with the narrator exclaiming "True!" This initial statement can be read as the narrator's confession to the murder that the story goes on to explain in detail. In the context of the story the narrator's exclamation is an affirmation of his nervousness; but in a larger sense the declaration can be seen as a symbolic admission of guilt.

6. Henry David Thoreau wrote about the same beetles Poe incorporated in "The Tell-Tale Heart."

The Deathwatch beetles that appear in "The Tell-Tale Heart" may, in fact, be responsible for the noises that torment the narrator. These beetles often lived in the walls of old wooden houses and were viewed as a bad omen. The species' name derives from the fact that family members sitting "on watch" over a dying relative would often hear the beetles in the walls, just as Poe's protagonist does. The naturalist and philosopher Henry David Thoreau wrote a study of these beetles in his essay "Natural History of Massachusetts."

7. "The Tell-Tale Heart" was first published in a short-lived magazine.

"The Tell-Tale Heart" first appeared in The Pioneer, a magazine that has been described as "ambitious but short-lived." The publication last only three issues because the editor quickly grew ill, and the publishers found themselves in a tremendous amount of debt.

8. Poe was in a feud with the author of the story's epigraph.

"The Tell-Tale Heart" was preceded by a quotation from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem "A Psalm of Life." Poe believed that Longfellow's poetry was derivative and uninspired, and his criticism led to a lasting bitterness between the two that scholars refer to as the "Longfellow War." Poe even went so far as to publish an essay entitled "Mr. Longfellow and Other Plagiarists."

9. Some critics believe the narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart" is actually the old man's son.

Although the narrator is not specified to have any particular relation to the old man with the evil eye, the literary critic Harold Bloom proposes that the two may actually be related. Poe's narrator declares that, in terms of a motive for the murder, "Object there was none. Passion there was none." However he goes on to note, "I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult." This line, in particular, seems to establish a history between Poe's two nameless characters.

10. Poe purposely got himself kicked out of a military academy.

After defaulting on student loans, Poe went into military service to avoid arrest. He ended up at West Point, where he committed a variety of infractions intentionally to get out of military service. The West Point records do not specify what all these infractions were, but part of the reason for Poe's disobedience was to upset his foster father, with whom he had an estranged relationship. After accumulating more than 200 demerits and offenses, Poe was court-martialed for "gross neglect of duty."

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