Character Analysis in The Tell-Tale Heart
Narrator: Like many of Poe’s other main characters, the narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart” is unreliable. The narrative unfolds as he confesses his crimes to an unknown third party (and by extension, the readers). Rather than being concerned with his crimes or the consequences of his actions, the narrator is obsessed with proving his sanity. He uses evidence of the systematic precision with which he carried out the murder. However, these overly meticulous actions ironically prove his insanity rather than his sanity. The narrator claims that he suffers from “nervousness” that causes an “over-acuteness of the senses.” This is the only explanation he gives for his motives and obsession with the old man’s eye.
Old Man: The old man has a clouded, pale, blue eye, which is the only thing that the narrator describes about his appearance. The narrator claims that he loved the old man, but it is unclear what the relationship is between them. The narrator mentions that the old man has “gold” but does not indicate that he works for the old man. He might be a tenant in the old man’s house or both men had rented rooms in a boardinghouse; he might be some kind of caretaker. There is evidence for and speculation about all types of relationships between the two characters, but it is important to note that the narrator keeps their relationship a mystery; he reduces the old man to nothing more than his eye.
Character Analysis Examples in The Tell-Tale Heart:
The Tell-Tale Heart
"head ached..." See in text (The Tell-Tale Heart)
The narrator beings to feel physical symptoms of disease, weakness, or infirmity. The confidence he gained in killing the old man gives way in the face of human frailty, and he is reminded that he is human, possibly a human with a terrible disease.
"my own ..." See in text (The Tell-Tale Heart)
Though this is a lie, notice that the narrator once again conflates himself with the old man. He takes the old man's last words, or the sound of his death shirk, and makes it into a dream, a figment of his own imagination.
"for what had I to fear..." See in text (The Tell-Tale Heart)
Notice that the narrator repeats this idea that he is unafraid. This fearlessness could mean both that he is not afraid that the police will discover the murder or that he has no fears now that he has "rid himself of the eye."
"for what had I now to fear..." See in text (The Tell-Tale Heart)
Though Poe has not revealed what idea originally haunted the narrator, here the narrator suggests that he has vanquished his fear. This further suggests that the "eye" was symbolic for the narrator's fear and that the old man was killed to solve something in the narrator's conscious.
"it would not be heard through the wall..." See in text (The Tell-Tale Heart)
Notice that the narrator is worried that someone will hear the old man's faint heartbeat through the wall instead of worrying about someone responding to the shriek that he mentioned earlier. This suggests that the heartbeat is the most worrisome sound to the narrator.
"saying to himself..." See in text (The Tell-Tale Heart)
Here the narrator imagines that he knows what the old man is thinking. Because he presents this idea as a fact instead of a hypothesis, we can see that the narrator sees himself in the old man: this is what the old man is thinking because this is what the narrator would be thinking.
"my own bosom..." See in text (The Tell-Tale Heart)
In this sentence, the narrator gives us a glimpse into his psyche. He claims to feel moral terror, or fear of death, every night that he has watched the old man. He equates his feelings with the old man's and therefore draws an implicit comparison between himself and the old man. This could suggest one motivation for the murder he is about to commit: he must kill the old man to kill something that he is afraid of within himself.
" you would..." See in text (The Tell-Tale Heart)
Notice that the address shifts here. Whereas at the beginning of the story the narrator accuses the "you" of believing that he is mad, here the narrator suggests that the "you" would be in collusion with his actions. The way in which the narrator addresses his audience, this unidentified "you," demonstrates his disconnection from reality.
"wise ..." See in text (The Tell-Tale Heart)
Defining these actions as "wise" creates a sense of irony: the narrator insists that he is not mad using his actions as evidence, yet it is these very actions that make the reader see him as mad. In attempting to insist that he is "wise" the narrator only comes across as more insane.
"idea entered my brain..." See in text (The Tell-Tale Heart)
Notice that the narrator disassociates himself from the "idea" that caused his actions. It "entered" his brain, suggesting that it came from an external source rather than an internal desire. This could be another way in which the narrator asserts that he is not mad.