You’ll see it everywhere–on Enotes, PinkMonkey, Quizlet–that Edgar Allan Poe’s story, “The Tell-Tale Heart,” is about guilt. How could it not be? The narrator committed a horrendous crime and he confessed; he must feel guilty! After much discussion with my counterpart, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not guilt at all, but ego. Let’s look at the evidence.
The narrator says early in his rant that he does not hate the old man, but in fact, he loves him. This is quite the fine argument that might lead one down to thinking he feels guilty at the end, but I’m not sure it does.
“Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye! yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture –a pale blue eye, with a film over it.”
What it does do is establish a disconnect between the way the narrator feels and the way he thinks he feels. Given that he is undoubtedly an unreliable narrator, we cannot trust him to really know how he feels. I’m not sure there’s any evidence for the argument that he could even feel love, given that he can kill the old man for what we understand is a poor reason to kill someone.
The narrator acts methodically. He practices and plans. When the old man awakes frightened, the narrator claims to feel pity for him, but this doesn’t deter him from continuing his act. On the contrary, it’s fuel for him to commit further to the deed.
“I had my head in, and was about to open the lantern, when my thumb slipped upon the tin fastening, and the old man sprang up in bed, crying out –‘Who’s there?’
I kept quite still and said nothing… I knew what the old man felt, and pitied him, although I chuckled at heart. I knew that he had been lying awake ever since the first slight noise, when he had turned in the bed.”
After murdering the old man by smothering him with his bed (quite the cumbersome murder weapon I might add), the narrator continues to chop the man into pieces, taking several precautions to keep the place clean and orderly. He doesn’t appear here to feel guilt either. Instead, he’s proud of the work he’s done.
“If still you think me mad, you will think so no longer when I describe the wise precautions I took for the concealment of the body. The night waned, and I worked hastily, but in silence. First of all I dismembered the corpse. I cut off the head and the arms and the legs.
I then took up three planks from the flooring of the chamber, and deposited all between the scantlings. I then replaced the boards so cleverly, so cunningly, that no human eye –not even his –could have detected any thing wrong. There was nothing to wash out –no stain of any kind –no blood-spot whatever. I had been too wary for that. A tub had caught all –ha! ha!”
The text takes a turn when we finally get a chance to see the narrator interact with other characters in dialogue. Up until this point, the narrator is never shown speaking to the old man; he’s only speaking to us. Here, the narrator interacts with three police officers who heard a report of a scream. The narrator cleverly tells them that the old man is “absent in the country.” He is still so proud of the work he’s done.
“I led them, at length, to his chamber. I showed them his treasures, secure, undisturbed. In the enthusiasm of my confidence, I brought chairs into the room, and desired them here to rest from their fatigues, while I myself, in the wild audacity of my perfect triumph, placed my own seat upon the very spot beneath which reposed the corpse of the victim.”
Throughout the text, the narrator brags about his cunning, and this is no different. It is obvious through a synthesis of words he uses to describe himself and his delivery of his story–healthily, calmly, wisely, foresight, cunningly, boldly, courageously, cautiously, patiently, the self-aggrandizing comparison of a soldier marching into war, at ease, fluently.
The narrator claims to hear sounds early in the text.
“Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. “
We shouldn’t be surprised then when he claims to hear the beating of the old man’s heart. I am also reminded, in this moment, of the twice comparison to the sound “a watch makes when enveloped in cotton,” as well as the mentions of the death watch beetle.
The narrator doesn’t feel guilty. He thinks he really does hear the old man’s heart. But that’s irrelevant. His main beef is that he thinks the police officers hear it too. He thinks they’re mocking him.
“It grew louder –louder –louder! And still the men chatted pleasantly, 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. But anything was better than this agony! Anything was more tolerable than this derision! I could bear those hypocritical smiles no longer!
The word, derision, means mockery or ridicule.
It is made clear throughout the text that the narrator thinks very highly of himself. It should be no wonder then that the thing that breaks him is not guilt, but the assault on his ego.
He continues to prove this theory when he calls them “villains.” and tells the to “dissemble no more.”
‘Villains!’ I shrieked, ‘dissemble no more! I admit the deed!'”
The word, dissemble, means to conceal one’s true feelings or motives.
Again, he only breaks because he thinks the officers already know and that they’re mocking him. There doesn’t appear to be any textual evidence that supports the idea that the narrator feels guilty or that guilt is what drives him to confess.
So why do we all think it’s about guilt?
My theory is this: When normal people feel guilty about doing something wrong and we think we’re going to be caught, our hearts race and we eventually confess. This is reflected in crime dramas when a lawyer asks the star witness who eventually breaks because they know they’ve been caught. Even in that event, I would venture to say that many of those characters feel guilty. To feel guilty, one must feel bad about what they’ve done. For example, I felt guilty one Christmas because I peaked into my parents’ closet a few weeks earlier and saw what they’d gotten me.
What we have here is hive-mind interpretation that is extra-textual. We’ve created this theory of guilt based on what we do in real life, not what this particular character does in this particular fictional text.
But maybe you’ve seen something that I haven’t. Go ahead and convince me, with textual evidence, that the narrator feels guilty about killing the old man.