The Gradual Unfolding of Madness in The Tell-Tale Heart, a Short Story by Edgar Allan Poe

In ‘Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Tell-tale Heart’, Poe seeks to show the slow unravelling of madness, as he describes an unnamed figure descend into a complete physiological breakdown. The lack of description for the narrator himself, and the ambiguous ending ensures that the true meaning of his short story is impossible to quantify. However perhaps that was ‘Poe’s’ aim in the first place, as how can one truly come to understand madness?

“The Tell-tale Heart” distinctly atmospheric style of writing successfully creates a deep sense of dread and fear as it plays upon the most common physiological fear that all humans have within them, the fear of being watched from the dark as they sleep.

The narrator further emphasises this dread as he writes from an almost omnipotent viewpoint, describing the ‘old mans’ emotions as if they were his own. The consistent references to ’time’ ensure the reader is constantly aware of the ‘old mans’ fast approaching fate however the allusion to ‘eyes’ suggests something else.

Rather than two separate entities, phrases like “vulture eyes” alludes towards the fact that the story is actually describing that of one man, as “vultures eyes” is a homophone that can be re-written as ‘vultures I’, with vulture being a blatant reference to murder. Reading from this viewpoint the story becomes far more realistic, as the “beating of the old man’s heart” is a reference to his own, fast beating heart.

The similarities in both the old man and the narrator’s emotions also makes greater sense, “old man’s terror” and “uncontrollable terror”, and whilst it is clear that the unnamed narrator does commit a murder on someone, it is unlikely that the emotions described belong to that of the murdered ‘old man’.

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Indeed it can also be read further, as the context of the ‘Tell-tale Heart’ is set in the 1860’s, in which murder would have resulted in the death sentence; this has led to the popular theory that the mirrored emotions, ‘eye’ references, and the successful nature in which he hid his evil deed and then admitted to it, was actually a long and cumbersome method in which to kill himself. By empathising with the ‘old man’ to the point where they felt the same emotions he successfully killed himself by killing the ‘old man’.

However, due to the ambiguous style of the ending and the narrators’ unreliability, this reference to the “vulture’s eye” can also be explored differently. The minimalistic style in which Poe approaches description in this short story is constant except for his characterisation of the ‘old man’, as he goes to great lengths to describe his the narrators feelings towards said figure. “I loved the old man… He had never wronged me”. This suggests that rather than wanting to murder the ‘old man’ out of some incorrect hatred bom from the madness he so explicitly denies, the narrator instead merely wishes to help him; to separate him from his “vulture I” so that he may be free of any perceived guilt the narrator fears he feels. This is perhaps a reference to the physiological phenomenon of people hurting others out of love however the narrator, in his single mindedness to destroy the “vulture eye”, fails to see that it is physically tied to the ‘old man’ and cannot be separated.

Despite this, the idea that the ‘old mans’ emotions is that of the narrator himself can also be seen in the structure of the extract; as its fluidity can represent that of the narrators heartbeat. The opening paragraphs are short and in great supply, representing that of a slowly beating heart. However upon the eve of the action, the structure suddenly becomes a single, long paragraph; with multiple short sentences ensuring a fast and frantic atmosphere, again embodying that of a fast beating heart. The economical style in which the story is written is a complete opposite to the depth of detail given to that of the narrators emotions and the use of italics, “must”, seems to place great emphasis on the emotional rollercoaster on which the narrator is riding.

It is possible that this has simply been done by the narrator himself as one assumes that the context in which he describes this story must be done from a jail cell or a courtroom, and what is every criminal’s innermost desire then to ensure another human being understands his reasoning? However it is more likely that ‘Poe’ himself has done this to expose the truth that the narrator has spent half this short story denying, that his belief in his complete empathise with the ‘old man’ and that his actions are justified due to wanting to save him, is an overriding example of the narrators all-encompassing madness.

Therefore it would seem that Poe’s interest and aims lies in defining that of madness, and more in understanding the complexities of it; as the only brief reference to any external authority resides in that of the short cameo of two policeman, who are typically useless and are only there as a means in which to ensure the narrator is met with true justice. This lack of references to external power ensures that Poe, and the readers, focus is completely on that of the narrator and therefore the increasing effects that guilt and paranoia can have on that of a broken mind.

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The Gradual Unfolding of Madness in The Tell-Tale Heart, a Short Story by Edgar Allan Poe. (2022, Apr 20). Retrieved from

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