Thesis Statement: Edgar Allen Poe demonstrates how a person’s inner turmoil and fear can drive him insane through illustrative language, perplexing characters and an intricate plot.
As it’s usually the case with first-person narratives, there are multiple settings to the story. The action of the recounted tale takes place in the house the narrator shares with the old man. At the same time, the narrator is telling the story from either a prison or an insane asylum where he has been incarcerated. But even more importantly, the setting is actually inside the obsessed mind of the narrator himself, for the crucial climactic event of the story—his hearing the beating of the dead man’s heart—take place solely within his own tortured imagination.
The depiction of characters plays a pivotal role in construction of the plot, without strong and solid characters, the ideas the author preaches would seems plain. Edgar Allen Poe creates vivid characters which successfully assist the building of plot and ideas. There are four characters in “The Tell-Tale Heart”, the unnamed narrator, the old man who was killed, the neighbour who called police and the police who came to investigate. The narrator tried very hard to cover his insanity and show that he is sane with the intention to not to get suspected by the old man. The old man with a blue eye that the narrator is afraid of, is believed to be the owner of the house, he is innocent and unconscious of what the narrator is doing. In fact, nothing the narrator tells the reader about the old man fits the common definition of insanity, however, it fits the narrator’s definition perfectly as he claims “Madmen know nothing” (Paragraph 3, Edgar Allen Poe). The story is not only constructed on the physical settings introduced above, the mental setting of the narrator is also an interesting aspect to explore. The narrator felt excited yet confident about the killing of the old man, he was showing off how flawless his plan was to the readers. After the killing, he acted completely sane and calm, meeting with the police without any clue of anxiety. However, as the conversation progressed he got more and more nervous because of the sound of the old man’s heart beat, which arguably could be his imagination, and finally faced his emotional breakdown.
The insanity of the narrator is enhanced by the events that happen in the story. And the twist at the end of the story further enhances this characteristic of the unreliable narrator. The story starts with the narrator claiming that he is sane, and following this event the narrator said that he will tell a tale to prove his sanity. Then the narrator gives the background of the story by telling the reader he plans to kill this old man because he is guilty for having a vulture eye, and that the old man himself is not guilty for his death. Every night the narrator brings a lantern and watches the old man. Until one night the old man opened his eyes because the narrator alerted him. The narrator got so mad because the old man opened his vulture eye that he ran into the room and suffocated the man with his bed. He then dismembered the body in the bathtub so there is no trace, because he is logical and “sane”. The narrator then hid the body parts under loose floorboards. At 4am, the police came in to search the room shortly after the neighbors heard the old man scream. Nothing was suspicious to the police, but the narrator is hearing heartbeats from under the floorboards. The heartbeats got too loud for the narrator to handle so he confesses his crime to the police. Then the story ends. The sound of “heartbeats” is metaphorically the sound of the inner guilt in the narrator., and this guilt made the narrator admit his crimes.
Language is what brought the story and characters to live. The language Edgar Allan Poe use is directly linked with the narrator’s psychological state. The story is told through the unreliable narrator’s point of view, enhancing the sense of cold detachment while the crimes were committed. The unreliable narrator’s fear is illustrated with descriptive language, which was often used for describing the old man’s vulture’-like eye. This eye is a symbol of the narrator’s fear, the trigger to his insanity, and also the narrator’s reason for why the old man should be killed. Expressed with Poe’s ingenious use of words and sentences, the narrator’s twisted logic reveals his insanity, although he claims otherwise. At the beginning of the story he intended to show his sanity by “how calmly I can tell you the whole story”. (Poe, 1) The narrator’s tone was nervous and changes rapidly between calm, logical statements to irrational and frantic outbursts. These outbursts were often spoken in short sentences. Poe’s frequent use of exclamations also reveals the narrator’s nervousness. The short sentences and exclamations heightens tension and fear, supporting the story’ suspense, then finally breaking at the climax of the story when the narrator’s fear drove him to insanity.
Idea is being the “soul” of the story, without a good idea, the story won’t be fascinating. In Tale-Tell Heart, there are three ideas, which are “Guilt and Innocence” and “Sanity and Insanity”. Firstly, “Guilt and Innocence”. After murdering the old-man for no apparent reason, he hears his interminable heartbeat and his sense of guilt is released through the confession from the police, by shouting at them. However, the narrator never feel that he is innocent in the story, because he actually proud of his calmness and plan of murdering the old man. Also, the most key point that can recognize is the narrator admitted that there are uncontrollable forces that drives him to commit violence act. Secondly, “Sanity and Insanity”. From the first line of the story, ‘‘True!—nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am, but why will you say that I am mad?’ The readers can already discovered that there is something strange had occurred. Although he tries to convey the readers that he is sane, through conveying, it had already amplified that he is lack of sanity. The narrator argued that sane is being methodical, calculating, however, the confusing language reveals that he is disordered.
Before beginning his account, the unnamed narrator claims that he is nervous and oversensitive but not mad, and offers his calmness in the narration as proof of his sanity. He then explains how although he loved a certain old man who had never done him wrong and desired none of his money, the narrator could not stand the sight of the old man's pale, filmy blue eye. The narrator claims that he was so afraid of the eye, which reminds him of a vulture's, that he decided to kill the man so he would no longer have to see it.
Although the narrator is aware that this rationalization seems to indicate his insanity, he explains that he cannot be mad because instead of being foolish about his desires, he went about murdering the old man with "caution" and "foresight." In the week before the murder, the narrator is very kind to the old man, and every night around midnight, he sneaks into the old man's room and cautiously shines a lantern onto the man's eye. However, because the eye is always closed and the narrator wishes to rid himself of the eye rather than the man, the narrator never tries to kill him, and the next morning, he again enters the chamber and cheerfully asks how the old man has slept, in order to avoid suspicion.
On the eighth night, the narrator is particularly careful while opening the door, but this time, his thumb slips on the lantern's fastening, waking the old man. The narrator freezes, but even after an hour, the old man does not return to sleep because he feels afraid and senses someone's presence. At length, the narrator decides to slowly open the lantern until the light shines on the old man's eye, which is wide open. The narrator's nerves are wracked by the sight, and he fancies that because of his oversensitivity, he has begun to hear the beating of the old man's heart.
The beating firms his resolve as he continues to increase the intensity of the light on the man's eye. The beating grows louder and louder until the narrator begins to worry that a neighbor will hear the noise, so he decides to attack. The old man screams once before the narrator drags him to the floor and stifles him with the mattress. When the narrator stops hearing the beating, he examines the corpse before dismembering it and concealing it beneath the floorboards. He laughs somewhat hysterically as he describes how the tub caught all the blood, leaving no stains on the floor.
By the time he finishes the clean-up, it is four in the morning, and someone knocks on the door. In a cheerful mood, the narrator answers the door only to find three policemen who have come to investigate because a neighbor heard the old man's shriek and alerted the police to the possibility of foul play. The narrator invites them inside, knowing that he has nothing to fear, and he explains that he had been the one to yell as a result of a bad dream and that the old man is currently out visiting the country. He shows the policemen the house and confidently allows them to search it before bringing out chairs which he, in his assurance, places on top of the floorboards that hide the corpse.
The narrator's lack of suspicious behavior convinces the policemen that nothing is wrong, and they sit down on the chairs and chat with him. However, after a while, the narrator begins to wish that the policemen would leave, as his head aches and he hears a ringing in his ears. The ringing increases in volume, for which the narrator compensates by chatting more jovially, but it finally turns into a dull beating which also begins to rise in volume. The narrator becomes more and more agitated in his behavior, gesturing wildly and pacing back and forth, but the policemen hear and suspect nothing.
Soon, the narrator begins to suspect that the pleasantries of the policemen are merely a ruse to ridicule his distress. However, he cannot stand the intensity of the beating and grows tired of what he perceives as the mockery of the policemen. He feels that he "must scream or die," so he finally shrieks the truth, telling the policemen to tear up the floorboards and reveal the beating of the old man's heart.
The protagonist of the "The Tell-Tale Heart" is a classic example of Poe's unreliable narrator, a man who cannot be trusted to tell the objective truth of what is occurring. His unreliability becomes immediately evident in the first paragraph of the story, when he insists on his clarity of mind and attributes any signs of madness to his nervousness and oversensitivity, particularly in the area of hearing. However, as soon as he finishes his declaration of sanity, he offers an account that has a series of apparent logical gaps that can only be explained by insanity. In his writings, Poe often sought to capture the state of mind of psychotic characters, and the narrator of this story exhibits leaps of reasoning that more resemble the logic of dreams than they do the thought processes of a normal human being.
The narrator's emotional instability provides a clear counterargument to his assertions of good judgment. In almost no cases does he respond in the manner that one would expect. He is so bothered by the old man's vulture-like eye that his loathing overcomes his love for the man, leading him to premeditate a murder. Later, when he finally succeeds in killing the victim, he becomes positively cheerful, feeling that he has accomplished his goal cleverly and with the rationality that he associates with sanity. However, the unsuspecting behavior of the policemen suggests that the narrator has become essentially unaware of his behavior and his surroundings. Because he cannot maintain the distance between reality and his inner thoughts, he mistakes his mental agitation for physical agitation and misinterprets the innocent chatter of the policemen for malevolence. Nevertheless, he imagines the whole time that he has correctly and rationally interpreted all the events of the story, suggesting that in Poe's mind, the key to irrationality is the belief in one's rationality.
The irony of the narrator's account in "The Tell-Tale Heart" is that although he proclaims himself to be too calm to be a madman, he is defeated by a noise that may be interpreted as the beating of his own heart. Because of the unreliability of the narrator, it is impossible to know for certain if the beating is a supernatural effect, the product of his own imagination, or an actual sound. However, a likely logical explanation is that when the protagonist is under stress, he hears the sound of his heart, "a low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes enveloped in cotton," and he mistakes it for the sound of the old man's heart. This lack of understanding parallels his lack of awareness of his actions as he chats with the policemen and highlights the lapses in reason which belie his claims of sanity.
In order to create a narrative which will convince the reader of the protagonist's instability, Poe uses vocabulary that is consistently ironic or otherwise jarring to provoke a reaction contrary to that which the narrator desires. The rhetorical technique that he uses in his account is to manipulate the connotations of words, but he is never subtle enough to hide his attempt to spin the argument. Where an outside observer might describe him as having plotted to observe the old man as he sleeps, the narrator tells the reader that "you should have seen how wisely I proceeded--with what caution--with what foresight--with what dissimulation I went to work!" By exploiting his choice of words such as "wisely" and "caution," he seeks to deceive the reader and explain his actions as those of a prudent, clever individual. However, the blatancy of his attempt at deception enlightens rather than hoodwinks his audience.
Much as the minute depiction of the prisoner's experiences and senses creates an atmosphere of anticipatory terror in "The Pit and the Pendulum," Poe's manner of describing sound becomes a particularly important vehicle for conveying the mood of "The Tell-Tale Heart." His description of the sound in the last few paragraphs of the tale is marked by repetitions that are clearly intended to imply the crescendo of noise. When he says, "The ringing became more distinct:--It continued and became more distinct," we sense the building tension. The increasing intensity of the beating is again emphasized by the three repetitions of the phrase "but the noise steadily increased." Finally, as the narrator's sentences turn rapidly into exclamations, his repetition of the word "louder" echoes the sound of the beating heart, and his final shrieks shatter the tension with his confession.