Study Guide

The Tell-Tale Heart

By Edgar Allan Poe

The Tell-Tale Heart Introduction

An unnamed man starts taking, telling you he's got a case of the nerves, sure—but he's not nuts...

...and then he proceeds to tell you a tale full of stalking, sneaking around in the dark, a murder most foul, a police interrogation, and a heart that beats even when the body it was housed within has been dismembered.

Yup: "The Tell-Tale Heart" by Edgar Allan Poe may have been first published in January 1843, but it reads like an especially gruesome episode of Law and Order. "Tell-Tale" is about the murder of an old man. The only reason for the murder? The old man had a mildly creepy eye.

It's hard to overestimate how important this story is in the American canon...or how much of a literary rockstar Edgar Allan Poe was.

Poe believed that a perfect story should be readable in one sitting, that it should be a tightly controlled, highly compressed narrative that hit on topics to which everybody can relate. Short (and anything but sweet) "Tell-Tale" is an excellent example of Poe's theory of writing. 

But that's not why "Tell-Tale Heart" is crazy-famous. It's fame comes from the fact that it's a deeply unsettling crime story, a story of psychological disintegration, a story that straddles the genres of horror and Gothic, and a story that, with one fell swoop, established a few of the most potent symbols in American letters.

Not bad for a story with only ten paragraphs.

What is The Tell-Tale Heart About and Why Should I Care?

This creepy little tale gives us the O.G. unreliable narrator—a man who keeps insisting that he's sane when all of his actions (and pretty much all of his words) suggest exactly the opposite. It's a neat little trick that's been recycled through literature ever since Poe put his grim little spin on it: a narrator that can't quite be trusted.

Holden Caulfield's faux nonchalance? Unreliable narration. Pi in Life of Pi? Unreliable. The narrator from Fight Club? 100% unreliable.

Yep: all of these character's owe a debt to the deeply unreliable narrator of "Tell-Tale Heart."

In just ten paragraphs, Poe weaves a tale that's riveting in part because it's gritty and gory, and in part because it's such a masterpiece of psychological depth and depravity. The unnamed narrator simultaneously spills his guts (and, um, someone else's as well) and withholds the truth in an upsetting, compelling, and totally unforgettable way.

Will this story destroy your faith in humanity? Maybe a little bit—even though Poe's writing is almost two centuries old, he remains one of the masters of the horror genre, and his characters are notorious for being unsettling.

But will this story also cement your faith in the power of the short story? Absolutely—Poe is a genius when it comes to compressing action, characterization, and maximum thrills in just a few pages.

So lock your door, turn on all the lights, and get to reading. This story will haunt you. Trust us—unlike the narrator of "Tell-Tale Heart," we're pretty reliable.

The Tell-Tale Heart Resources

Movie or TV Productions

The Animated Heart
Check out this eerie animated version from 1953. It's not for the faint of heart.

Images

Lots of Images of Poe
Use the "next image" button to scroll the images. (Aren't we bossy?)

Documents

"The Works of Edgar Allan Poe"
An Atlantic Monthly article from 1896 on Poe's works.

"CITY LORE; Fear! Dread! Torment! Why Poe's Fans Are Obsessive"
A New York Times article on Poe.

About "The Poe House"
A New York Times article on Poe's home.

Other

Need some reliable critical material on Gothic literature?
Look no further.