Poe’s Short Stories

by: Edgar Allan Poe

“The Tell-Tale Heart” (1843)

Summary “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1843)

The narrator’s newly heightened sensitivity to sound ultimately overcomes him, as he proves unwilling or unable to distinguish between real and imagined sounds. Because of his warped sense of reality, he obsesses over the low beats of the man’s heart yet shows little concern about the man’s shrieks, which are loud enough both to attract a neighbor’s attention and to draw the police to the scene of the crime. The police do not perform a traditional, judgmental role in this story. Ironically, they aren’t terrifying agents of authority or brutality. Poe’s interest is less in external forms of power than in the power that pathologies of the mind can hold over an individual. The narrator’s paranoia and guilt make it inevitable that he will give himself away. The police arrive on the scene to give him the opportunity to betray himself. The more the narrator proclaims his own cool manner, the more he cannot escape the beating of his own heart, which he mistakes for the beating of the old man’s heart. As he confesses to the crime in the final sentence, he addresses the policemen as “[v]illains,” indicating his inability to distinguish between their real identity and his own villainy.