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Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart: Summary, Themes & Analysis

Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

One of Poe's most famous and shortest stories, 'The Tell-Tale Heart' has become a macabre classic, but you might still be unacquainted with its craziness. Check out this lesson with a synopsis and analysis of the story to see just how crazy things get!

A Heavy Heart: A Brief Synopsis of Poe's 'The Tell-Tale Heart'

If you're like many of us, you might've done something before that you felt so guilty about that you couldn't help but confess. Maybe it was stealing candy or lying to your best friend; whatever the case, some just can't bear the burden of a heart heavy with guilt. And this is especially true for the unnamed narrator of Edgar Allan Poe's famous short story, 'The Tell-Tale Heart.'

The narrator opens the story by defending his sanity and senses - particularly hearing. He believes people will think him 'mad' when they hear his tale; however, he assures audiences that he couldn't be mad and still be able to tell his story so well. Of course, he also predicts people will think he's crazy when they hear the story's about his murder of an old man whose 'pale blue eye, with a film over it' gives him the creeps. Then again, he believes he still couldn't be crazy considering the way in which he carried the act out.

In preparation for killing the old man, the narrator was nicer to him in the week before than he'd ever been. However, he would also stealthily put his head through the door each night and slightly crack the hood of a lantern so that a thin ray of light shone on the man's 'Evil Eye.' For a week, the old man was spied on without noticing; nevertheless, the narrator was even 'more than usually cautious' when he opened the door on the eighth night.

Thoroughly pleased with his abilities to scheme the old man's murder undetected, the narrator admits to chuckling to himself, which the old man may have heard since 'he moved on the bed suddenly, as if startled.' Undeterred, the narrator continued to push the door open, but as he was about to crack the shade of the lantern, the sound of his fumbling with it woke the old man.

The narrator stood still over the next hour as the old man lay awake. During this time, the narrator imagined that the old man must have been trying to convince himself nothing was amiss. Even though the old man couldn't see him, the narrator knew he must've felt his presence in some way, though, since he let out a 'groan of mortal terror.'

After waiting some time, the narrator decided to carefully crack the lantern shade. When he did, he saw the old man was still awake as the lantern's light immediately trained on the open 'vulture eye.' The sight of it enraged the narrator, but he stood his ground as he listened to the old man's terrified heartbeat. Unable to take the sound anymore, though, the narrator yelled and leapt fully into the room, turning the heavy bed on top of the old man and ultimately smothering him under its weight.

The narrator then set to work dismembering the body and hiding it beneath floorboards in the old man's room. Soon after he was finished, the police came knocking in response to a neighbor's report of hearing a shriek come from the house. Reveling in his handiwork, the narrator encouraged the policemen to search the house thoroughly. He was even so brazen as to convince them to sit and chat in the old man's bedroom; however, things soon went south for the narrator.

He began to hear the muffled sound of the old man's heart still beating beneath the floorboards and was unable to drown it out with conversation. Believing the policemen were merely mocking him, the narrator was driven to confess the murder, even pointing out where to pull up the floor.

'Over-Acuteness': Analyzing Themes in 'The Tell-Tale Heart'

Any of us who've tried to do something without our parents' noticing might have wished their senses and intuition weren't so acute. For the narrator of Poe's 'The Tell-Tale Heart,' though, it's his own perceptions that give him away. Throughout the story, the narrator constantly defends his sanity, even claiming that what readers 'mistake for madness is but over-acuteness of the senses.' However, if we look a little closer, we see there's no mistaking madness and paranoia as the narrator's downfall and the key themes in Poe's tale.

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