Stories of Edgar Allan Poe The Tell-Tale Heart
An unnamed narrator defensively declares that he is not insane, "I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily -- how calmly I can tell you the whole story" Poe, pg. 138. He insists that the story he tells is logical and not insane at all, although the very pattern of his language is a bit irrational, saying that he has heard heaven and hell, and the very pattern of his language is uncontrolled and rapid. The story then begins, describing how he had lived with an old man and eventually became obsessed with his eye, adding that he never wanted to steal the old man's gold; because of his strange eye, the narrator decided to kill the old man. Once again he becomes defensive towards the reader, "You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing. But you should have seen me. You should have seen how wisely I proceeded -- with what caution -- with what foresight -- with what dissimulation I went to work! I was never kinder to the old man than during the whole week before I killed him" Poe, pg. 138. The narrator prides himself on his intelligence and the calculated nature of his crime, stating that a madman would not have acted as brilliantly as he had done, since "madmen know nothing."
Every day of that week before he committed the murder, the narrator quietly opened the door of the old man's room around midnight, taking an hour to gradually get his head through the doorway without making any noise. Then he would extend a mostly closed lantern container except to allow a tiny sliver of light to shine through upon the old man's sleeping face, searching for that eye which he so despised. However, for seven nights the eye was closed, and the narrator could not bear to murder the man. It was the eye that he hated, and since the eye was not visible, there was no reason to commit violence; it was not the old man he wanted to destroy, but it was instead this "Evil Eye." He would return to the room in the morning to happily greet the old man, priding himself on how well he disguised his cruel intentions and the violent thoughts he kept hidden deep within his mind. These descriptions are supposed to support the narrator's sanity, because of how carefully he planned everything out and deceived the old man.
On the eighth night, however, the narrator opened the door very cautiously, gleeful to think that the old man had absolutely no idea that he was there; yet just when everything was proceeding as planned, his hand slips on the lantern, making a noise and causing the old man to wake up, asking who's there. For an hour he stayed there in the doorway, motionless and listening, while the old man did the same in his bed. Finally, the old man moaned softly out of fear since, "Yes, he had been trying to comfort himself...but he had found all in vain. All in vain; because Death, in approaching him, had stalked with his black shadow before him, and enveloped the victim. And it was the mournful influence of the unperceived shadow that caused him to feel...the presence of my head within the room" Poe, pg. 140. Although he professes his sanity, the narrator equates himself with Death, waiting to take the life of this old man there in the doorway. Then he decided to open the lantern anyway, sending a sliver of light upon the old man's face to reveal the hated eye! The narrator adds that his own body had an increased sensitivity, since his ears could hear the pounding of the old man's heart in that room. The beats became faster and faster, louder and louder, until the narrator was afraid that it would wake up the neighbors in their building.
The narrator then yelled gleefully, entering the room, dragging the old man out of bed, and dragging the heavy bed on top of him, no doubt causing the victim to suffocate. Eventually, the heartbeat sound was not heard again, the bed was removed, and the narrator found no pulse in the old man's body. Pleased that the eye would not torment him any more, the narrator cut off the head, arms, and legs, sticking all body parts beneath the floor boards in the bedroom, replacing the boards and proud that there was no blood left behind anywhere since he had cut the body up in a tub. By this time it was four o'clock in the morning, and suddenly there was a knock at the door. The narrator was unafraid, since he had cleaned up so well and hidden the body flawlessly beneath the floor. Thus, he was not at all bothered when three policemen wanted to come inside to investigate a noise complaint from a neighbor. The narrator told them that he himself had screamed aloud during a dream, causing the noise, and encouraged these officers to search the entire apartment, pointing out that the gold was still there, providing chairs in the old man's bedroom to sit upon, since the narrator was so proud of how deceptive that he has been. He added that the old man had simply taken a trip into the country and was not at home.
The policemen then became friendly, deciding that everything is fine there, chatting informally. The narrator, however, began to hear a pounding sound again that slowly built in intensity and strength, filling his ears more and more. His face grew pale, rising from his seat and pacing around the room quickly, dragging his chair against the floor, as the policemen continued to calmly chat with each other, and the narrator became paranoid again, fearful that they could hear the noise, "They heard!--they suspected!--they knew--they were making a mockery of my horror!--this I thought, and this I think. But anything was better than this agony! Any thing was more tolerable than this derison! I could bear those hypocritical smiles no longer! I felt that I must scream or die!--and now--again!--hark! louder! louder!--" Poe, pg. 143. The narrator then screamed aloud that he murdered the old man, commanding them to tear up the floor to discover his body and shouting out that he the pounding sound is the dead old man's heartbeat, thinking that they can hear it, too.
In recalling these events, the narrator can still hear the beating of the heart, in "and now!--again!" suggesting that murdering the old man did not solve his problem after all. He had thought that the old man's eye would leave him alone once he was slain, but now the old man's heart consumes him, nor is he able to murder the old man to solve this problem because the old man is already dead! Because it is not possible for a heart to beat when the body it inhabits has been cut apart and drained of much blood, nor is it possible to hear someone else's heartbeat from afar in the first place, it should be clear that the narrator is a madman after all, and his worries, fears, and paranoia that he directs towards the old man and even the police, is in fact all inside of his very head. While trying so determinedly to assert his sanity, the narrator has succeeded in revealing that he truly is insane.