If you’re not familiar with the work of Edgar Allen Poe, you might think “The Tell-Tale Heart” is a love story or maybe even a story about a jilted lover.
This is a clear case of why you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover (or a short story by its title). “The Tell-Tale Heart” is anything but a love story.
So if you’ve arrived at this post looking for help before actually reading the story, I suggest you read (and maybe listen to) the story first. (If you’re into reading about creepy insane murderers, you might be pleasantly surprised.)
Okay, now that we’re on the same page and are witnesses to the murder, let’s talk about how to write about this story. Once you know how, you can get started with your Tell-Tale Heart essay.
Understanding Literary Analysis
If you want to write a good literary analysis (and I assume you do), you need to read the literature carefully and understand what it’s about. A good literary analysis doesn’t mean that you can just summarize the plot.
Of course, you need to be able to summarize, and summarizing will be a useful skill when writing your paper, but literary analysis is about analysis, not summary.
Writing a literary analysis is your chance to show off your knowledge of all those literary terms you’ve been learning about, such as theme, symbolism, tone, and point of view.
Today, we’re focusing on the specifics of “The Tell-Tale Heart” though, not literary analysis in general. But if you want more help with understanding literary analysis, check out these resources:
How to Write a Heartfelt Tell-Tale Heart Essay
How much information and what type of information you include in your analysis will, of course, depend on the focus of your paper. If, for instance, you’re supposed to be writing about symbolism, you won’t likely include a detailed analysis of theme.
One of the first things you’ll need to do is write a thesis statement so that you know the focus before you start.
If you’re not sure what to focus on in your Tell-Tale Heart essay, here are four ideas.
Narration and point of view
“The Tell-Tale Heart” is told in first-person point of view through the eyes of the narrator, a madman who commits a murder.
Why is this important to the story? Think about it. How reliable is the narration of an insane person? Readers only get to learn about the situation, other characters, and the narrator himself through his ramblings.
Not convinced that the type of narration makes a difference? Consider how the story might be different if it were told through the eyes of the old man who was murdered.
What might he think of the madman? What would the story be like if told from the perspective of the police officers or from a third person, omniscient narrator?
There are several symbols in “The Tell-Tale Heart,” but two of the most prominent are the old man’s heart and his eye. (Your essay might focus on a variety of symbols in the story or on just one.)
The old man’s heart: The narrator hears the old man’s heart beating even though it’s impossible because the old man is dead. The heart reveals the narrator’s conscience and symbolizes his humanity as he finally confesses.
The old man’s eye: Eyes are often said to be the windows to the soul. The madman focuses on the old man’s eye so intently, though, that the madman only sees the old man as an eye and nothing more.
The narrator is haunted by the eye, and he calls it “evil” and a “vulture.” These words more accurately describe (and symbolize) the narrator because he viciously hunts and kills the old man.
If you’ve ever read an academic journal article, I’m sure that you’ve noticed that they’re usually filled with a lot of ginormous technical words and ridiculously long sentences. Academics just have a tendency to write that way.
Here’s an example:
“The aim of the study was to analyse the relative frequency of use of a range of operational research modelling approaches in health care, along with the specific domains of application and the level of implementation” (Source).
Try reading it aloud. You almost have to stop to take a breath!
Now take a look at a few sentences from “The Tell-Tale Heart”:
“Above all was the sense of hearing. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in the underworld. How, then, am I mad?”
Poe’s four sentences combined are shorter than one of the journal article’s. So what, right?
Here’s the so what.
If you’re reading the journal article, you’re reading slowly because the bigger words and compound sentence structure create more complex thoughts.
Academics are writing thoughtfully detailed articles. The purpose is for you (the reader) to move through the work at a slower pace—to pause, to reflect, and to internalize the information.
If you’re reading Poe’s sentences, you move through them quickly. Poe writes in short sentences to mimic speech. The short sentences allow the reader to read the story more quickly.
Sure, if you’re reading quickly you can get done with your reading assignment is no time flat, but that’s not Poe’s purpose in writing in short sentences.
These short sentences represent the scattered, frantic thoughts of a madman.
At the beginning of the story, his mind and thoughts are racing because of his insanity. His thoughts then become even more frantic due to his guilty conscience after he commits the murder and faces the police officers.
If you’re writing a character analysis about “The Tell-Tale Heart,” you’ll likely focus on the narrator. The narrator of this story is most certainly a madman.
One of the key pieces of evidence is the narrator’s own words when he tries to convince readers that he’s actually sane:
“True! Nervous — very, very nervous I had been and am! But why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses — not destroyed them.”
The fact that the narrator is so adamant of his sanity gives readers a glimpse into his madness.
As you develop the analysis in your Tell-Tale Heart essay, also consider what other elements you know about the madman. For instance, consider his living conditions, relationships with others, and so on. This will help you create a more detailed analysis.
Looking for more tips on writing a strong character analysis? Read How to Write a Character Analysis That Works and 2 Character Analysis Essay Examples with Character.
Connecting the Ideas
As you decide which elements to include in your Tell-Tale Heart essay, keep an important point in mind. You might be required to focus on one specific element, such as symbolism or a character. But you also could be assigned a more general analysis of the short story itself.
In this case, you could include several of the elements I’ve explained in this post. (Just make sure to read your assignment guidelines closely to know which path you need to take.)
Need a little inspiration to help figure out how to make the connections? Check out these example essays about “The Tell-Tale Heart.”
Has writing your Tell-Tale Heart essay turned you into a madman (or madwoman)? Need help sorting out the details and regaining your sanity? Let a Kibin editor help!
Psst... 98% of Kibin users report better grades! Get inspiration from over 500,000 example essays.
Before beginning his account, the unnamed narrator claims that he is nervous and oversensitive but not mad, and offers his calmness in the narration as proof of his sanity. He then explains how although he loved a certain old man who had never done him wrong and desired none of his money, the narrator could not stand the sight of the old man's pale, filmy blue eye. The narrator claims that he was so afraid of the eye, which reminds him of a vulture's, that he decided to kill the man so he would no longer have to see it.
Although the narrator is aware that this rationalization seems to indicate his insanity, he explains that he cannot be mad because instead of being foolish about his desires, he went about murdering the old man with "caution" and "foresight." In the week before the murder, the narrator is very kind to the old man, and every night around midnight, he sneaks into the old man's room and cautiously shines a lantern onto the man's eye. However, because the eye is always closed and the narrator wishes to rid himself of the eye rather than the man, the narrator never tries to kill him, and the next morning, he again enters the chamber and cheerfully asks how the old man has slept, in order to avoid suspicion.
On the eighth night, the narrator is particularly careful while opening the door, but this time, his thumb slips on the lantern's fastening, waking the old man. The narrator freezes, but even after an hour, the old man does not return to sleep because he feels afraid and senses someone's presence. At length, the narrator decides to slowly open the lantern until the light shines on the old man's eye, which is wide open. The narrator's nerves are wracked by the sight, and he fancies that because of his oversensitivity, he has begun to hear the beating of the old man's heart.
The beating firms his resolve as he continues to increase the intensity of the light on the man's eye. The beating grows louder and louder until the narrator begins to worry that a neighbor will hear the noise, so he decides to attack. The old man screams once before the narrator drags him to the floor and stifles him with the mattress. When the narrator stops hearing the beating, he examines the corpse before dismembering it and concealing it beneath the floorboards. He laughs somewhat hysterically as he describes how the tub caught all the blood, leaving no stains on the floor.
By the time he finishes the clean-up, it is four in the morning, and someone knocks on the door. In a cheerful mood, the narrator answers the door only to find three policemen who have come to investigate because a neighbor heard the old man's shriek and alerted the police to the possibility of foul play. The narrator invites them inside, knowing that he has nothing to fear, and he explains that he had been the one to yell as a result of a bad dream and that the old man is currently out visiting the country. He shows the policemen the house and confidently allows them to search it before bringing out chairs which he, in his assurance, places on top of the floorboards that hide the corpse.
The narrator's lack of suspicious behavior convinces the policemen that nothing is wrong, and they sit down on the chairs and chat with him. However, after a while, the narrator begins to wish that the policemen would leave, as his head aches and he hears a ringing in his ears. The ringing increases in volume, for which the narrator compensates by chatting more jovially, but it finally turns into a dull beating which also begins to rise in volume. The narrator becomes more and more agitated in his behavior, gesturing wildly and pacing back and forth, but the policemen hear and suspect nothing.
Soon, the narrator begins to suspect that the pleasantries of the policemen are merely a ruse to ridicule his distress. However, he cannot stand the intensity of the beating and grows tired of what he perceives as the mockery of the policemen. He feels that he "must scream or die," so he finally shrieks the truth, telling the policemen to tear up the floorboards and reveal the beating of the old man's heart.
The protagonist of the "The Tell-Tale Heart" is a classic example of Poe's unreliable narrator, a man who cannot be trusted to tell the objective truth of what is occurring. His unreliability becomes immediately evident in the first paragraph of the story, when he insists on his clarity of mind and attributes any signs of madness to his nervousness and oversensitivity, particularly in the area of hearing. However, as soon as he finishes his declaration of sanity, he offers an account that has a series of apparent logical gaps that can only be explained by insanity. In his writings, Poe often sought to capture the state of mind of psychotic characters, and the narrator of this story exhibits leaps of reasoning that more resemble the logic of dreams than they do the thought processes of a normal human being.
The narrator's emotional instability provides a clear counterargument to his assertions of good judgment. In almost no cases does he respond in the manner that one would expect. He is so bothered by the old man's vulture-like eye that his loathing overcomes his love for the man, leading him to premeditate a murder. Later, when he finally succeeds in killing the victim, he becomes positively cheerful, feeling that he has accomplished his goal cleverly and with the rationality that he associates with sanity. However, the unsuspecting behavior of the policemen suggests that the narrator has become essentially unaware of his behavior and his surroundings. Because he cannot maintain the distance between reality and his inner thoughts, he mistakes his mental agitation for physical agitation and misinterprets the innocent chatter of the policemen for malevolence. Nevertheless, he imagines the whole time that he has correctly and rationally interpreted all the events of the story, suggesting that in Poe's mind, the key to irrationality is the belief in one's rationality.
The irony of the narrator's account in "The Tell-Tale Heart" is that although he proclaims himself to be too calm to be a madman, he is defeated by a noise that may be interpreted as the beating of his own heart. Because of the unreliability of the narrator, it is impossible to know for certain if the beating is a supernatural effect, the product of his own imagination, or an actual sound. However, a likely logical explanation is that when the protagonist is under stress, he hears the sound of his heart, "a low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes enveloped in cotton," and he mistakes it for the sound of the old man's heart. This lack of understanding parallels his lack of awareness of his actions as he chats with the policemen and highlights the lapses in reason which belie his claims of sanity.
In order to create a narrative which will convince the reader of the protagonist's instability, Poe uses vocabulary that is consistently ironic or otherwise jarring to provoke a reaction contrary to that which the narrator desires. The rhetorical technique that he uses in his account is to manipulate the connotations of words, but he is never subtle enough to hide his attempt to spin the argument. Where an outside observer might describe him as having plotted to observe the old man as he sleeps, the narrator tells the reader that "you should have seen how wisely I proceeded--with what caution--with what foresight--with what dissimulation I went to work!" By exploiting his choice of words such as "wisely" and "caution," he seeks to deceive the reader and explain his actions as those of a prudent, clever individual. However, the blatancy of his attempt at deception enlightens rather than hoodwinks his audience.
Much as the minute depiction of the prisoner's experiences and senses creates an atmosphere of anticipatory terror in "The Pit and the Pendulum," Poe's manner of describing sound becomes a particularly important vehicle for conveying the mood of "The Tell-Tale Heart." His description of the sound in the last few paragraphs of the tale is marked by repetitions that are clearly intended to imply the crescendo of noise. When he says, "The ringing became more distinct:--It continued and became more distinct," we sense the building tension. The increasing intensity of the beating is again emphasized by the three repetitions of the phrase "but the noise steadily increased." Finally, as the narrator's sentences turn rapidly into exclamations, his repetition of the word "louder" echoes the sound of the beating heart, and his final shrieks shatter the tension with his confession.