Through the first person narrator, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” illustrates how man’s imagination is capable of being so vivid that it profoundly affects people’s lives. The manifestation of the narrator’s imagination unconsciously plants seeds in his mind, and those seeds grow into an unmanageable situation for which there is no room for reason and which culminates in murder.
The narrator takes care of an old man with whom the relationship is unclear, although the narrator’s comment of “For his gold I had no desire” (Poe 34) lends itself to the fact that the old man may be a family member whose death would monetarily benefit the narrator. Moreover, the narrator also intimates a caring relationship when he says, “I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult” (34). The narrator’s obsession with the old man’s eye culminates in his own undoing as he is engulfed with internal conflict and his own transformation from confidence to guilt.
The fixation on the old man’s vulture-like eye forces the narrator to concoct a plan to eliminate the old man. The narrator confesses the sole reason for killing the old man is his eye: “Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees – very gradually – I made up my mind to rid myself of the eye for ever” (34). The narrator begins his tale of betrayal by trying to convince the reader he is not insane, but the reader quickly surmises the narrator indeed is out of control. The fact that the old man’s eye is the only motivation to murder proves the narrator is so mentally unstable that he must search for justification to kill.
In his mind, he rationalizes murder with his own unreasonable fear of the eye. The narrator wrestles with conflicting feelings of responsibility to the old man and feelings of ridding his life of the man’s “Evil Eye” (34). Although afflicted with overriding fear and derangement, the narrator still acts with quasi-allegiance toward the old man; however, his kindness may stem more from protecting himself from suspicion of watching the old man every night than from genuine compassion for the old man.
The narrator shows his contrariety when he confesses he loves the old man, but he is still too overwhelmed by the pale blue eye to restrain himself from the all-consuming desire to eliminate the eye. His struggle is evident as he waits to kill the old man in his sleep so that he won’t have to face the old man when he kills him; but on the other hand, the narrator can’t justify the killing unless the vulture eye was open.
The narrator is finally able to kill the man because “I saw it with perfect distinctness – all a dull blue, with a hideous veil over it that chilled the very marrow in my bones; but I could see nothing else of the old man’s face or person: for I had directed the ray as if by instinct, precisely upon the damned spot” (35). The mission of the narrator begins with meticulous planning and confidence, but ultimately his guilty conscience creates his downfall. For seven days, the narrator watches the old man while he sleeps and he even “chuckled at the idea” that the old man knows nothing of the narrator’s “secret deeds or thoughts” (35).
The narrator’s comments show his confidence and audacity, even pride, in his plan to kill: “Never before that night had I felt the extent of my own powers – of my sagacity. I could scarcely contain my feelings of triumph” (34-35). The narrator’s assurance in his evil deed continued even when the police came to check on the old man and investigate the loud noises neighbors heard the night before: “I smiled,for what had I to fear? I bade the gentlemen welcome” (36).
However, the narrator’s mind is quickly consumed with guilt, which creates his delusion of hearing the old man’s heartbeat taunting him from under the flooring. His paranoia makes the heart beat “louder – louder – louder! ” and in his state of delirium he confesses to killing the old man in hopes of ridding his life of the menacing heartbeat: “I felt that I must scream or die! – and now ” (37). The narrator sets out to rid his life of the fear he created by obsessing over the man’s eye, but once that fear is destroyed, another fear – that of the heartbeat – is created and becomes more overwhelming than the first.
In playing mind games with himself – seeing how far he can push himself to triumph over his own insanity – the narrator slips further into a fantasy world. His overriding confidence in killing the man ultimately turns into overriding guilt even as he justifies in his mind the savage killing, chopping up the body and placing it under the floorboards. The narrator’s imagination creates his need and plan to destroy the eye, but it then creates the need to save himself from the heartbeat that drives him over the edge.