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Edgar Allan Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart: A Two-Minute Summary and Analysis of the Classic Horror Tale

Arguably the most famous of Poe’s murder tales (and comfortably short for casual readers of literary fiction) “The Tell-Tale Heart” has become a cultural metaphor for the exposure of evil deeds. And yet its nuances are often overlooked. As much as it is a tale of wickedness brought to light, it is also a pocket-sized manifesto on the multifaceted human spirit and an indictment of cheap cultural definitions of insanity. Humanity, Poe proclaims, is not divided into obvious classes of good and evil, but contain within them impulsive elements of each.

 

While many have viewed “The Tell-Tale Heart” as an analysis of how guilt can arise from even the most callous, misanthropic heart, the reverse is implicitly true: madmen are not obvious, gibbering maniacs – they are capable of craft and subtlety, and acts of insanity can arise from the most innocuous and mild-mannered of spirits.   

 

Although the old man's "evil eye" starts the story as the original locus of self-consciousness, it is the "hideous heart" which ultimately propels the narrator into confession. The implication is that morality does not exist within social structures (i.e., it is not a product of civilization), but a character unique to each human being. Conversely, however, and more typical of Poe’s cynicism is the very clear warning: madmen are not so easy to identify, because, in fact, they lurk within each of our duplicitous hearts. With “The Tell-Tale Heart,” Poe helped to usher in an entirely new race of psychological fiction, akin with “Usher” and “William Wilson” in its fearless examination of ethical bipolarity and its sympathetic (or at least earnest) portrayal of mental instability. In an era when insanity was viewed as the result of low-birth, race, or immorality, Poe prevents any such interpretation, focusing not on the cause, but on the result.

 

The thorough inability of the reader to explain the narrator’s madness (which, at any rate, is hinted at as being the result of a sickness, not socioeconomic inferiority) prevents them from dwelling on anything other than the multifaceted psychology of a mentally-ill person. Poe’s narration spurred forward a new wave of psychological realism in literature. The effect is obvious in the works of Dostoevsky (Crime and Punishment), Hawthorne (“The Birth-Mark”), Melville (Billy Budd), Hugo (Les Miserables),  Hermann Hesse (Steppenwolf), Henry James (“The Turn of the Screw”), and  J. Sheridan Le Fanu (“The Familiar”) to mention a very few.  

 

II.

 

Our classic, unnamed Poe narrator begins this story by lamenting the fact that society has branded him as a madman. He counters this by claiming that he is merely "nervous" -- ultra-sensitive to stimuli and made unusually jumpy by this ability to sense things that others miss. In particular, ever since a mysterious disease, he has found that his hearing is tremendously enhanced: he can hear things in heaven and in hell. He proceeds to explain how he became labeled a lunatic by giving the backstory to a murder he has been charged with -- that of his roommate, an old man. We have no reference point for their relationship: are they friends, acquaintances, brothers, father and son, invalid and care-giver? We never learn (and Poe does this very intentionally), which leaves us with many conjectures.

 

He explains that the idea to murder the old man came to him strangely: he claims to have loved him, didn't covet his wealth, and had no possible motive. What compelled him was an atavistic hatred for the old man's eye -- a bulging, ulcerous vulture eye glazed with a white-blue film that drove him wild with discomfort. Determined to snuff this eye which -- when looking at him -- fills him with nervous rage, he plots a fool-proof murder engineered to evade all suspicion -- a plan which the narrator insists proves that he cannot be insane (for no madman could plot so tidy and logical a crime).

 

For example, he lavishes the old man with courtesy and shows him only smiles, but each night he creeps up to the man's door, slowly pries it back, and peeks in with a dark lantern (a lantern covered by a sliding hatch which can hide the light) and slowly projects a thin beam of light onto the eye. He brags about how patient he was, how many agonizing minutes he caused each motion of his hand to take -- moving slowly in order to avoid waking his victim -- and uses this as further proof of his sanity. For seven nights he does this, but each night the Evil Eye is closed.

 

On the eighth night, however, something is different. He can hear death watches (ticking beetles said to foretell oncoming demises) clicking in the walls, and when he goes forward to open the hatch, his thumb slips, making a noise. He hears the old man make a dreadful, all too familiar moan of terror. But he commits to the murder, slowly pulling the hatch back... and casting a beam on the old man's bulging, open, terrified eye. He fancies that he can even hear the man's heart pounding in terror. With a yelp, he dashes forward, overturning the old man and smothering him under his mattress. With the victim now dead, he cuts the body up in a tub (carefully washing away the blood), pulls back the floorboards, and stuffs the body parts between the joists.

 

But there is a problem: a neighbor heard the terrifying screams and has alerted the police, three of whom are now at his door. The narrator calmly explains that he had had a nightmare and the screams were his. In a moment of fanatical hubris, however -- to avert any and all suspicion -- he invites them inside. In an even more brazen act, he arranges some chairs directly over the corpse and has them sit down to talk. However, things do go quite so smoothly: the cops seem utterly duped, but the narrator is suddenly aware of a barely perceptible sound: a dull beat, like that of a watch (NOTE: Poe's favorite symbol of mortality, e.g., "Masque of the Red Death") muffled in cotton.

 

He realizes that the dead man's heart is beating below them, and it grows louder, louder, and louder... The cops try to be convivial, but the narrator becomes argumentative about petty issues, growing increasingly nervous that the crescendo of the heart beat must be loud enough for them to hear. He is convinced that they DO hear it -- that they are mocking him with feigned ignorance. The pounding grows louder, louder, LOUDER. Overcome by terror and by this point bizarrely agitated, the narrator lashes out at the men he suspects of taunting him, pushing them aside, pulling back the floorboards, and revealing the corpse: "Villains!" I shrieked, "dissemble no more! I admit the deed! --tear up the planks! here, here! --It is the beating of his hideous heart!"

 

III.

 

Psychoanalysis is one of the most well-known critical approaches in literature; it shows the literary critic the mental state of not only the main character, but the author as well. In the book “Critical Theory Today,” Lois Tyson describes psychoanalytic criticism as “[t]he notion that human beings are motivated, even driven, by desires, fears, needs, and conflicts of which they are unaware – that is, unconscious”. This theoretical approach was created by Sigmund Freud from his theories on the unconscious mind and the concept that people repress things they don’t want to remember, and that they go through several stages when they are trying to repress memories.

 

Akin to the five stages of grief, the stages of repression follow a similar pattern, including “perception, selective memory, denial, avoidance, displacement, and projection”. These stages come from what a person is most afraid of and would work its way through most of their repressed memories to remind them of what could happen. Another part of this theory which Freud developed comes from the concept of the Id, Ego, and Superego. Tyson describes the three: the Id is irrational and tends to want gratification; the Superego works in direct opposition to the Id because it internalizes cultural taboos (murder, incest, stealing, etc.) and works to keep the ravenous Id at bay; lastly the Ego is “the conscious Self that experiences the external world”. Using these theories in the analysis of a literary work, the reader must interpret what the author is trying to convey as well as what the characters are doing in the story, and although it is not an easy task, all students of critical theory have to know what they are looking for when studying a literary piece.

 

In Poe’s “Tell-Tale Heart,” the protagonist’s fear of the old man’s eye is what drove him to dismember him and put him underneath the floorboards (symbolizing repression). So how is it that his repression caused him to act sane yet commit murder? The protagonist explains his perspective in the beginning, saying: “How then am I mad? Harken! And observe how healthy – how calmly I can tell you the whole story”. According to the narrator, he is not insane, which means that he is in denial over the crime that has been committed. He has already lost communication with his unconscious, and the accusing, paternal Superego, because murder is a cultural taboo. The reasons the protagonist conjures to explain the murder give no reason for the deed other than his immense hatred for the old man’s “eye of a vulture – a pale blue eye with a film over it”. The eye was the reason for the murder – not the old man – and the protagonist has repressed all his fond memories of the old man, seeking to kill him only to keep his (dare I say) accusing, paternal eye from observing and judging him (he has symbolically slain his Superego, or – as we might term it – his conscience).

 

His fear was that in letting the old man live, he risked allowing the fellow to betray him one day by exposing the narrator’s secrets (secrets which he neurotically thinks the eye can detect). This is his Id working as the main agent of his unconscious: he wants the old man dead without thinking about the consequences – he isn’t thinking clearly with a balanced mind because the Id has hijacked the controls. The Superego is responsible for resisting this urge to kill, but has been psychologically smothered by the furious Id, leading to a replication of this struggle in real life: the narrator projects his internal conflict onto the old man and blames him for his guilty conscience. What could be filling him with so much guilt and fear to begin with? As an unreliable narrator, the protagonist does not give us enough reliable information to understand his rationale, but many critics have suspected the key lies in his nondescript relationship with the old man: is he his father, his brother, his patient, or – as some have argued – is “he” really a “she” and is this female narrator smothering a father who had sexually abused her throughout her life, leading to hysteria and madness? There is much to consider here.

 

What makes psychoanalytic criticism difficult is that there are so many different ways in which the theory can spin the literary work under analysis. Yet it can also provide the reader with a clearer perspective: with tools, a vocabulary, and a model that can be applied to any work, and it can give the reader an entirely new perspective on a story that they had previously read merely for entertainment: a way of cracking the secret code that a writer has written. A casual reader will not see how Poe’s narrator is psychologically fragmented between his Id and Superego. Much can be missed in a story that you are reading passively without considering the subtext of the narrator’s decisions, word choices, and arguments.

 

What make’s Poe’s “Tell-Tale Heart” appropriate for psychoanalytical criticism is the manner in which the character – a person in the middle of a psychopathic break – who can easily be held up to psychological scrutiny and analysis due to his overwhelmingly fragmented psyche. His psychosis illustrates Freud’s theories of repression, guilt, and the unconscious. In short, psychoanalysis will allow you to identify the narrator’s neuorses, understand why he wishes to kill the old man, and see the way in which his is projecting his fears onto the old man’s eye – a simple symbol of the Superego. The fear of judgment becomes an obsession in him – an obsession to find something wrong in the old man (in other words, to turn the tables on him: to make the observer the observed) so that he could have control over him – so that the Id could reign over the Superego with impunity.

 

You can read the original story HERE!
 

And you can find our annotated and illustrated collection of Poe's best tales HERE!

 

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