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Literature / The Tell-Tale Heart

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Illustration by Harry Clarke from the 1919 edition.

"True! —nervous —very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?"

"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 or here by none other than Bela Lugosi.

In 1953, an animated short film of The Tell-Tale Heart was produced by UPA. It was directed by Ted Parmalee, with the story read by none other than James Mason.

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!:

  • Acting Unnatural: Played with. The narrator describes theirself as calmly and coolly humoring the police, then slowly becoming agitated and wild as they outstay their welcome, until finally, in a frenzy, they start to grind their chair against the floor just to drive away the noise. The officers, in the murderer's eyes, don't seem to notice — suggesting that the men are either waiting for them to confess, or that they never had a firm handle on the situation to begin with and just couldn't perceive the officers' growing nervousness and suspicion.
    No doubt I now grew very pale; but I talked more fluently and with a heightened voice. Yet the sound increased — and what could I do? [...] I gasped for breath — and yet the officers heard it not. I talked more quickly — more vehemently; but the noise steadily increased. I arose and argued about trifles, in a high key and with violent gesticulations; but the noise steadily increased. Why would they not be gone? I paced the floor to and fro with heavy strides, as if excited to fury by the observations of the men — but the noise steadily increased. O God! what could I do? I foamed — I raved — I swore! I swung the chair upon which I had been sitting, and grated it upon the boards, but the noise arose over all and continually increased. It grew louder — louder — louder! And still the men chatted pleasantly, and smiled.
  • Ax-Crazy: The narrator, despite their proclamations to the contrary, is quite a delusional, deranged soul and proves it by violently murdering the old man that lived with them simply because of his strange-looking eye. It doesn’t help that they quickly devolve into a ranting, raving wreck when questioned by the authorities.
  • 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.
  • Dismembering the Body: The Villain Protagonist dismembers his victim's body and hides it under the floorboards. This does not stop him from imagining/hearing the corpse's heart beating while the police are visiting, driving him to expose his own crime.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: The narrator kills the Old Man, not because they hate him, but because his hideous eye bothered them that much.
  • 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.
  • I Take Offense to That Last One: The narrator fully admits to being a murderer but appears bothered at being labeled mad, and tells their story to convince everyone otherwise.
  • Loose Floorboard Hiding Spot: After the villain protagonist killed the old man, the villain hid the dead body under some loose floorboards before the police arrived to investigate.
  • Mad Eye: The Old Man has, by the narrator's account, a vulture's eye, with a blue iris and a film over it.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: It’s left up in the air whether the narrator did in fact hear the old man’s continuing heartbeat, if it was merely the result of a fit of delusional guilt and paranoia, or if it was the death watch beetles in the walls of the old house, which make their own little ticking noises.
  • The Mentally Disturbed: It's not clear exactly what is wrong with the narrator, just that they're certifiably mad, despite their claims to the contrary.
    • The clearest bits we do get is the narrator definitely suffers from monomania and likely a delusional mind, possibly schizophrenia. Another theory suggests if they can hear as well as they claim to, they’re likely suffering from misophonia, an intense adverse reaction to certain noises, on top of their schizophrenia. However, since this was written in a time where the best kind of mental health was simply keeping the insane locked away or subjected to inhumane “treatments”, we’ll never know for sure.
  • Most Definitely Not a Villain: The narrator constantly insists that they are sane, despite some pretty good evidence to the contrary, such as murdering an old man for having a really creepy eye.
  • Nameless Narrative: None of the characters are given actual names.
  • Near-Villain Victory: The narrator's manners and hospitality convinces the officers that nothing was amiss, and they likely would have gotten away with the murder. Then they hear the old man's heart beating again...
  • 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 they can hear the old man whimpering in mortal terror.
  • Perp Sweating: The narrator assumes that the cops know what they did and they can hear the heart beating, and are just toying with them. In other words, the perp sweated themself.
    • Given how manic the murderer behaves during the detectives' visit, one wonders whether the detectives really bought the murderer's alibi. It's possible that they were sweating the perp, just not for the reasons that the perp thinks: they didn't hear any heartbeat, they just saw that the perp was psychotic.
  • 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, chalking up the things they see and hear in their insanity to just having very acute sight and hearing.
    • The narrator claims that they didn't want the old man's gold — if there was gold to have.
  • 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: This story is often used in schools to introduce the concept of the 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.
  • 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!".
  • 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.
  • You Can See That, Right?: The narrator thinks the cops can hear the old man's 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.
  • Through the Eyes of Madness: Invoked by the opening text, stating, "This story is told through the eyes of a madman...".

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