The Tell-Tale Heart
The “The Tell-Tale Heart” is a classic example of Poe’s unreliable narrator, a man who cannot be trusted to tell the objective truth of what is occurring. His unreliability becomes directly evident in the first paragraph of the story, when he insists on his clearness of mind and features any signs of madness to his nervousness, particularly in the area of hearing. However, as soon as he finishes his statement of sanity, he offers an account that has a series of apparent logical gaps that can only be explained by insanity.
In his writings, Poe often sought to capture the state of mind of psychotic characters, and the narrator of this story displays leaps of reasoning that more look like the reason of dreams than they do the thought processes of a normal human being. The narrator’s emotional uncertainty provides a clear counterargument to his claims of good judgment. In almost no cases does he respond in the manner that one would expect. He is so bothered by the old man’s vulture-like eye that his loathing overcomes his love for the man, leading him to premeditate a murder.
Later, when he finally succeeds in killing the victim, he becomes positively cheerful, feeling that he has accomplished his goal cleverly and that he associates with sanity. However, the unsuspecting behavior of the policemen suggests that the narrator has become essentially unaware of his behavior and his surroundings. Because he cannot maintain the distance between reality and his inner thoughts, he mistakes his mental anxiety for physical anxiety and misinterprets the innocent chatter of the policemen for malevolence.
Nevertheless, he imagines the whole time that he has correctly and rationally interpreted all the events of the story, suggesting that in Poe’s mind, the key to irrationality is the belief in one’s rationality. The humor of the narrator’s account in “The Tell-Tale Heart” stands that although he proclaims himself designate too calm to be a madman, he is defeated by a noise that may be interpreted as the beating of his own heart.
Because of the unreliability of the narrator, it remains impossible to know for certain if the beating remains a supernatural effect, the product of his own imagination, or an actual sound. However, a likely logical explanation presents that when the protagonist lives under stress, he hears the sound of his heart, and he mistakes it for the sound of the old man’s heart. This lack of understanding matches his lack of awareness of his actions as he chats with the policemen and highlights the lapses in reason which belie his claims of sanity.
Poe uses vocabulary that present consistently sarcastic or otherwise jarring to provoke a reaction contrary to that which the narrator desires. The narrator tells the reader that “you should have seen how wisely I proceeded–with what caution–with what foresight–with what dissimulation I went to work! ” By exploiting his choice of words such as “wisely” and “caution,” he seeks to betray the reader and explain his actions as those of a wise, clever individual. However, the shamelessness of his attempt at deception enlightens rather than deceive his audience.
His description of the sound in the last few paragraphs of the tale remains marked by repetitions that are clearly intended to imply the increase of noise. When he says, “The ringing became more distinct: the beating continued and became more distinct. ” The increasing intensity of the beating is again highlighted by the three repetitions of the phrase “but the noise steadily increased. ” Finally, as the narrator’s sentences turn rapidly into shouts, his repetition of the word “louder” echoes the sound of the beating heart.