The Tell-Tale Heart

"The Tell-Tale Heart" is a short story by American writer Edgar Allan Poe, first published in 1843. It is related by an unnamed narrator who endeavors to convince the reader of the narrator’s sanity while simultaneously describing a murder the narrator committed. The victim was an old man with a filmy "vulture-eye", as the narrator calls it. The narrator emphasizes the careful calculation of the murder, attempting the perfect crime, complete with dismembering and hiding the body under the floorboards. Ultimately, the narrator's feelings of guilt, or a mental disturbance, result in hearing a thumping sound, which the narrator interprets as the dead man's beating heart.

"The Tell-Tale Heart"
The Pioneer, Vol. I, No. I, Drew and Scammell, Philadelphia, January, 1843
AuthorEdgar Allan Poe
CountryUnited States
Genre(s)Horror, Gothic Literature
Published inThe Pioneer
Publication typePeriodical
PublisherJames Russell Lowell
Media typePrint (periodical)
Publication dateJanuary 1843

The story was first published in James Russell Lowell's The Pioneer in January 1843. "The Tell-Tale Heart" is often considered a classic of the Gothic fiction genre and is one of Poe's best known short stories.

The specific motivation for murder (aside from the narrator's dislike of the old man's eye), the relationship between narrator and old man, the gender of the narrator and other details are left unclear. The narrator denies having any feelings of hatred or resentment for the man who had, as stated, never wronged the narrator. The narrator also denies having killed for greed.

It has been speculated that the old man is a father figure, the narrator's landlord, or that the narrator works for the old man as a servant, and that perhaps his "vulture-eye" represents some sort of veiled secret, or power. The ambiguity and lack of details about the two main characters stand in stark contrast to the specific plot details leading up to the murder.

Plot summary

"The Tell-Tale Heart" is a first-person narrative of an unnamed narrator, who insists on being sane, but is suffering from a disease (nervousness) which causes "over-acuteness of the senses".

The old man with whom the narrator lives has a clouded, pale, blue "vulture-like" eye, which distresses the narrator so much that the narrator plots to murder the old man, despite also insisting that the narrator loves the old man. The narrator insists that this careful precision in committing the murder proves that the narrator cannot possibly be insane. For seven nights, the narrator opens the door of the old man's room in order to shine a sliver of light onto the "evil eye". However, the old man's vulture-eye is always closed, making it impossible to "do the work".

On the eighth night, the old man awakens after the narrator's hand slips and makes a noise, interrupting the narrator's nightly ritual. But the narrator does not draw back and, after some time, decides to open the lantern. A single thin ray of light shines out and lands precisely on the "evil eye", revealing that it is wide open. Hearing the old man's heart beating loudly and dangerously fast from terror, the narrator decides to strike, jumping out with a loud yell and smothering the old man with his own bed. The narrator then dismembers the body and conceals the pieces under the floorboards, and ensures the concealment of all signs of the crime. Even so, the old man's scream during the night causes a neighbor to report to the police, who the narrator invites in to look around. The narrator claims that the scream heard was the narrator's own in a nightmare and that the man is absent in the country. Confident that they will not find any evidence of the murder, the narrator brings chairs for them and they sit in the old man's room, on the very spot where the body is concealed, and suspect nothing, as the narrator has a pleasant and easy manner.

The narrator begins to feel uncomfortable and notices a ringing in the narrator's ears. As the ringing grows louder, the narrator comes to the conclusion that it is the heartbeat of the old man coming from under the floorboards. The sound increases steadily, though the officers seem to pay no attention to it. Terrified by the violent beating of the heart, and convinced that the officers are aware not only of the heartbeat but also of the narrator's guilt, the narrator breaks down and confesses, telling them to tear up the floorboards to reveal the remains of the old man's body.

Publication history

"The Tell-Tale Heart" was first published in January 1843 in the inaugural issue of The Pioneer: A Literary and Critical Magazine, a short-lived Boston magazine edited by James Russell Lowell and Robert Carter who were listed as the "proprietors" on the front cover. The magazine was published in Boston by Leland and Whiting and in Philadelphia by Drew and Scammell.

Poe was likely paid $10 for the story.[1] Its original publication included an epigraph which quoted Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem "A Psalm of Life".[2] The story was slightly revised when republished in the August 23, 1845, edition of the Broadway Journal. This edition omitted Longfellow's poem because Poe believed it was plagiarized.[2] "The Tell-Tale Heart" was reprinted several additional times during Poe's lifetime.[3]


"The Tell-Tale Heart" uses an unreliable narrator. The exactness with which the narrator recounts murdering the old man, as if the stealthy way in which they executed the crime were evidence of their sanity, reveals their monomania and paranoia. The focus of the story is the perverse scheme to commit the perfect crime.[4]

The narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart" is generally assumed to be a male. However, some critics have suggested a woman may be narrating; no pronouns are used to clarify one way or the other.[5] The story starts in medias res. The story opens with a conversation already in progress between the narrator and another person who is not identified in any way. It has been speculated that the narrator is confessing to a prison warden, a judge, a reporter, a doctor or (anachronistically) a psychiatrist.[6] In any case, the narrator tells the story in great detail.[7] What follows is a study of terror but, more specifically, the memory of terror, as the narrator is relating events from the past.[8] The first word of the story, "True!", is an admission of their guilt, as well as an assurance of reliability.[6] This introduction also serves to gain the reader's attention.[9] Every word contributes to the purpose of moving the story forward, exemplifying Poe's theories about the writing of short stories.[10]

The story is driven not by the narrator's insistence upon their "innocence", but by their insistence on their sanity. This, however, is self-destructive, because in attempting to prove their sanity, they fully admit that they are guilty of murder.[11] Their denial of insanity is based on their systematic actions and their precision, as they provide a rational explanation for irrational behavior.[7] This rationality, however, is undermined by their lack of motive ("Object there was none. Passion there was none."). Despite this, they say, the idea of murder "haunted me day and night."[11]

The story's final scene shows the result of the narrator's feelings of guilt. Like many characters in Gothic fiction, they allow their nerves to dictate their nature. Despite their best efforts at defending themself, their "over-acuteness of the senses", which help them hear the heart beating beneath the floorboards, is evidence that they are truly mad.[12] Poe's contemporaries may well have been reminded of the controversy over the insanity defense in the 1840s.[13]

The narrator claims to have a disease that causes hypersensitivity. A similar motif is used for Roderick Usher in "The Fall of the House of Usher" (1839) and in "The Colloquy of Monos and Una" (1841).[14] It is unclear, however, if the narrator actually has very acute senses, or if they are merely imagining things. If their condition is believed to be true, what they hear at the end of the story may not be the old man's heart, but deathwatch beetles. The narrator first admits to hearing beetles in the wall after startling the old man from his sleep. According to superstition, deathwatch beetles are a sign of impending death. One variety of deathwatch beetle raps its head against surfaces, presumably as part of a mating ritual, while others emit ticking sounds.[14] Henry David Thoreau observed in an 1838 article that deathwatch beetles make sounds similar to a heartbeat.[15] The beating could even be the sound of the narrator's own heart. Alternatively, if the beating is really a product of the narrator's imagination, it is that uncontrolled imagination that leads to their own destruction.[16]

It is also possible that the narrator has paranoid schizophrenia. Paranoid schizophrenics very often experience auditory hallucinations. These auditory hallucinations are more often voices, but can also be sounds.[17] This is of course a very modern view of the work; in Poe's era there was no such diagnosis, and Poe would not have been familiar with a set of symptoms as pertaining to any definite mental disease.

The relationship between the old man and the narrator is ambiguous. Their names, occupations, and places of residence are not given, contrasting with the strict attention to detail in the plot.[18] The narrator may be a servant of the old man's or, as is more often assumed, his child. In that case, the "vulture-eye" of the old man as a father figure may symbolize parental surveillance, or the paternal principles of right and wrong. The murder of the eye, then, is a removal of conscience.[19] The eye may also represent secrecy: only when the eye is found open on the final night, penetrating the veil of secrecy, is the murder carried out.[20]

Richard Wilbur suggested that the tale is an allegorical representation of Poe's poem "To Science", which depicts a struggle between imagination and science. In "The Tell-Tale Heart", the old man may thus represent the scientific and rational mind, while the narrator may stand for the imaginative.[21]


  • The earliest acknowledged adaptation of "The Tell-Tale Heart" was in a 1928 silent film of that title,[22] directed by Leon Shamroy and starring Otto Matieson as "The Insane", William Herford as "The Old Man" with Charles Darvas and Hans Fuerberg as "Detectives". It was faithful to the original tale,[5] unlike future television and film adaptations which often expanded the short story to full-length feature films.[23]
  • The earliest known "talkie" adaptation was a 1934 version filmed at the Blattner Studios, Elstree, by Clifton-Hurst Productions, directed by Brian Desmond Hurst and starring Norman Dryden. This version was 55 minutes in length.[24]
  • A 1941 live-action adaptation starred Joseph Schildkraut and was the directorial debut of Jules Dassin.[25] This version differs greatly from the original tale, depicting the murderer as driven mad after suffering years of abuse by the hateful older man.
  • A 1953 animated short film produced by United Productions of America and narrated by James Mason[26] is included among the list of films preserved in the United States National Film Registry.
  • Also in 1953, a "Variation" on "The Tell-Tale Heart" entitled "Sleep No More", by Gaines and Feldstein, appeared.[27]
  • In 1956, an adaptation of "The Tell-Tale Heart" was written by William Templeton for the NBC Matinee Theater and aired on the 6th November 1956.
  • A 1960 film adaptation, The Tell-Tale Heart, adds a love triangle to the story.[28]
  • An Australian ballet was based on the story, and was recorded for television in the early 1960s.[29]
  • In 1970, Vincent Price included a solo recitation of the story in the anthology film An Evening of Edgar Allan Poe.
  • A 1971 film adaptation directed by Steve Carver, and starring Sam Jaffe as the old man.[30]
  • CBS Radio Mystery Theater performed an adaptation of the story in 1975; the cast included Fred Gwynne.
  • The Canadian radio program Nightfall presented an adaptation on August 1, 1980.
  • A musical adaptation performed by The Alan Parsons Project was released on their 1976 debut album Tales of Mystery and Imagination, and was later covered by Slough Feg for their 2010 album, The Animal Spirits.
  • The Simpsons episode "Lisa's Rival" is loosely based on the story, wherein Lisa replaces Allison's diorama of "The Tell-Tale Heart" with a diorama of a cow's heart. Lisa can hear the original diorama operating a heartbeat noise, much like in the story.
  • During Tiny Toon Adventures 1995 Halloween special Night Ghoulery[31] the story was parodied as The Tell-Tale Vacuum
  • A musical adaptation by the Insane Clown Posse was included on their 1995 album The Riddle Box, entitled "Ol' Evil Eye", which covers the story of a young man determined to kill "old man Willie on the hilltop" because of his grotesque left eye, and is interspersed with samples from an audio recording of a reading of the original short story.
  • Steven Berkoff adapted the story in 1991, and was broadcast on British television. This adaptation was originally presented on British TV as part of the acclaimed series "Without Walls". This version was later broadcast in the United States on the cable channel BRAVO as part of the Texaco Performing Arts series.
  • The Christian Thrash / Hybrid Metal band Tourniquet adapted the story into song for their 1997 release "Crawl To China". A hidden bonus track on the album captures an adaptation of the conversation between the main character and the police officers without music. Drummer/primary songwriter Ted Kirkpatrick is a huge fan of Edgar Alan Poe and has also released an album of poems and songs featuring adaptations of his works. "The Tell-Tale Heart" is the opening track, and is read by Les Carlson (vocalist for the Metal band Bloodgood).
  • The Radio Tales series produced The Tell-Tale Heart for National Public Radio in 1998. The story was performed by Winifred Phillips along with music composed by her.
  • The SpongeBob SquarePants episode "Squeaky Boots," first aired in 1999, is loosely based on the story.[32]
  • Tom Smith released "Telly Taley Heart" in 1999, recounting the story to the tune of "Achy Breaky Heart".
  • A musical adaptation, entitled "Dark Chilling Heartbeat", was performed by Deceased on their 2000 album Supernatural Addiction.
  • The film Nightmares from the Mind of Poe (2006) adapts "The Tell-Tale Heart" along with "The Cask of Amontillado", "The Premature Burial" and "The Raven".
  • The 2009 thriller film Tell-Tale, produced by Ridley Scott and Tony Scott, credits Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" as the basis for the story of a man being haunted by his donor's memories, after a heart transplant.[33]{{unreliable[34] source?|date=January 2016}}</ref>
  • V. H. Belvadi's 2012 short film, Telltale, credits Poe's "The Tell-tale Heart" as its inspiration and uses some dialog from the original work.[35]
  • A 2013 Spanish short film adaptation, Entrañas ("Entrails"), was directed by Narciso Velver.[36]
  • Poe's Tell-Tale Heart: The Game, is a 2013 mobile game adaptation in which players enact the protagonist's actions to recreate Poe's story on Google Play[37] and Apple iOS.
  • The 2015 animated anthology Extraordinary Tales includes "The Tell-Tale Heart", narrated by Bela Lugosi.
  • The 2015 Lifetime movie The Murder Pact, starring Alexa Vega, is based on Poe's work and incorporates allusions to it, such as the "vulture eye" from "The Tell-Tale Heart".[38]
  • In April 2016, a film adaption directed by John Le Tier was released, entitled "The Tell-Tale Heart". It starred Peter Bogdonavich, Rose McGowan, and Patrick John Flueger in the lead role. It featured a full narration of Poe's story with added elements imagining the narrator as a former tortured soldier with PSTD.
  • In spring 2017, Udon Entertainment's Manga Classics line will publish The Stories of Edgar Allan Poe, which will include a manga format adaptation of "The Tell-Tale Heart".[39]
  • In December 2018, Anthony Neilson's stage adaptation was presented at London's National Theatre.[40]
  • The language-learning service Duolingo’s website features a six-part version of Poe’s story in Spanish, dramatically narrated and with interactive prompts for learners to use to test their Spanish knowledge.


  1. Silverman, Kenneth. Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance. New York: Harper Perennial, 1991. ISBN 0-06-092331-8, p. 201.
  2. Moss, Sidney P. Poe's Literary Battles: The Critic in the Context of His Literary Milieu. Southern Illinois University Press, 1969. p. 151
  3. ""The Tales of Edgar Allan Poe" (index)". The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore. September 30, 2007. Retrieved 2007-11-05.
  4. Kennedy, J. Gerald. Poe, Death, and the Life of Writing. Yale University Press, 1987. p. 132; ISBN 0-300-03773-2
  5. Sova, Dawn B. Edgar Allan Poe: A to Z. New York City: Checkmark Books, 2001: 234. ISBN 0-8160-4161-X
  6. Benfey, Christopher. "Poe and the Unreadable: 'The Black Cat' and 'The Tell-Tale Heart'", in New Essays on Poe's Major Tales, Kenneth Silverman, ed. Cambridge University Press, 1993. ISBN 978-0-521-42243-7, p. 30.
  7. Cleman, John. "Irresistible Impulses: Edgar Allan Poe and the Insanity Defense", in Bloom's BioCritiques: Edgar Allan Poe, edited by Harold Bloom. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2002. ISBN 0-7910-6173-6, p. 70.
  8. Quinn, Arthur Hobson. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. ISBN 0-8018-5730-9. p. 394
  9. Meyers, Jeffrey. Edgar Allan Poe: His Life and Legacy. Cooper Square Press, 1992. p. 101. ISBN 0-8154-1038-7
  10. Quinn, Arthur Hobson. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. p. 394. ISBN 0-8018-5730-9
  11. Robinson, E. Arthur. "Poe's 'The Tell-Tale Heart'" in Twentieth Century Interpretations of Poe's Tales, edited by William L. Howarth. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1971, p. 94.
  12. Fisher, Benjamin Franklin. "Poe and the Gothic Tradition", in The Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allan Poe, edited by Kevin J. Hayes. Cambridge University Press, 2002. ISBN 0-521-79727-6, p. 87.
  13. Cleman, Bloom's BioCritiques, p. 66.
  14. Reilly, John E. "The Lesser Death-Watch and "'The Tell-Tale Heart' Archived December 18, 2009, at the Wayback Machine", in The American Transcendental Quarterly. Second quarter, 1969.
  15. Robison, E. Arthur. "Thoreau and the Deathwatch in Poe's 'The Tell-Tale Heart'", in Poe Studies, vol. IV, no. 1. June 1971. pp. 14-16
  16. Eddings, Dennis W. "Theme and Parody in 'The Raven'", in Poe and His Times: The Artist and His Milieu, edited by Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV. Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society, 1990. ISBN 0-9616449-2-3, p. 213.
  17. ZIMMERMAN, BRETT. “‘Moral Insanity’ or Paranoid Schizophrenia: Poe's ‘The Tell-Tale Heart.’” Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature, vol. 25, no. 2, 1992, pp. 39–48. JSTOR, JSTOR,
  18. Benfey, New Essays, p. 32.
  19. Hoffman, Daniel. Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1972. ISBN 0-8071-2321-8, p. 223.
  20. Benfey, New Essays, p. 33.
  21. Benfey, New Essays, pp. 31-32.
  22. The Telltale Heart (1928) on IMDb
  23. "IMDb Title Search: The Tell-Tale Heart". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 2007-09-01.
  24. The Tell-Tale Heart (1934) on IMDb
  25. The Tell-Tale Heart (1941) on IMDb
  26. The Tell-Tale Heart (1953/I) on IMDb
  27. "Sleep No More", by Bill Gaines and Ed Feldstein, Shock SuspenStories, April 1953.
  28. The Tell-Tale Heart (1960) on IMDb.
  29. The Tell-Tale Heart (1971) on IMDb
  30. "Tiny Toons' Night Ghoulery". The Internet Movie Database. IMDb. Retrieved March 22, 2011.
  31. Kenny, Tom; Bumpass, Rodger; Fagerbakke, Bill; Brown, Clancy (1999-09-04), Sandy's Rocket/Squeaky Boots, retrieved 2017-05-04
  32. Tell-Tale (2009) on IMDb
  33. Malvern, Jack (23 October 2018). "Edgar Allen Poe's horror classic The Tell‑Tale Heart back from the dead after attic clear‑out". The Times. Retrieved 30 November 2018.
  34. Telltale (2012) on IMDb.
  35. "Entrañas (2013)". Internet Movie Database.
  36. "Poe's Tell-Tale Heart:The Game - Android Apps on Google Play". Retrieved 2016-01-16.
  37. Traciy Reyes. "'The Murder Pact': Lifetime Movie, Also Known As 'Tell-Tale Lies', Airs Tonight Featuring Music By Lindsey Stirling". Retrieved 2016-01-16.
  38. "Udon Ent. to Release Street Fighter Novel, Dragon's Crown Manga", Anime News Network, July 21, 2016
  39. Malvern, Jack (23 October 2018). "Edgar Allen Poe's horror classic The Tell‑Tale Heart back from the dead after attic clear‑out". The Times.
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