Guilt in The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe

Subject: Literature
Type: Critical Analysis Essay
Pages: 5
Word count: 1426
Topics: Book, Edgar Allan Poe

The Tell-Tale Heart is a book about a man who killed an old man he had stalked and watched him sleep for a week. It extrapolates the turmoil of emotions the narrator feels throughout the process and how guilt finally made him reveal that he was the real killer. In the book, the killer is obsessed with the old man’s blue eyes and is convinced that they are evil. He plots the perfect crime and finally kills him. When the police arrive, he manages to fool them for a while before his guilt eats him up and he confesses to the murder and identifies where he hid the body. The story shows that human beings cannot stand the burden of guilt, and eventually they reveal what they did to free themselves of the guilt.

The narrator revealed everything to the police because of the guilt he felt (Magistrale). At first, he was proud of himself having committed a perfect crime. However, his guilt got the better of him, and he revealed everything.  The murder was planned in advance because he used to stalk the old man in his sleep. He would watch him sleep, and after a week or so, he decided it was time for him to die. However, when he got there, the old man suddenly woke up startled. The writer empathized with the old man because he also had experienced the anxiety at night. Due to the old man’s shouts, a neighbor heard and called the police. The narrator stalked the man and finally killed him. He decapitated his body and hid it under the floor boards of his bedroom. He was proud of himself because he thought he had committed the perfect crime. While hiding the body, he made sure not a single drop of blood was on the floor. He also got rid of anything that might point out that he had killed the old man. After he was done with the deed of hiding the geriatric’s body, the police showed up to answer a distress call by a fellow citizen who heard the old man shrieked. In a show of confidence, the narrator took the police around the house to show that nothing had happened in the house. “In the enthusiasm of my confidence, I bought 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 the reposed of the corpse of the victim” (Magistrale 6). He even took them into the old man’s bedroom and sat on the bed as explained to them that there was no reason for alarm.

  He could have easily fooled the police because they did not suspect a thing (Hayes). However, his guilt got the better of him because thought he heard the old man’s heartbeat from under the bed. In a real sense, the old man was dead and obviously did not have a heartbeat. The guilt that he had killed an old man made him hear things that were not there, and he finally confessed everything to the police. He was so sure that they too had heard the heartbeats and were just placating him waiting so that he could confess. “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” (Hayes). Actually, all he had to do was to sit through the conversation, and the police would have been on their way but the guilt he felt made him confess everything.

An image of guilt is a pounding heart because it represents life (Poe 5). “But, ere long, I felt myself getting pale and wished them gone. My head ached, and I fancied a ringing in my ears…” (Poe 6). All through the story, whenever the author feels guilty, there is an image of a pounding heart. As he was killing the man, he was more concerned about the man’s heartbeats thinking that the neighbor might hear him yet the man was screaming. Of course, between a heartbeat and a shriek, the shrike would have been heard clearer by the neighbor because one cannot hear his own heartbeat unless adrenaline levels were very high. The shrieks wee high enough for the neighbor to call the police yet he was more concerned about silencing the man’s heartbeat. After he died, he started hearing the heartbeats again, and that was what led him to confess his crime finally. Actually, he was listening to his own heartbeat, but due to the myriad of emotions he was feeling, he concluded that it must be old man’s heartbeat. “It was a low, dull, quick sound-much such a sound as a watch make when enveloped in cotton. I gasped for breath- and yet the officers heard it not. I talked more quickly-more vehemently, but the noise steadily increased” (Poe 7). 

He had so much inner turmoil that he finally screamed and confessed his crime. In his confession, he called the policemen villains, showing that he was unable to identify that he was the bad person in the picture and not the police (Kennedy). He referred to them as the bad people because he thought they already knew his secret, otherwise, why would they have stayed around and for that long and talked about nothing? They must have known, and they were just waiting for him to spill his guts to them. The paranoia he felt was so big that he started shouting while the police were calmly chatting with him. “Villains!” I shrieked, “Dissemble no more! I admit the deed! –tear up the planks! Here, here! It is the beating of his hideous heart!” (Kennedy 6).

The narrator claims that he loved the man, and only hated his blue eyes and that is why he killed him (Tucker). That is another instance of guilt because he shows that he regretted his actions. Actually, there is not motive as to why the narrator killed the old man so violently. The man wasn’t rich, so it cannot be assumed that the narrator killed him so that he could get his wealth. He watched him sleep for about a week and decide that it was time for him to die. He claimed that he had an evil eye and he wanted to get rid of the eye but otherwise, he had no problem with the man. In fact, he loved him. This in itself is an admission of guilt because it shows that he regretted his actions. He reduced the man to his ‘vulture eye’ so as to absolve himself of the guilt he felt for plotting and killing the geriatric. He was able to kill the man but still, maintain that he loved him. However, the problem arose when he started to imagine that other body parts had started working against him, especially the heart. He was unable to identify that the eye was representative of the person’s human state. Therefore, by separating the eye from the old man, he also separated his life from him.

In conclusion, guilt is prevalent as a theme in the book. The narrator is clearly guilty that he killed an innocent man and in the end, he confessed. The guilt he felt made him paranoid and made him confess ultimately. Initially, he was proud of himself that he had committed a perfect crime and in essence, he had, because the police suspected nothing. His demeanor was calm to the extent the police sat down to have a chat with him. If he had just kept up the façade, the crime might not have been discovered, and he might have gotten away with it. However, he was haunted by the man’s heartbeat to the extent he zoned out during the conversation with the police. In his mind, the police must know he had killed the old man and were just waiting for him to spill the beans. He also knew he had done something wrong because he tried to justify why he killed the old man. He says he only wanted to get rid of his evil eye yet by doing so; he killed the man’s whole being. When the guilt got too much, he confessed calling the police officers villains because he couldn’t identify who was wrong or right in the scenario.

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  1. Hayes, Kevin J. The Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allan Poe. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2002.
  2. Kennedy, J. Gerald. A Historical Guide to Edgar Allan Poe. Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2001.
  3. Magistrale, Tony. Student Companion to Edgar Allan Poe. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001.
  4. Poe, Edgar Allan. The Tell-Tale Heart. NY: Random House Publishing Group, 2004.
  5. Tucker, B. D. “The Tell-Tale Heart” and the “Evil Eye.” The Southern Literary Journal (Spring 1981).
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