The Beating Heart of a Dead Man
A literary analysis over the unreliable narrator in The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe
Unreliable Narrator Analysis
The Tell-Tale Heart
The Beating Heart of a Dead Man
Edgar Allan Poe is one of the most famous horror writers of all time. Even after his untimely death in 1849 his work gained even more popularity and is widely read, almost 200 years later. One of Poe's most famous short horror stories, and his shortest is "The Tell-Tale Heart" published in 1843. It tells the story of a man who lives with an old man and becomes obsessed with the old man's eye that he plots to kill him in his sleep. "The Tell-Tale Heart" opens with this line: "True!--nervous--very, very dreadfully nervous I have been, and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses--not destroyed--not dulled them. Above all was my sense of hearing acute. (Poe, 1186)" Throughout this reading, I wondered if the narrator is truly unreliable because he is insane or perhaps mentally ill and it is the sickness doing this to him?
The Tell-Tale Heart starts off with our narrator defending his sanity, trying to make the reader believe that he is as sane as he believes himself to be. He goes on to talk about how he loved the old man, and truly cared for him and wished him no harm in the world but his eye is what drove our narrator mad. He started to plot the old man's murder and would watch him as he slept in the middle of the night. The narrator would open the door a crack to poke his head in and plan out the right time to commit the heinous act of murder. The old man was smothered with the comforter, then proceed to dismember the his body in the bathtub and bury his remains under the floorboards of the bedroom. The police appear at the door after a report of a scream in the middle of the night, and are shown around the house in an attempt to keep a calm demeanor and raise little suspicion. After showing them around, the narrator begins to hear the beating of the old man's heart from under the floorboards. And being convinced that the police hear it too and are just mocking him, he confesses to the murder.
From the start of "The Tell-Tale Heart" our unnamed narrator is defending his sanity and praising the blessing that this disease has done to his hearing. He states "I hear all things in heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. (Poe 1186-1187)" He states later on in the story as he lurks in the old man's doorway that he can hear the old man's heart beating. In actuality the reader knows this to not be true, that our narrator is most likely hearing his own heart beating and bouncing in his eardrums. A quick search on the internet for "acuteness of hearing" turned up the phrase "Hyperacusis" which I will dive into shortly.
Our narrator presents constant paranoia from the beginning and to the very end of the text. He has paranoia about the old man, about the police so bad that he turns himself in for murder. Thoughts that he is being taunted with by the police, that they are mocking him in the old man's bedroom. The narrator believes that they can also hear the beating heart of a dead man and are torturing him.
When the police made their way inside and sat down with the narrator, talking and drinking tea, he became restless and began hearing the beating of the old man's heart once again. The narrator believed that the police could hear it also and were mocking him, intentionally taunting him with the beating of the heart. "It grew louder--louder--louder! And still the men chatted presently, and smiled. Was it possible they heard not? Almighty God!--no,no!--They heard!--they suspected!--they knew!--they were making a mockery of my horror!--this I thought, and this I think. (Poe, 1190)"
Hyperacusis is a medical condition that causes one to have acuteness of hearing, paranoia, anxiety, mood swings, a heightened pulse rate, and perspiration (hear.com). Hear. com states that around 50% of people suffering from Hyperacusis also suffer from Tinnitus which is a persistent ringing in both of ones' ears. This medical condition and its symptoms could explain our narrator's erratic and delusional behavior and thought process. The narrator was insane but it was brought on from a mental illness, while that does not justify his actions, it does explain them somewhat. He was not unreliable due to pure insanity but rather due to Hyperacusis.
Throughout this I have states reasons as to why I believe that our narrator is not insane for no reason but rather sick with a medical condition that caused him to lose his sanity. From the paranoia, to his rapid heartbeat that he hears in his head, to the acuteness that he claims makes his senses superior and almost god-like.
Hear.com. "Hyperacusis: symptoms, causes, and treatments " Hear.com, https://www.hear.com/hearing-loss/your-ears-and-your-health/hyperacusis/ . Accessed 7 april 2020
Poe, Edgar Allan. "The Tell-Tale Heart." *The Bedford Anthology of American Literature.* Edited by Susan Belasco and Linck Johnson, Vol. 1, 2nd ed, Bedford/ St. Martin's, 2014. p.
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