An Analysis of Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart"
Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart"
Commentary by Karen Bernardo
In Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart," the author moves away from the typical Gothic writer's fascination
with remote and eerie locations; in fact, the story's setting is so nondescript that Poe does not even tell us
where it is. We know only that it is a house, set on a densely-populated street, in a reasonably urban area
boasting a police force. And the most dangerous villains can be, not just wild-eyed madmen or escaped convicts, but
people whom one would never give a second look. What makes this story so terrifying, then, is not the creepiness of
the setting but the normalcy of it.
As our story opens, Poe's unnamed narrator has decided to get rid of an older man with whom he lives; whether it is
his employer, his uncle, his grandfather, we do not know. There is no reason for this decision, except for the fact
that the narrator suddenly takes a violent dislike to the way the old man looks at him. The narrator believes the
old man has "the eye of a vulture -- a pale blue eye, with a film over it." A vulture, of course, is a bird of
prey; and if anyone is predatory in this story, it is certainly not the old man, but the narrator. Nonetheless, the
narrator kills him and hides the body under the floor boards.
By linking the narrator to the victim through the motif of the predatory eye, Poe now moves on to the crux of the
story. The murderer feels no shame for his deed; outwardly, when the police come, he is the very picture of calm.
But the last thing of which the narrator was conscious before the old man died was the victim's beating heart, and
now, with the authorities in the room, the narrator begins to hear the beating heart again.
Obviously, what he hears -- or rather senses -- is his OWN beating heart; despite the fact that he is not conscious
of feeling nervous, his body is exhibiting all the symptoms of terror and his mind is displacing them onto the dead
man. In his delusional state, he confesses his deed to the startled police so they will pull up the floorboards and
put a stop to "the beating of [the victim's] hideous heart." Ironically, of course, in those days preceding
insanity pleas, the perpetrator's confession will have the secondary effect of putting an end to the beating of his
own heart as well.
In choosing a setting of domestic normalcy for stories such as "The Tell-Tale Heart," Edgar Allan Poe
revolutionized the Gothic horror genre. No longer did horror writers have to set our stories in abandoned
monasteries, haunted houses, or gloomy castles; Poe demonstrated that true horror comes not from our environment
but from within ourselves.
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