The Tell Tale Heart is a story, on the most basic level, of conflict. There is a mental conflict within the narrator himself (assuming the narrator is male).
Through obvious clues and statements, Poe alerts the reader to the mental state of the narrator, which is insanity. The insanity is described as an obsession (with the old man’s eye), which in turn leads to loss of control and eventually results in violence. Ultimately, the narrator tells his story of killing his housemate. Although the narrator seems to be blatantly insane, and thinks he has freedom from guilt, the feeling of guilt over the murder is too overwhelming to bear.
The narrator cannot tolerate it and eventually confesses his supposed “perfect” crime. People tend to think that insane persons are beyond the normal realm of reason shared by those who are in their right mind. This is not so; guilt is an emotion shared by all humans. The most demented individuals are not above the feeling of guilt and the havoc it causes to the psyche. Poe’s use of setting, character, and language reveal that even an insane person feels guilt.
Therein lies the theme to The Tell Tale Heart: The emotion of guilt easily, if not eventually, crashes through the seemingly unbreakable walls of insanity. On the surface, the physical setting of The Tell Tale Heart is typical of the period and exceedingly typical of Poe. The narrator and the old man live in an old, dark house: “(for the shutters were close fastened, through fear of robbers)” (Poe 778). Most of the story takes place at night: “And this I did for seven long nights-every night just at midnight…” (778).
The physical aspect is not the most important component of setting for this analysis. More important are the mental and emotional settings. This clearly explains the personality of the narrator. One can assume the narrator is insane. He freely admits to his listener that he is “…-nervous-very, very dreadfully nervous…” (777).
But he then asks, “…but why will you say that I am mad?” (777). He also admits that, “The disease had sharpened my senses…” (777). If not insanity, what disease does he speak of? The reason for his actions was one of the old man’s eyes: “…-a pale blue eye, with a film over it” (777). This is easily recognizable to the reader as an eye with cataract on it. This is nothing to obsess over, yet this eye “…haunted me day and night” (777). Any sane person would take a physical defect of another with a grain of salt.
One statement by the narrator sums up his mental state: “You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing. But you should have seen me” (777). What he is actually saying is: “There are madmen who are clumsy in their actions, but not this madman!” This is as close to a self-admission of insanity as possible. The mental setting is put into place by the narrator’s own statements. This setting is pure chaos starting in the head of the killer and spilling out into the physical world around him resulting in an unnecessary death.
When the narrator is explaining the end of his tale to the unnamed listener (presumably a jailor, or a mental health practitioner), he states the beating of the heart was unbearable on his conscious: “I paced the floor to and fro with heavy strides, as if excited by the observations of the men-but the noise steadily increased…I foamed- I raved-I swore!…the noise arose over all and continually increased. It grew louder-louder-louder!…They heard!-they suspected!-they knew!…I felt I must scream or die!”(780). The narrator proceeded to admit his killing of the old man. Obviously, his mental state was one of pure fear and disillusion.
An auditory hallucination of a dead heart beating caused so much mental anguish in the narrator that it made him confess to the crime. This indeed shows insanity. Yet this insanity was not as strong as the guilt pushing through it. Another element that supports the theme is character.
Poe never states if the narrator is male or female. The reader generally assumes that the narrator is male. A statement like .