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Themes in The Tell-Tale Heart

Guilt: “The Tell-Tale Heart” is conventionally read as a moralizing story about guilt and innocence. Critics have interpreted the sound of the beating heart as the narrator’s guilty conscious reminding him of his deed. In this reading, the narrator finally confesses his crime because his guilt grows so great that he can no longer hold it in. However, this reading of his confession is incongruous with his character. At the beginning of the story, the narrator disassociates himself from the crime, claiming that an invisible force acted on him. The narrator’s insistence that he is sane and the old man’s eye is at fault suggests that the narrator does not regret his action; he blames the murder on external forces that he could not control.

Fear of Mortality: Another reading of the story claims that the narrator kills the old man and confesses because of his own fear of mortality. The way in which he describes the “vulture-eye” and the old man suggests his fixation on the man’s age and frailty. He hears “death-beetles” in the walls and appears obsessed with time. Once he murders the old man, time seems to stop for him as he loses track of it: he conflates hours and stops focusing on the ticking of clocks. Then, the narrator begins to feel physical symptoms of disease. He grows weak and infirm. At this point, the police come to the house, and the sound of the heartbeat fills his head. This heartbeat can be interpreted not as guilt, but as the narrator’s heightened awareness of his mortality and terror that he will eventually die just as the old man did.

Time: Time is a consistent theme and motif throughout the story. The narrator seems fixated on time. He catalogues exactly how much time he spends watching the old man before the murder. When he finally kills the old man, he claims that the old man’s “hour had come.” Sound also contributes to this theme. He hears “death beetles,” a type of beetle that sounds like a clock ticking, in the walls; he hears a watch ticking; he hears the old man’s heart beat

Themes Examples in The Tell-Tale Heart:

The Tell-Tale Heart

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"hideous heart!..."   (The Tell-Tale Heart)

Many people interpret the narrator's sudden change of heart at the end of this story as a guilty conscience that brings about a confession. However, the narrator does not seem to regret his actions up until this point. With the motif of time, the narrator's unrevealed fear, and implicit references to his disease, this reaction at the end could be interpreted as a fear of his own mortality resurfacing instead of a guilty conscious. He kills the old man to vanquish is fear of death, but his realization that he is still human and that he cannot escape death causes him to go mad.

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"kind—no..."   (The Tell-Tale Heart)

Poe again invokes his theme of form contradicting content using choppy, unrefined sentences. The narrator claims that no human eye could see his deeds, that he was clever and careful, yet the way in which he relates this information is not careful. The sentences run together and are interrupted by other ideas demonstrating a lack of control.

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"my own bosom..."   (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.

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"work..."   (The Tell-Tale Heart)

Notice how choppy the sentences at the beginning of this paragraph are. He talks about being calm, collected, and calculated as he plans out this murder. Yet the choppy style of his sentences and emphatic punctuation create a frenzied or hectic feeling to the text. Again, the style contradicts the content.

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"healthily—how calmly..."   (The Tell-Tale Heart)

Notice how the broken style of this sentence contradicts its content. The narrator wants us to believe that he is not mad and that he can tell a story calmly. However, he disrupts the flow of the very sentence in which he tries to claim stability. This theme—of style contradicting content—resurfaces throughout the story.

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"I kept quite still and said nothing. For a whole hour I did not move a muscle, and in the meantime I did not hear him lie down. He was still sitting up in the bed listening;—just as I have done, night after night, hearkening to the death watches in the wall..."   (The Tell-Tale Heart)

Readers can relate to how the old man is feeling. Most readers have experienced lying in bed in a dark room and suddenly hearing a strange noise. They sit up and strain their ears to listen for a repetition of that sinister sound. Who knows what all those creaks and squeaks really are? Some of them might be mice. Or rats! Some might be the house itself settling just a fraction of an inch, or lumber stretching or contracting as the temperature changes. Or nails being pulled at by the lumber. Or bits of plaster falling from the musty lathing inside the walls. During such times, readers are acutely aware of their helplessness, unpreparedness, and vulnerability.

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