Is "The Tell-Tale Heart" by Edgar Poe Told by Unreliable Narrator?
Anytime we are told a story, our first instinct is to believe all of the information we are told. If our grandfather wants to reminisce about his World War II days and how the Russians rescued him from a prisoner-of-war camp, we simply want to listen and follow his narrative without having to sift through it to find the grain of truth in what he’s saying. We simply want to listen and relive his experience, believing ALL he says. The same applies to fiction – as we read a story for the first time, we are forced to believe what the narrator tells us. Then there is the case of the unreliable narrator. Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Tell-Tale Heart” is told by an unreliable narrator, who is mentally ill – though he attempts to convince the reader (in vain) that he is “not mad” – and is also capable of planning and murdering an otherwise innocent old man whom he “loved”.
First of all, right away, the nervous narrator in Poe’s story, in the first paragraph, defends their sanity, evidencing their paranoia and denial of their insanity: “True! – nervous – very, very nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?” At this point and time the reader knows nothing about the reader’s mental state, so there is no reason for the narrator to defend their insanity; this is a sign of the narrator’s delusional state of mind, being out of touch with reality, that implies their inability to tell the story objectively and truthfully. He defends his sanity several times throughout the narrative, by the way. That fact he answers questions that were never stated in the first place implies he is most certainly insane and, therefore, incapable of telling a truthful, objective account to the reader (who cannot trust an emotionally incompetent, crazy narrator). This is the first evidence that the person telling “The Tell-Tale Heart” is indeed an unreliable narrator.
Secondly, the narrator says he loves the old man who took care of him, but yet the narrator wants to kill him. “It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain … I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. … I think it was his eye! … He had the eye of a vulture. … Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees – very gradually – I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.” No sane person wants to kill another person, first of all; secondly, no sane person wants to kill another because that person’s physical characteristic irks them, especially one they love dearly who treats them very well unless they are indeed crazy. And if a narrator has a mental illness, lives a distorted reality, and kills someone they love for no reason at all, and certainly not out of self-defense, that person cannot be trusted – and, therefore, cannot be relied on to tell an accurate depiction of a series of events. This forces the reader to then ask themselves if they are getting the entire story in an objective manner.
Lastly, the fact the narrator plans the killing of the man, follows through with the murder and then hides the old man’s disfigured corpse underneath the man’s own floor planks is one more example that the narrator is truly crazy – and therefore a narrator that cannot be trusted in any way, shape or form. “If still, you think me mad, you will think so no longer when I describe the wise precautions I took for the concealment of the body. … First of all, I dismembered the corpse. I cut off the head and the arms and the legs. I then took up three planks from the flooring of the chamber and deposited all between the scantlings. I then replaced the boards so cleverly, so cunningly, that no human eye – not even his own – could have detected anything wrong.” No one in their right mind defends their insanity by demonstrating how well they hid a dead man’s body, especially the body of the person they just killed. That fact that our narrator in “The Tell-Tale Heart” attempts to do so further evidence their insanity and ability to tell a reliable story.
In conclusion, when the reader first learns the narrator in this story is mentally ill yet tries to convince the reader otherwise, the reader starts to reconsider what exactly they are being told. To them, the narrator, who is without a doubt “mad,” could be misconstruing pertinent information the reader needs to understand exactly what happened in the story they are reading and experiencing. Hence Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” is one of the rare cases in the literature where there is an unreliable narrator.
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