The Tell Tale Heart

I’m not sure how to approach this. Originally, I was going to explore how this short tale of a guilty conscience compared to a much longer examination of the same subject – Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment – but I can’t find my copy of Dostoyevsky and anyway, I had a much better idea. I still don’t know how to approach it, but at least I know what I want to talk about. Put bluntly, I want to explain why the narrator is wrong.

We are never told the names of any of the characters in the story, nor their relationships; all we know is the victim is considerably older than the narrator and has a “vulture’s eye”, a large blue eye that has clouded over, presumably from a cataract. The narrator himself declares loudly at the very beginning of the story that he is quite sane and couldn’t possibly be anything else – yet there is nothing in his behaviour to support this. Quite the contrary, in fact.

Sane people, for example, do not necessarily become fixated on an object to the point it renders them homicidal, but this is what happens to the narrator. He becomes obsessed with the old man’s vulture eye, and resolves to rid himself of it once and for all by killing his companion. He takes exceptionally good care of the old man, yet still spends a week spying on him at midnight, convinced that the eye is watching him. It isn’t, but since he’s convinced he’s not mad, there’s no problem is there?

On the last night, he accidentally startles his companion and ends up killing him by crushing him under the heavy bedstead, whereupon he dismembers the body and buries it under the floorboards. Unfortunately, a neighbour has heard a scream and reported it to the police; they come to investigate, but our narrator has done such a good job of hiding the body there is no possibility of him being discovered, is there? Except, of course, the heartbeat coming from under the floorboards…

No, I’m sorry, the narrator is quite mad. Which does render a lot of what he says to be completely untrustworthy. Did he take good care of his companion before his death or not? Did he really hear a heartbeat, was it death watch beetles or an auditory hallucination? We are not told, but left to speculate. I wonder how he’s finding the asylum…


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