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  • Michael Rickard II

"Piercing the Veil: The Narrator in 'The Tell-Tale Heart.'"

Here's a blast from the past (2015), an essay I wrote on Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart."

The narrator in “The Tell-Tale Heart” (hereafter referred to as “Heart”) does not give us much information about who they are (for purposes of this essay, I will describe the narrator as “he”). This is one of Poe’s most ambiguous narratives (he was well-known for using unreliable narrators). It appears that the narrator is some sort of caretaker to the old man.

What is particular interesting about the narrator is that he goes out of his way to state that he is mentally stable.However his actions and statements indicate otherwise.He says that he is “very, very dreadfully nervous”.He describes how he is “haunted day and night” by his idea to kill the man.Later on he describes how he can hear the dead man’s heart beating.

The narrator states that he killed the old man because the old man’s eye seemed to be locked on him. “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;” The narrator states that this feeling compelled him to kill the old man and “rid myself of the eye forever.” The narrator says that he had liked the old man and that he did not desire his wealth.The narrator’s motive seems extremely irrational. If the narrator had no ill will towards the old man, why would the old man’s eye bother him so much that he became murderous?

We are not given the nature of the relationship between the narrator and the old man.We can only guess.The narrator may be a caretaker.He may be a relative. If the narrator is female, she could be a spouse. We have no way of knowing. All we know is that the narrator lives with the old man.

The narrator feels his head ache and begins to hear a ringing.He describes the sounds as “a low, dull, quick sound-much such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton”.The noise increases and eventually the narrator cannot take it anymore and confesses to the crime and crying out that he hears the beating of the old man’s heart.

Like many of Poe’s stories, the ending is subject to more than one interpretation.The first interpretation is that the narrator’s hypersensitive hearing hears the old man’s beating heart (why the heart would be beating after death is never explained) and it compels him to confess his crime.Another interpretation is that the narrator’s guilt overwhelms him and he has an auditory hallucination that compels him to confess the crime.

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