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Literature / The Tell-Tale Heart

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Illustration from the 1919 edition.

"True! —nervous —very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?"
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"The Tell-Tale Heart" is an 1843 short story written by Edgar Allan Poe. It is a classic of Gothic Horror and one of his most famous, adapted and referenced works next to The Raven.

The narrator tells you nothing about themselves, not even their name or gender, except for the fact that they are not mad! The narrator lives with an old man. The narrator professes to love the old man, but is fixated on the old man's "vulture-like evil eye", to the point that the narrator is driven crazy. The narrator goes on to tell you about the methodical, patient, and extremely thorough way that they set about committing murder.

Read it here or hear it read here.

In 1953, an acclaimed animated short film of The Tell-Tale Heart was produced by UPA. It is #24 on The 50 Greatest Cartoons list. The film was directed by Ted Parmalee, with the story read by none other than James Mason.

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A song version appears on The Alan Parsons Project's 1976 debut album "Tales of Mystery and Imagination", with remarkably manic vocals by guest artist Arthur Brown.


It is the beating of his hideous tropes!:

  • Ambiguous Disorder: It's not clear exactly what is wrong with the narrator, just that they're certifiably mad, despite their claims to the contrary.
  • Ambiguous Gender: It's never clearly stated whether the narrator is male or female, though most assume the former.
  • Beat Still, My Heart: The Old Man's heart still beats, even in death. Or so the narrator believes.
  • Buried Alive: The narrator thinks the old man they killed is, but it's a product of their mind.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: The narrator kills the Old Man, not because they hate him, but because his hideous eye bothered them that much.
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  • Faux Affably Evil: The narrator, who apparently was never nicer to the Old Man than during the week before they murdered him.
  • Featureless Protagonist: invokedA non-video game example. The reader is never told anything about what the narrator looks like (including their gender), or anything about their past. This had led to various Epileptic Trees about who the narrator is and how they're related to the Old Man.
  • First-Person Perspective: The story is told from the POV of the Unreliable Narrator.
  • Mad Eye: The Old Man has, by the narrator's account, a vulture's eye, with a blue iris and a film over it.
  • Nameless Narrative: None of the characters are given actual names.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: In-universe. The old man is terrified, sitting up in the dark for what is apparently hours at a time in pitch blackness because a noise at night woke him up. The narrator even comments that he can hear the old man whimpering in mortal terror.
  • Sanity Slippage: Twice. First, the narrator's obsession with the Old Man's eye grows more and more intense, until they can't take it anymore and kill him. Second, the narrator successfully manages to fool the police into thinking they're innocent, but then they hear what seems to be the Old Man's heart still beating. The sound drives them even more insane until they scream and blow their cover by admitting to the crime.
  • Suspiciously Specific Denial: The narrator insists that they aren't insane, including in the first line of dialogue, chocking up the things they see and hear in their insanity as just having very acute sight and hearing.
  • Terrible Ticking: The Trope Maker. The narrator thinks they can hear the Old Man's heart, even after they killed him.
  • Through the Eyes of Madness: Due to First-Person Perspective, the reader sees only through the killer's point of view. Even while the narrator insists that they're perfectly sane, their descriptions and actions, such as standing perfectly still for an hour in a doorway, prove that they're completely nuts.
  • Unreliable Narrator: The Narrator insists they're sane, but their precision and rationalizing of how well they planned the murder reveal they're an overly nervous, paranoid monomaniac.
  • Vorpal Pillow: The narrator kills the old man by smothering him with part of his bed. In the animated version of the story, it's with the covers.
  • Villain Protagonist: The narrator is a murderer, and their tale concerns the murder they committed.
  • Villainous Breakdown: The narrator hears the old man's heart beating through the floor, growing ever louder. Eventually, the narrator starts screaming, swearing, and smashing at the floorboards where they've buried the old man's corpse, finally confessing to the police just to make the noise stop.
    "Villains! Dissemble no more! I admit the deed! Tear up the planks! Here, here! It is the beating of his hideous heart!"

Tropes found in the 1953 cartoon:

  • Animated Adaptation: One which uses a very effective minimalist style, with angular shapes and little movement.
  • Chiaroscuro: We never see the old house well-lit or in daytime; it's always dark and spooky.
  • Eye Motifs: Throughout the film, the camera focuses on white round objects - the full moon, a water pitcher, some lightbulbs - that represent the narrator's obsession with the Old Man's eye.
  • The Faceless:
    • Because the short is shot from his point of view, the narrator is never seen, except for his shadow on the prison wall and brief glimpses of his hand.
    • The faces of the cops who come to investigate are never seen in full.
  • Limited Animation: More so than UPA's other shorts. A moth, some creeping shadows, the Old Man's sheets as he's being murdered, and a handful of figures walking in the distance are about all there is animation-wise.
  • Macabre Moth Motif: A moth flitting through the old man's room and scaring him makes things just that much creepier.
  • P.O.V. Cam: After an establishing shot, the entire short takes place from the perspective of the narrator.

Boom clap, the sound of my heart, the beat goes on and on and on and on and...
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