The Tell-Tale Heart
"The Tell-Tale Heart" is a short story
Short story
A short story is a work of fiction that is usually written in prose, often in narrative format. This format tends to be more pointed than longer works of fiction, such as novellas and novels. Short story definitions based on length differ somewhat, even among professional writers, in part because...

 by Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe was an American author, poet, editor and literary critic, considered part of the American Romantic Movement. Best known for his tales of mystery and the macabre, Poe was one of the earliest American practitioners of the short story and is considered the inventor of the detective...

 first published in 1843. It follows an unnamed narrator who insists on his sanity after murder
Murder is the unlawful killing, with malice aforethought, of another human being, and generally this state of mind distinguishes murder from other forms of unlawful homicide...

ing an old man with a "vulture eye". The murder is carefully calculated, and the murderer hides the body by dismembering
Dismemberment is the act of cutting, tearing, pulling, wrenching or otherwise removing, the limbs of a living thing. It may be practiced upon human beings as a form of capital punishment, as a result of a traumatic accident, or in connection with murder, suicide, or cannibalism...

 it and hiding it under the floorboards. Ultimately the narrator's guilt manifests itself in the hallucination that the man's heart is still beating under the floorboards.

It is unclear what relationship, if any, the old man and his murderer share. It has been suggested that the old man is a father figure
Father Figure
"Father Figure" is the U.S. number-one song written and performed by George Michael and released on Columbia Records in 1988 as the third single from the album Faith.-History:...

, or whether the narrator works for the old man as a servant, perhaps, that his vulture eye represents some sort of veiled secret, or power. The ambiguity and lack of details about the two main characters stand in stark contrast to the specific plot details leading up to the murder.

The story was first published in James Russell Lowell
James Russell Lowell
James Russell Lowell was an American Romantic poet, critic, editor, and diplomat. He is associated with the Fireside Poets, a group of New England writers who were among the first American poets who rivaled the popularity of British poets...

's The Pioneer in January 1843. "The Tell-Tale Heart" is widely considered a classic of the Gothic fiction
Gothic fiction
Gothic fiction, sometimes referred to as Gothic horror, is a genre or mode of literature that combines elements of both horror and romance. Gothicism's origin is attributed to English author Horace Walpole, with his 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto, subtitled "A Gothic Story"...

 genre and one of Poe's most famous short stories.

Plot summary

"The Tell-Tale Heart" is a first-person narrative
First-person narrative
First-person point of view is a narrative mode where a story is narrated by one character at a time, speaking for and about themselves. First-person narrative may be singular, plural or multiple as well as being an authoritative, reliable or deceptive "voice" and represents point of view in the...

 of an unnamed narrator
A narrator is, within any story , the fictional or non-fictional, personal or impersonal entity who tells the story to the audience. When the narrator is also a character within the story, he or she is sometimes known as the viewpoint character. The narrator is one of three entities responsible for...

  who insists he is sane but suffering from a disease (nervousness) which causes "over-acuteness of the senses". The old man with whom he lives has a clouded, pale, blue "vulture
Vulture is the name given to two groups of convergently evolved scavenging birds, the New World Vultures including the well-known Californian and Andean Condors, and the Old World Vultures including the birds which are seen scavenging on carcasses of dead animals on African plains...

-like" eye which so distresses the narrator that he plots to murder the old man, though the narrator states that he loves the old man, and hates only the eye. The narrator insists that his careful precision in committing the murder shows that he cannot possibly be insane. For seven nights, the narrator opens the door of the old man's room, a process which takes him a full hour. However, the old man's vulture eye is always closed, making it impossible to "do the work".

On the eighth night, the old man awakens and sits up in his own bed while the narrator performs his nightly ritual. The narrator does not draw back and, after some time, decides to open his lantern
A lantern is a portable lighting device or mounted light fixture used to illuminate broad areas. Lanterns may also be used for signaling, as 'torches', or as general light sources outdoors . Low light level varieties are used for decoration. The term "lantern" is also used more generically to...

. A single ray of light shines out and lands precisely on the old man's eye, revealing that it is wide open. Hearing the old man's heart beating unusually and dangerously quick from terror, the narrator decides to strike, jumping out with a loud yell and smothering the old man with his own bed. The narrator dismembers the body and conceals the pieces under the floorboards, making certain to hide all signs of the crime. Even so, the old man's scream during the night causes a neighbor to report to the police
The police is a personification of the state designated to put in practice the enforced law, protect property and reduce civil disorder in civilian matters. Their powers include the legitimized use of force...

. The narrator invites the three arriving officers in to look around. He claims that the screams heard were his own in a nightmare and that the man is absent in the country. Confident that they will not find any evidence of the murder, the narrator brings chairs for them and they sit in the old man's room, right on the very spot where the body is concealed, yet they suspect nothing, as the narrator has a pleasant and easy manner about him.

The narrator, however, begins to hear a faint noise. As the noise grows louder, the narrator comes to the conclusion that it is the heartbeat of the old man coming from under the floorboards. The sound increases steadily, though the officers seem to pay no attention to it. Shocked by the constant beating of the heart and a feeling that not only are the officers aware of the sound, but that they also suspect him, the narrator confesses to killing the old man and tells them to tear up the floorboards to reveal the body.


"The Tell-Tale Heart" uses an unreliable narrator
Unreliable narrator
An unreliable narrator is a narrator, whether in literature, film, or theatre, whose credibility has been seriously compromised. The term was coined in 1961 by Wayne C. Booth in The Rhetoric of Fiction. This narrative mode is one that can be developed by an author for a number of reasons, usually...

. The exactness with which the narrator recounts murdering the old man, as if his stealthy way of executing the crime is evidence of his sanity, reveals his monomania
In 19th century psychiatry, monomania is a single pathological preoccupation in an otherwise sound mind. Emotional monomania is that in which the patient is obsessed with only one emotion or several related to it; intellectual monomania is that which is related to only one kind of delirious idea...

 and paranoia
Paranoia [] is a thought process believed to be heavily influenced by anxiety or fear, often to the point of irrationality and delusion. Paranoid thinking typically includes persecutory beliefs, or beliefs of conspiracy concerning a perceived threat towards oneself...


The narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart" is generally assumed to be male. However, some critics have suggested a woman may be narrating; no pronouns are used to clarify one way or the other. The story starts in medias res
In medias res
In medias res or medias in res is a Latin phrase denoting the literary and artistic narrative technique wherein the relation of a story begins either at the mid-point or at the conclusion, rather than at the beginning In medias res or medias in res (into the middle of things) is a Latin phrase...

, in the middle of the event. The opening is an in-progress conversation between the narrator and another person who is not identified in any way. It is speculated that the narrator is confessing to a prison warden, judge, newspaper reporter, doctor or psychiatrist. This sparks the narrator's need to explain himself in great detail. What follows is a study of terror but, more specifically, the memory of terror as the narrator is relating events from the past. The first word of the story, "True!", is an admission of his guilt. This introduction also serves to immediately grab the reader's attention and pull him/her into the story. From there, every word contributes to the purpose of moving the story forward, possibly making "The Tell-Tale Heart" the best example of Poe's theories on a perfect short story.

The story is driven not by the narrator's insistence upon his innocence but by insistence on his sanity. This, however, is self-destructive because in attempting to prove his sanity he fully admits he is guilty of murder. His denial of insanity is based on his systemic actions and precision—a rational explanation for irrational behavior.
This rationality, however, is undermined by his lack of motivation ("Object there was none. Passion there was none."). Despite this, he says the idea of murder, "haunted me day and night". The story's final scene, however, is a result of the narrator's feelings of guilt. Like many characters in the Gothic
Gothic fiction
Gothic fiction, sometimes referred to as Gothic horror, is a genre or mode of literature that combines elements of both horror and romance. Gothicism's origin is attributed to English author Horace Walpole, with his 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto, subtitled "A Gothic Story"...

 tradition, his nerves dictate his true nature. Despite his best efforts at defending himself, the narrator's "over acuteness of the senses," which help him hear the heart beating in the floorboards, is actually evidence that he is truly mad. Readers during Poe's time would have been especially interested amidst the controversy over the insanity defense in the 1840s.

The narrator claims to have a disease which causes hypersensitivity in his senses. A similar motif is used for Roderick Usher in "The Fall of the House of Usher
The Fall of the House of Usher
"The Fall of the House of Usher" is a short story by Edgar Allan Poe, first published in September 1839 in Burton's Gentleman's Magazine. It was slightly revised in 1840 for the collection Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque...

" (1839) and in "The Colloquy of Monos and Una" (1841). It is unclear, however, if the narrator actually has very acute senses or if he is merely imagining things. If his condition is believed to be true, what he hears at the end of the story may not be the old man's heart but death watch beetle
Death watch beetle
The death watch beetle, Xestobium rufovillosum, is a woodboring beetle. The adult beetle is long, while the xylophagous larvae are up to long....

s. The narrator first admits to hearing death watches in the wall after startling the old man from his sleep. According to superstition, death watches are a sign of impending death. One variety of death watch beetles raps its head against surfaces, presumably as part of a mating ritual, while others emit a ticking sound. Henry David Thoreau
Henry David Thoreau
Henry David Thoreau was an American author, poet, philosopher, abolitionist, naturalist, tax resister, development critic, surveyor, historian, and leading transcendentalist...

 had suggested in 1838 that the death watch beetles sound similar to a heartbeat. Alternatively, if the heart beating is really a product of the narrator's imagination, it is that uncontrolled imagination that leads to his own destruction.

The relationship between the old man and the narrator is ambiguous, as are their names, their occupations, and where they live. In fact, that ambiguity adds to the tale as an ironic counter to the strict attention to detail in the plot. The narrator may be a servant of the old man's or, as is more often assumed, his son. In that case, the "vulture" eye of the old man is symbolizing parental surveillance and possibly the paternal principles of right and wrong. The murder of the eye, then, is a removal of conscience. The eye may also represent secrecy, again playing on the ambiguous lack of detail about the old man or the narrator. Only when the eye is finally found open on the final night, penetrating the veil of secrecy, is the murder carried out. Regardless, their relationship is incidental; the focus of the story is the perverse scheme to commit the perfect crime.

Former United States Poet Laureate
Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress
The Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress—commonly referred to as the United States Poet Laureate—serves as the nation's official poet. During his or her term, the Poet Laureate seeks to raise the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of...

 Richard Wilbur
Richard Wilbur
Richard Purdy Wilbur is an American poet and literary translator. He was appointed the second Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in 1987, and twice received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, in 1957 and again in 1989....

 has suggested that the tale is an allegorical representation of Poe's poem "To Science". The poem shows the struggle between imagination and science. In "The Tell-Tale Heart," the old man represents the scientific rational mind while the narrator is the imaginative.

Publication history

"The Tell-Tale Heart" was first published in the first issue of Boston
Boston is the capital of and largest city in Massachusetts, and is one of the oldest cities in the United States. The largest city in New England, Boston is regarded as the unofficial "Capital of New England" for its economic and cultural impact on the entire New England region. The city proper had...

-based magazine The Pioneer in January 1843, edited by James Russell Lowell
James Russell Lowell
James Russell Lowell was an American Romantic poet, critic, editor, and diplomat. He is associated with the Fireside Poets, a group of New England writers who were among the first American poets who rivaled the popularity of British poets...

. Poe was likely paid only $10. Its original publication included an epigraph which quoted Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was an American poet and educator whose works include "Paul Revere's Ride", The Song of Hiawatha, and Evangeline...

 poem "A Psalm of Life
A psalm of life
"A Psalm of Life" is a poem written by American writer Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.-Composition and publication history:Longfellow wrote the poem shortly after completing lectures on German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and was heavily inspired by him...

". The story was slightly revised when republished in the August 23, 1845, edition of the Broadway Journal
Broadway Journal
The Broadway Journal was a short-lived New York City-based periodical founded by Charles Frederick Briggs and John Bisco in 1844. A year later, the publication was bought by Edgar Allan Poe, becoming the only magazine he ever owned, though it failed after only a few months under his...

. This edition omitted Longfellow's poem because, Poe believed, it was plagiarized. "The Tell-Tale Heart" was reprinted several additional times during Poe's lifetime.


  • The earliest acknowledged adaptation of "The Tell-Tale Heart" was in a 1928 silent film of the same name directed by Leon Shamroy
    Leon Shamroy
    Leon Shamroy, A.S.C. was an American film cinematographer. Together with Charles Lang, he holds the record for most number of Academy Award nominations for Cinematography...

     and starring Otto Matieson
    Otto Matieson
    Otto Matieson was a Danish actor of the silent era. He appeared in 45 films between 1920 and 1931.He was born in Copenhagen, Denmark and died in Safford, Arizona.-Selected filmography:...

     and Darvas
    Darvas is a village in Hajdú-Bihar county, in the Northern Great Plain region of eastern Hungary.-Geography:It covers an area of and has a population of 677 people ....

    . It stayed faithful to the original tale, though future television and film adaptations often expanded the short story to full-length feature films.
  • A 1953 animated short film produced by United Productions of America
    United Productions of America
    United Productions of America, better known as UPA, was an American animation studio of the 1940s through present day, beginning with industrial films and World War II training films. In the late 1940s, UPA produced theatrical shorts for Columbia Pictures, most notably the Mr. Magoo series. In...

     and narrated by James Mason
    James Mason
    James Neville Mason was an English actor who attained stardom in both British and American films. Mason remained a powerful figure in the industry throughout his career and was nominated for three Academy Awards as well as three Golden Globes .- Early life :Mason was born in Huddersfield, in the...

     is included among the list of films preserved in the United States National Film Registry.
  • Also in 1953, a "Variation" on "The Tell-Tale Heart" entitled "Sleep No More," by Gaines and Feldstein, appeared.
  • A 1960 film adaptation, The Tell-Tale Heart
    The Tell-Tale Heart (1960 film)
    The Tell-Tale Heart is a 1960 British horror film directed by Ernest Morris. The screenplay by Brian Clemens and Eldon Howard is a loose adaptation of the 1843 short story of the same title by Edgar Allan Poe.-Plot:...

    adds a love triangle to the story.
  • The film Nightmares from the Mind of Poe (2006) adapts "The Tell-Tale Heart" along with "The Cask of Amontillado
    The Cask of Amontillado
    "The Cask of Amontillado" is a short story by Edgar Allan Poe, first published in the November 1846 issue of Godey's Lady's Book....

    ", "The Premature Burial
    The Premature Burial
    "The Premature Burial" is a horror short story on the theme of being buried alive, written by Edgar Allan Poe and published in 1844 in The Philadelphia Dollar Newspaper. Fear of being buried alive was common in this period and Poe was taking advantage of the public interest...

    " and "The Raven
    The Raven
    "The Raven" is a narrative poem by American writer Edgar Allan Poe, first published in January 1845. It is often noted for its musicality, stylized language, and supernatural atmosphere. It tells of a talking raven's mysterious visit to a distraught lover, tracing the man's slow descent into madness...

  • The Radio Tales
    Radio Tales
    Radio Tales is an American series of radio dramas produced by Generations Productions. This series adapted classic works of American and world literature such as The War of the Worlds, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Beowulf, Gulliver's Travels, and the One Thousand and One Nights...

     series produced the drama The Tell-Tale Heart for National Public Radio. The story was performed by Winifred Phillips
    Winifred Phillips
    Winifred Phillips is an American music composer for video games and radio, a published fantasy author, and a radio producer and actress.-Video games:...

     along with music composed by her.
  • The Canadian
    Canada is a North American country consisting of ten provinces and three territories. Located in the northern part of the continent, it extends from the Atlantic Ocean in the east to the Pacific Ocean in the west, and northward into the Arctic Ocean...

     radio program Nightfall
    Nightfall (CBC)
    Nightfall is the title of a radio drama series produced and aired by CBC Radio from July 1980 to June 1983. While primarily a supernatural/horror series, Nightfall featured some episodes in other genres, such as science fiction, mystery, fantasy, and human drama. One episode was even adapted from...

    presented an adaptation on August 1, 1980.
  • A 2009 thriller film, Tell-Tale
    Tell-Tale (film)
    Tell-Tale is a 2009 thriller film inspired by the Edgar Allan Poe short story The Tell-Tale Heart. It is directed by Michael Cuesta and stars Josh Lucas, Lena Headey, and Brian Cox and is produced by Tony Scott and Ridley Scott.-Plot:...

    , produced by Ridley Scott
    Ridley Scott
    Sir Ridley Scott is an English film director and producer. His most famous films include The Duellists , Alien , Blade Runner , Legend , Thelma & Louise , G. I...

     and Tony Scott
    Tony Scott
    Anthony D. L. "Tony" Scott is an English film director. His films include Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop II, The Last Boy Scout, True Romance, Crimson Tide, Enemy of the State, Spy Game, Man on Fire, Déjà Vu, The Taking of Pelham 123, and Unstoppable...

    , credits Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" as the basis for the story of a man being haunted by his donor's memories, after a heart transplant.
  • In the 1972 film An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe
    An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe
    An Evening of Edgar Allan Poe is a 52-minute film which features Vincent Price, in front of a live audience, reciting four of Edgar Allan Poe's stories....

    , four of Poe's short stories are recited by Vincent Price
    Vincent Price
    Vincent Leonard Price, Jr. was an American actor, well known for his distinctive voice and serio-comic attitude in a series of horror films made in the latter part of his career.-Early life and career:Price was born in St...

     in front of a live audience, including "The Tell-Tale Heart".
  • Another adaption was by Steven Berkoff in 1991, and was broadcast on British television. This adaptation was originally presented on British TV as part of the acclaimed series "Without Walls". This version was later broadcast in the United States on the cable channel BRAVO as part of the Texaco
    Texaco is the name of an American oil retail brand. Its flagship product is its fuel "Texaco with Techron". It also owns the Havoline motor oil brand....

    Performing Arts

External links

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