Emotional Death Blows in The Tell-Tale Heart

“I was never kinder to the old man than during the whole week before I killed him.” So says the plagued with guilt narrator of Edgar Allan Poe’s classic, “The Tell-Tale Heart.” It is a statement, however, that is not merely applicable to the literal so much as the more abstract, emotional death blow that can be delivered to a person right before you do them the disservice of eviscerating their heart after they have, in some capacity, given you theirs. That the man our narrator wants to kill is, he believes, in possession of the evil eye applies, in many senses to the paranoid fear that we have of anyone who might be deranged enough to love us (that is, when we’re not at the other end of the spectrum of humanity, a narcissist incapable of believing that anyone could think that we were anything other than god). Afraid that the man’s mere glance will curse him, that one more sound of his breath or heartbeat will serve as a threat to his very existence, the narrator knows he must end the life of this old man, despite mentioning that he cares for–loves–him.

If it sounds much like many of all the most memorable, “meaningful” relationships you’ve had, well, maybe that’s because the line between intense love and hate is often quite thin. Regardless of rapport. And whatever the narrator needed to tell himself in order to find the motivation to fully decimate the dynamic (even if it was something as insignificant and trifling as having the “eye of a vulture”–though evidently not vulture-like enough to defend himself from getting killed, hacked up into pieces and stuffed into the floorboards to hopefully rot the slow, protracted way the narrator had presumably envisioned after so many nights spent plotting–scheming and dreaming of a life without what he imagines to be the judgment and overly watchful eye of the old man), it had nothing to do with the man’s “look.” But, rather, his love (you can interpret that in a homoerotic way if you must, since it would be the chic twenty-first century thing to do–though it is sexist to assume the narrator is a man when no pronoun is ever explicitly stated, likely because Poe himself assumed that his reader would gather that only a man could be so cracked out in his actions).

While no details of the relationship are given, no backstory to how long the two have known one another or how–it is clear that the narrator’s mental imbalance, despite his protests to the contrary, stems from the fact that he “loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult.” Perhaps precisely because of this, because of the narrator’s latent belief in deserving insult, to be wronged–not to be loved–was it that he wanted to kill the seeming only source of light he had painted as dark in his life while he floods his own light from the crack of a door onto the closed evil eye each night, biding his time to kill, wanting the eye to open so that he might prove his own point to himself about it being evil. Of course, it never does and then, finally, “With a loud yell, I threw open the lantern and leaped into the room. He shrieked once–once only. In an instant I dragged him to the floor, and pulled the heavy bed over him. I then smiled gaily, to find the deed so far done. But, for many minutes, the heart beat on with a muffled sound.”

It is this heart that beats, this grand symbol of what it means to be human and therefore to love that disgusts and haunts the narrator, insisting, “And have I not told you that what you mistake for madness is but over-acuteness of the sense?” An “over-acuteness” that likely makes him hyper-aware of all the uselessness and risk in attachment of any kind. Clinically citing to himself, “His eye would trouble me no more,” the narrator’s pragmatism does him no good as his own heart gets the better of him, reverberating in his mind as the sound of the dead old man’s as he describes, “But the beating grew louder, louder! I thought the heart must burst.” Frightened that all who near the dwelling can hear the sound just as loudly as he can, the narrator begins to lose his cool after a visit from the authorities, responding to a neighbor’s report of hearing a scream in the night. Effortlessly lying with the excuse that it was his own frenzied shout in reaction to a nightmare, the narrator is, for a fleeting moment, convinced that he will get away with his crime. But the ringing in his ears, the ringing of guilt, shame and self-loathing that sound oh so much like a heartbeat, gets the better of him.

As though speaking of himself–of his own cold, calculated heart–the narrator can finally no longer bear it, screaming, “It is the beating of his hideous heart!” as he urges the police to tear up the floorboards and remove the dead body, confessing to his great sin, though never outright confessing to what he feels is his greatest sin of all: being afraid of love, in any capacity, that is too real. Which is, in many respects, much worse than being a paranoid schizophrenic–though, at times, synonymous.


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