The Tell-Tale Heart

Poe, Edgar Allan

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Annotated by:
Miksanek, Tony
  • Date of entry: Oct-18-2004


The unnamed narrator of the story is a "dreadfully nervous" character who disputes the allegation that he might be crazy. He contends that his disposition arises from a heightening of the senses: "Above all was the sense of hearing acute" (74). The narrator provides care for a wealthy elderly man. For some inexplicable reason, the narrator becomes obsessed with the diseased eye of the old man. The narrator likens it to a vulture’s eye and is so haunted by the Evil Eye that he decides to murder the old man.

He meticulously plans the murder. After one week of preparation, the narrator charges into the old man’s bedroom after midnight and kills him using the heavy bed the victim had been sleeping in to either crush or suffocate him. Even after the murder, the victim’s heart continues beating for many minutes. The narrator carefully dismembers the body in a tub. He conceals all the pieces under the floor boards.

At four o’clock in the morning, three policemen arrive. A neighbor heard a scream and notified the police. They are here to investigate. The narrator maintains his composure and even entertains the police. After all, he has committed the perfect crime. Suddenly, he hears a repetitive noise like the ticking of a watch. At first soft, the sound grows louder and louder. No one else hears it. What is the cause of the noise--paranoia, his conscience, auditory hallucinations, a supernatural clue, or (most likely) the sound of his own pounding heart? The narrator can no longer tolerate the thumping and confesses to the murder: "I admit the deed!--tear up the planks!--here, here!--it is the beating of his hideous heart!" (78)


The Tell-Tale Heart is a classic example of the psychological story. The frenetic diction of the narrator and his repeated pleas to the reader ("How, then, am I mad?" (74) and "but why will you say that I am mad?" (74) only reinforce the suspicion that he is mentally ill. Beyond his manic monologue, there is the narrator’s creepy fascination with the old man’s eye as further proof of lunacy. What is it about that eye--"a pale blue eye, with a film over it" [p74]--that so vexes the narrator? Clinically, the description suggests a common cataract--hardly a reason to murder the old man.

The terror on display is both internal (the mind of the narrator) and external (the grisly murder). The passage of time in this short story is noteworthy. Time can be unbearably slow and astonishingly fast. Poe’s emphasis on repetition and rhythm (ticking and beating) contributes to the tension of the tale.

This horror story is actually about the demise of two men. It is not just a masterful portrait of madness but an example of how guilt can make an already crazed man even crazier. The narrator asserts "I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell" (74). Odds are he truly did.


The story was originally published in 1843.

Primary Source

The Gold-Bug and Other Tales


Dover Thrift Edition

Place Published

New York




Stanley Appelbaum

Page Count