The Tell-Tale Heart Write Up by Pearl, Emma W, and Erin

Summary Part 1, Pearl:
Our main character begins the story by insisting that he is and has been very nervous but is not crazy. He talks about the old man he lives with and talks about the man’s eye which the main character finds deeply disturbing. The character finally decides to kill the man and spends a week watching the old man sleep, slowly opening his bedroom door to poke his head through the frame. During the day the main character acts normal and hides his true intentions. On the eighth day the main character realizes that the old man has been lying awake in fear the whole week and laughs at his terror. Then he smothers the old man is his matress until he can no longer hear his heartbeat.

Summary Part 2, Emma:
On the eighth day, the old man wakes up while the main character is watching him and is absolutely terrified. The main character shines his light directly on the evil eye that he despises so much, which gives him the final push. So the MC runs into the room and suffocates the old man.

Summary Part 3, Erin:

After doing so the main character dismembers the old man and stuffs his corpse under three planks in the chamber, replacing the planks once he’s done. Three police officers come by and say one of the neighbours reported a shriek, and the main character manages to convince them all is ok, even leading them to the cellar with the old man. He hears the old man’s heart beating though and grows paranoid the others can hear, leading him to tear up the floorboards and confess his actions.

Pearl’s Analysis:

Pt.1 Important Details

In Tell-Tale Heart Edgar Allan Poe chooses specific details very carefully. Sometimes he leaves out seemingly important aspects of the story and replaces them with other details that initially seem random. I believe he does this to convey a deep sense of anxiety and to display the power of an unhealthy obsession.

For example we never find out the main characters age name or even gender. We don’t get a sense of their relationship with the old man, how they came to live close to each other or anything else that would normally be considered important exposition in a fiction story. Instead of describing the old man’s room that the main character spends eight nights studying the narrator talks instead about how slowly he opened the door and how intently he waited to catch a glimpse of the moonlight on the old man’s pale eye.

Poe focuses on two dominate details, the old man’s eye, and the main characters insistence that they are not crazy. He uses this feverish repetition to make the tone of the story almost hysteric.

The narrator talks constantly about the old man’s eye saying:

I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye! yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture –a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees –very gradually….

They continue to speak about the eye and how it haunts them throughout the story and their unhealthy obsession with it is what drives him to kill the old man in the first place.

Then of course there is the narrator’s constant reminding that they are not crazy.

The very first line of the story starts off like this:

TRUE! –nervous –very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses –not destroyed –not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. 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.

It’s not telling us about the setting, it’s not introducing any motivation, and it’s not describing anything related to the world we are entering. Instead the narrator is taking this valuable space and using it to defend himself almost as though we’ve confronted him just by picking up his story to read. However the more the narrator tries to assure us of his mental soundness the more unconvinced we become, which leads us to be mistrustful of the narrator.

Ironically this need to remind us of their sanity in every paragraph makes the main character appear even crazier and make us trust them less. This immediate and persistent unease and anxiety is the most important emotion that this story is trying to convey and it simply wouldn’t hit as hard if the narrator didn’t focus so intently on the little things. The danger of obsession is one of the biggest themes in Tell-Tale Heart and so it’s no surprise that the text reflects it so intensely.

Pt.2

The heart is one of the most important symbols in this story. I mean it’s literally called the Tell-Tale Heart.

In the story the heart primarily symbolizes the narrator’s own guilt at his actions. We can see this for a number of different reasons.

First, the old man’s heart doesn’t become a major part of the imagery till after the murder. The first mention of the heart is when the narrator is smothering the old man underneath his pillowcase.

–now, I say, there came to my ears a low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. I knew that sound well, too. It was the beating of the old man’s heart. It increased my fury, as the beating of a drum stimulates the soldier into courage.

Secondly the heart becomes more persistent as the narrator’s guilt grows. At first it’s mentioned almost in a throwaway detail, then it becomes nagging, and finally it causes the main character to confess to his crime in front of the authorities.

We can see the guilt building in the narrator all through the last paragraph:

No doubt I now grew very pale; –but I talked more fluently, and with a heightened voice. Yet the sound increased –and what could I do? It was a low, dull, quick sound –much such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. I gasped for breath –and yet the officers heard it not. I talked more quickly –more vehemently; but the noise steadily increased. I arose and argued about trifles, in a high key and with violent gesticulations; but the noise steadily increased. Why would they not be gone? I paced the floor to and fro with heavy strides, as if excited to fury by the observations of the men –but the noise steadily increased.

Finally his emotional guilt causes him to confess to what he is physically guilty for.

 “Villains!” I shrieked, “dissemble no more! I admit the deed! –tear up the planks! here, here! –It is the beating of his hideous heart!”

Questions:

  1. Why isn’t the gender or age of the main character ever revealed? Was the choice to not reveal these details effective?
  2. Why was the eye specifically chosen as a symbol?

Emma’s Analysis:

The Characterization of the POV Character in Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”

The nameless protagonist and POV character from Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” is fascinating to me for a number of reasons, which I will address in the following few paragraphs.

Most apparent is the prominent internal voice from the protagonist in the story. And most prominent in his thoughts is his endless reassurance to the reader that he is not mad. The first line is a rhetorical question to the reader asking if him being dreadfully nervous about what he will be during in the story, which we know nothing about yet, makes him mad, followed by him strongly rejecting this idea and suggesting he has actually achieved a higher sense. He assures us that what may be considered madness has in fact, in his eyes, sharpened his senses and made him see the world more acutely. Now contrary to what this character is trying to say, it is very worrisome to the reader that this guy has to so straightforwardly promise that he’s most definitely not crazy and that this story will be totally logical guys I promise. And it goes on and on, he states that he is not mad, he is not mad. Then he starts adding “logic”, saying that no madman would be as clever and resilient as him, would a madman do this? would a madman do that? Then he starts justifying madness itself, or at least giving it new meaning. He says, quote:

And have I not told you that what you mistake for madness is but over-acuteness of the sense?

To him, now madness is not a terrible thing, it’s a sharpening of the senses. It’s a super power. But even after this evolution of how he feels about madness, it’s still obvious that he’s insecure that his actions will be perceived as crazy and illogical, thus the constant repetition that he’s not mad.

The next interesting thing is the portrayal of the relationship between the old man and MC. Specifically, the lack of nearly any information on this relationship is very mysterious. All we know is that they seem to live together (if this is permanent or not is unclear). The protagonist says that he even loves the old man. But most intriguing is that even though they seem on friendly enough terms, the protagonist despises one of the old man’s eye, saying it resembles a vulture and makes his blood run cold. So without passion or malice, almost as if it were the only logical thing to do really, he decides to kill him. It reveals that the MC is probably very disturbed by particular things, and is prone to following through with sudden ideas without applying reasoning to them. The tendencies of a psychopath you could say.

Another thing to highlight is how cunning he thinks he is. Multiple times he boasts about how cleverly he spied on the old man every night for eight nights, how wise he was to be so kind to him in the week leading up to his death, how thoughtful it was to mutilate the body in the way he did. He thinks he’s the smartest, most totally not crazy person alive. Something I mentioned when describing his madness is also how almost superpowered he is. He says that he can “hear things in heaven and hell”, he can hear the beating of the old man’s heart and can sense death hovering close in the moments before he killed him. And of course (though this is just his guilt and nerves) he hears the dead old man’s heart from beneath the floorboards.

More on psychopathic tendencies, the POV character really gives off a cold, calculating, and patient vibe. He is willing to stare at the old man for hours without moving a muscle, he’ll open the door moving “slower than a minute hand” as to not alert the old man. He’s extremely anxious too though (which is a symptom of psychos) which he also states repeatedly. But this is slightly juxtaposed with a line when he’s listening to the man’s groans of terror:

“I knew what the old man felt, and pitied him, although I chuckled at heart.”

Slightly, because he’s still chuckling at heart. And he’s actually polite and charismatic as well to the police officers. And of course, his guilt driving him mad (ha) in the climax of the story.

The last thing we see of him is his confidence, reaching its peak when he had the guts to sit right over the hidden corpse of the person he murdered while talking to the police.

The Narrative of “The Tell-Tale Heart”

TTH is great at building a slow creepy and mysterious narrative that keeps you with a cold sweat from the first sentence to the last.

The story starts cold with the MC strongly reassuring the reader that he is definitely not crazy or anything, and explaining the process that led him to killing the old man. The conflict  The rising action broadly consists of the extremely detailed and harrowing descriptions of the protagonist spying on the old man. Though it can be argued that the death of the old man is the climax, I think it’s only one more step in the rising action. Having done the deed, he mutilates the body and carefully hides it below the floorboards. And the highest moment of tension is when he confidently shows the police around the house. The reader at this point nearly wants the police to bust this crazy murderer! But then he starts hearing the heart beating, and beating, and beating, and getting louder. Of course, this is all in his own mind. But then he starts thinking that the police can hear it and are only messing with him by not acknowledging it. And with a shout, he reveals what he has done and curses the tell-tale beating heart of the old man.

Questions:

What do you think the relationship between the nameless main character and the old man is? Do you think it matters what their relationship is and do you think the suspense/tension/horror could have been improved if more of their relationship was fleshed out?

Do you think the heavy use of the main character’s internal thoughts helped elevate the suspense/tension/horror? Do you think the story could have worked without it?

Erin’s Analysis

Part 1. Point of view choice

In Edgar Allen Poe’s story, ‘The tell-tale heart,’ we view the story through the eyes of a man with no specific name. We never learn the name, age, or gender of the main character, only being referenced to with words like ‘I’ or ‘my.’ In the beginning of the story we are introduced to the main character’s mentality.

TRUE! –nervous –very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses –not destroyed –not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. 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.

In this passage we get an introduction to our main character. From the start and through the story we get the repeated message that our character isn’t ‘mad,’ or crazy. It is a point emphasized over and over, the repetition something to take note of. It brings up the question as to why the main character is so adamitely set on reassuring us. He says his ‘disease’ has sharpened his senses, asking how that makes him mad. We are show the story through his eyes, and we get to hear his thought process.

 You should have seen how wisely I proceeded,

When I had waited a long time, very patiently, without hearing him lie down, I resolved to open a little –a very, very little crevice in the lantern.

If still you think me mad, you will think so no longer when I describe the wise precautions I took for the concealment of the body. The night waned, and I worked hastily, but in silence. First of all I dismembered the corpse. I cut off the head and the arms and the legs.

I then took up three planks from the flooring of the chamber, and deposited all between the scantlings.

In these three excerpts we get a better understanding of our character and his ambitions. He finds himself to be clever and sneaky. It shows the reader just how much of a crazy person this character really is. The themes like the murder of the old man and how he concealed the body show that. The repeated theme of the character not being mad puts the it into the readers mind often enough so that we begin to question it. The character wants to kill the old man because of his eye. It sends a chill down his spine, and repeated over and over is the description of the ‘vulture-like eye with the film over it.’ He goes into his room every night, taking an hour just to open the door. He then checks to see if the man is awake by shining a stream of light on the eye of the old man. He does the same process for several nights until he finds the man awake, killing him and stuffing him underneath three boards in a cellar. All of this shown through the repeated mentality of the character leads the reader to believe that the main character really is mad. The most prominent thing, though, is that paragraph that ends the story.

No doubt I now grew very pale; –but I talked more fluently, and with a heightened voice. Yet the sound increased –and what could I do? It was a low, dull, quick sound –much such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. I gasped for breath –and yet the officers heard it not. I talked more quickly –more vehemently; but the noise steadily increased. I arose and argued about trifles, in a high key and with violent gesticulations; but the noise steadily increased. Why would they not be gone? I paced the floor to and fro with heavy strides, as if excited to fury by the observations of the men –but the noise steadily increased. Oh God! what could I do? I foamed –I raved –I swore! I swung the chair upon which I had been sitting, and grated it upon the boards, but the noise arose over all and continually increased. It grew louder –louder –louder! And still the men chatted pleasantly, and smiled. Was it possible they heard not? Almighty God! –no, no! 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! Anything was more tolerable than this derision! I could bear those hypocritical smiles no longer! I felt that I must scream or die! and now –again! –hark! louder! louder! louder! louder!

Through this paragraph the main character gets more and more paranoid. He is hearing the beating of the old mans heart in his ears and head, assured and convinced that the officers are acutely aware of what it is that he’s done, and are only mocking him. The old man is dead, and the main character cannot be hearing the heartbeat of the old man. This is the strongest implication we gat that our character is, in fact, mad, the conclusion of the story letting the reader draw their own conclusions.

Pt.2 The eye symbolism

The main conflict of the story is the main character’s desire to murder an old man he presumably works for. The reason, however, is the old man’s eye.

It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain; but once conceived, it haunted me day and night. Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye! yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture –a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees –very gradually –I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.

In this excerpt we learn the reason for the main character’s motivation. The old man’s eye deepy unsettles our main character. We get no further explanation from the narrator why he hates the eye so much other than the fact that it sends chills down his spine. Through the story we get the repeated theme that the main character isn’t mad. It is shown however, through his thoughts and actions that he is. He called himself ‘diseased’ and heard the beating heart of a dead man when nobody else is showing any sign that they can hear it. To me the eye symbolizes an understanding of the main character. The narrator has an aversion to being called out on his craziness, and the eye is doing just that. He’s afraid the eye can see through him and into his mind, see his crazed ambitions and capability for unfathomable deeds. The main character, of course, wants to get rid of any suspicion or doubt of his mental state, leading him to take away the eye completely.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why does the narrator make one of the main focuses of the story the mental state of the character?
  2. What do you think the eye symbolizes?

 

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