Dissecting ‘The Tell Tale Heart’ by Edgar Allan Poe

It all began with Edgar Allan Poe, the American grandfather of Gothic literature, who was born on this day (January 19th) in 1809. What I mean is that it all began for me; my interest in the Gothic started somewhere around the age of 7 or 8 when I happened to select “The Tell Tale Heart” from our family bathroom bookcase.

In honour of Poe’s birthday, I present you with my spoiler-filled dissection of “The Tell Tale Heart”. If you are unfamiliar with the 1843 short story, I suggest you read it first! You can pick up a copy super cheaply by clicking here. (Where available for purchase, I’ll hyperlink all book titles so you can geek out too.)

“Poe aimed to puzzle his readers.”

Benfey, Christopher. ‘Poe and the Undreadable: “The Black Cat” and “The Tell Tale Heart”, in ed. Kenneth Silverman, New Essays on Poe’s Major Tales (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993) p.27

I started my research by reading an essay entitled ‘Poe and the Unreadable’, by Christopher Benfey – a contemporary American literary critic. He suggests that Poe’s aim is to puzzle his readers, commencing or concluding each tale with an invitation, for the reader, to decipher the events. Although interpretation, or “deciphering” is commonly reserved for literary academics, students and critics, I feel that Poe encourages this of all of his readers, more actively, perhaps than other authors. The disjointed, opening sentence of ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’, for example, commences with the question: “but why will you say that I am mad?”

Although it’s entirely possible that this is a narrative framework – the implied inclusion of a backstage character, perhaps an investigator or medical professional, which gives the narrator cause to recount the events – personally, I read it as a direct engagement with the reader. To me, the italicising of the word ‘will’ demonstrates the narrator’s assumption that we immediately accept him as a madman. Overtly discouraging the reader from deciding for themselves, by stating an opinion for us, may be read as an attempt at reverse psychology. As a particularly stubborn reader, I resented being told what to think and was motivated to read on, to come to my own, informed conclusion, thus falling prey to the trap.

In the second paragraph the narrator explains his reason for the murder; he exclaims: “I think it was his eye! Yes, it was this!” The exclamation marks suggest a moment of realisation, but it’s subsequent to the events. Initially this supports the narrator’s supposed insanity – a desperate search for an excuse to prove that he did not kill in a fit of madness. Additionally, it sustains the reader-narrator relationship. Telling the story becomes a therapeutic practice for the narrator, which is dependent upon his interlocutor, whom, I maintain, is the reader.  The narrator decides upon the eye as cause for the benefit of his audience, thus establishing the reader as an active participant in the unravelling of the plot.

Benfey argues that Poe’s critics tend to divide into two camps: on one hand, there are those who claim to have solved the puzzles which Poe presents, and on the other are those who consider the puzzles unworthy of solution or simply unsolvable. As I go on, I’d like you to consider this assertion, and maybe try to decide which group you fit into, if either.

“An enthusiasm for Poe [is] the mark of a decidedly primitive stage of reflection.”

– Henry James quoted in Asselineau, Roger. Edgar Allan Poe (USA: University of Minnesota, 1970) p.5

Those identifying with the first group, tend towards psychoanalytical readings; that’s something which I find particularly interesting, looking at Poe’s life in order to discover potential and perhaps subconscious portrayals of the author in his characters. Benfey states that Poe’s sort of puzzle concerns itself with the ways in which people (by which he means characters, the author, and the reader) are themselves enigmas to one another; I’d like to suggest that, in the case of “The Tell-Tale Heart” the nameless, murderous narrator is also an enigma to himself and possibly even to Poe. His obsession with asserting his sanity, heightened by Poe’s characteristic, generous use of dashes and fragmentary sentence structure, has an adverse effect.

Instead, we are presented with a character who is experiencing a duality of person; he is simultaneously doubtful and certain of his mental stability. At the start of the third paragraph he asserts that “madmen know nothing. But you should have seen me.” In italicising the pronoun, he is attempting to draw a distinction between himself and the madness; the two words are literally as far away from one another as they can be. But, it is only the narrator who continues to discuss madness; his continual return to the subject suggests that this obsession is entirely his own –at no point is his narrative interrupted by another voice.

Supposedly, Poe was fascinated by mind readers and unreadable faces, “the twin fantasies of utter exposure and complete secrecy”, as Benfey eloquently refers to it. Perhaps then, the narrator can be seen as an embodiment of or meeting place for these two opposing elements. I read the murder as the exposed element of the text; the build up to it and the event itself are described with calm nonchalance. The eye excites him, but he’s collected when he states: “I made up my mind to take the life of the old man” at the end of the second paragraph. It is the murderer’s motive and mentality that remain secret.

At the start of the same paragraph he claims that “object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me.” To me, the tone seems too dismissive and I wonder whether the secrecy of the motive extends to the narrator and Poe, as well as the reader. It may just be Poe the puzzle-lover, encouraging his readers to decipher for themselves.

Madness was a theme which seemed to interest Poe; in his private life, (click here & check out the final point of the brief bio, as well as the last personal quote cited) it was something which he personally dealt with. I wonder then, whether the narrator can be read as a characterisation of Poe himself. I suggest this, based upon the description of the old man’s eye as “resembling that of a vulture”. The Ancient Egyptian’s saw the vulture, symbolically, as a loving and nurturing mother figure. Poe’s own mother died young, from tuberculosis, when he was just two years old.

One Poe historian notes that “he always remembered – more or less consciously – his mother vomiting blood and being carried away from him forever…” (p.5). This, coupled with the fact that many of his other narratives, such as “Morella” (1835), directly focus upon the figure of a dead woman, suggest the lasting impression that this early detachment had upon him. Considering this, then, the old man could be symbolic of his mother; the lack of solid reasoning for the cause of his murder could represent Poe’s infantile inability to comprehend her untimely passing, perhaps even a subconscious feeling of responsibility for having been unable to save her. His mother features in a number of his works, so it’s not entirely unlikely that she’s masked here as the old man. In Poe’s sonnet, “To Science” (1829), are the lines: “Why preyest thou thus upon the poet’s heart, / Vulture, whose wings are dull realities.” The ‘dull realities’ can be understood as a reference to his mother’s death, which ‘prey’ ‘upon the poet’s heart’, both emotionally and also by featuring in his writing. Charles Boudelaire, the French poet, described Poe as “a writer who is all nerves.” Similarly, the narrative begins with the murderer exclaiming: “True! – Nervous – very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am”. Perhaps a happy coincidence, but I find it interesting, nonetheless, to consider the idea of Poe’s reality seeping into his fiction.

“That “jingle man” who shook his bells and called their sound poetry.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson quoted in: Asselineau, Roger. Edgar Allan Poe (USA: University of Minnesota, 1970) p.5

Finally, I would like to look at the importance of sound in the text. The narrative begins with the narrator describing a nondescript disease, causing a heightened sense of hearing, so heightened that he claims: “I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell” in paragraph one. Next, his exclamation: “Harken!” in the same paragraph, asks the reader to be attentive to sound. Near the middle of the third paragraph, during his pre-murder ritual, that narrator says: “And then, when my head was well in the room, I undid the lantern cautiously – oh so cautiously – cautiously (for the hinges creaked)”. At this point, he is aware that the sound would cause disturbance, suggesting that he is still in control, to a degree, of his mind.

At the end of this same paragraph, he recounts his interaction with the old man: “And every morning, when the day broke, I went boldly into the chamber, and spoke courageously to him, calling him by name in a hearty tone.” Although a common phrase, the day breaking is suggestive of sound. In addressing the old man first, he is attempting to dominate the situation, to control sound and, of course, to avoid suspicion. Most strikingly, however, is the word ‘hearty’. This choice is almost humorously absent-minded on the part of the narrator, yet clearly deliberate by Poe; this is the classic Gothic curse or prophecy, marking the moment at which his demise truly begins. (OK, he was always going to kill the man, but this marks his descent into madness and deadly obsession with the heart).

On the following and final night, the narrator recalls: “I fairly chuckled…and perhaps he heard me” and then his “thumb slipped upon the tin fastening, and the old man sprung up in bed, crying out.” Twice in a matter of minutes, sound betrays him. In the seventh paragraph, as the old man is groaning with “mortal terror”, the narrator identifies with the sound, revealing his own association between sound and terror that he experiences alone on sleepless nights.

This is the only insight, which I noticed, as to why the beating of the heart disturbed him so greatly. When faced with the sound of the heart in the 10th paragraph, he says “I knew that sound well”, explaining that “so strange a noise as this excited me to uncontrollable terror”, suggesting again his unexplained association between noise and fear.  Ironically, about half way through the 11th paragraph, the narrator fears that the pumping heart will be heard by a neighbour, yet he proceeds to advance on the old man “with a loud yell”, to which his victim responds with a single shriek. This avoidable noise is overlooked by the madman, despite being the actual cause of the policemen’s arrival, exemplifying the complete leave of his senses.

On re-reading ‘The Raven” (1845), I realised that I was reading aloud…albeit in my head. Rather than simply absorbing the text, I dwelt on each word, hearing my voice reading it internally, aloud. For me there is a strong aural presence in Poe’s writing, which I consider to be poetic in style, even in his prose work, and which is definitely present in “The Tell-Tale Heart”. I suppose as a reader, I’m quite spoilt, in that I just expect there to be elaborate descriptive imagery, but I’ve come to realise that Poe’s use of sound is far more effective than visual imagery.

For me, “The Tell-Tale Heart” is a narrative that I read in silence – no background music, etc., but for a time after finishing, I become, like the narrator, acutely aware of the sounds around me.  I don’t mean to say that I begin to hear the pumping organs of the dead or my neighbours’ hearts beating in the night, but it did make me consider the maddening affect which persistent sound can have upon a person. I can’t but help give merit to a tale that left such a lasting impression and caused me, with unsettling similarity to the murderous narrator, to become acutely aware of my sense of sound.  But that’s just me, what do you guys think?


If you’ve enjoyed this post, or gained something from it, please consider making a small contribution towards my next tea or coffee. And if you have any questions or comments, let me know below.

If you’re looking to read Poe, I recommend the beautiful, hardback edition of Poe’s complete works (fiction & poetry) that I own, which is pictured above & in this post too.

© Hannah Sinclair Emadian and Generally Gothic, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Hannah Sinclair Emadian and Generally Gothic with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Cite This Work

APA Style

Emadian, H. S. (2018, January 19). The Gothic: Author | Edgar Allan Poe. Generally Gothic. Retrieved from https://generallygothic.wordpress.com/2018/01/19/the-gothic-author-edgar-allan-poe/

Chicago Style

Emadian, Hannah S. “The Gothic: Author | Edgar Allan Poe.” Generally Gothic. 2018. https://generallygothic.wordpress.com/2018/01/19/the-gothic-author-edgar-allan-poe/

MLA Style

Emadian, Hannah S. “The Gothic: Author | Edgar Allan Poe” Generally Gothic. Generally Gothic, 19 Jan 2018. Web. [Date Accessed]

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