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“The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe Through a Psychological Lens


Literature is a unique kind of art that has always been used by people for various purposes. It helps authors to discuss particular ideas and emotions or attract the public attention to a particular issue. In most cases, texts touch upon eternal concepts, such as love, hatred, or relations and issues that will always be interesting for human beings. The mind of a human being, how it works, and problems it might face belong to the list of most popular topics. For this reason, many famous works can be analyzed applying the psychological paradigm as the main hero’s actions, their solutions, and motifs are taken from real life and described by authors in detail. Edgar Allan Poe is one of the masters of psychological stories, and his masterpiece “The Tell-Tale Heart” combines psychological, detective, and horror elements to impress readers and create a certain effect.

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Plot Summary

The short story has a specific style and language seen from the first lines. It is a first-person narrative told by an anonymous person who wants to ensure readers that they are sane. The main character describes the murder of an older man with an appearance that made the storyteller nervous and suspicious. The central character describes the calculation of the murder, his/her attempts to commit a perfect crime, and the process of hiding the body (Poe 64). All these comments are supported by the narrator’s assurances that he/she is sane and he/she does not have any mental problems. However, the story ends with the central figure confessing to the police because of the sound of a heart “louder it became, and louder” (Poe 67). The story does not have unnecessary elements, and its plot ends with the strongest moment as the central figure cannot cope with his insanity anymore.

Psychological Elements

Applying the psychological perspective, it is possible to state that the short story is a perfect example of how the author uses peculiarities of people’s behavior to emphasize their madness or inability to handle the situation. The narrator of the story acts as a typical patient with multiple mental problems, which can be seen by his/her motifs, ideas, obsession, and compulsive thoughts. From this perspective, Edgar Allen Poe manages to create a realistic hero who helps to convey the atmosphere of insanity, fear, and anxiety (Shulman 246). It affects readers and makes them feel uncomfortable, which is one of the main purposes of the author. Demonstrating the ill psyche of a murderer, his/her strange motifs, and beliefs, Poe also shows how madness works and affects people (Kachur 50). From this angle, the short story becomes a perfect example of how a text uses various psychological ideas and moments.


One of the main motifs for killing an older man is his eye. The narrator constantly focuses on it, repeating “I think it was his eye,” “the eye of a vulture,” “the eye of one of those terrible birds” (Poe 64). Moreover, he admits that the decision to kill a person was made because of it “I had to kill the old man and close that eye forever!” (Poe 65). Finally, the central character says, “His eye would trouble me no more!” (Poe 66). In such a way, the word eye acquires a symbolic meaning and stands for the character’s inner vision, his/her self-representation, and the ability to take a detached view on his/her actions and critically analyze them (Shulman 260). The eye is sick, it has a veil covering it, meaning that the narrator is also not healthy and has mental problems. Constantly repeating this word, he/she emphasizes this fact and, at the same time, he/she cannot understand it.

Problem Words

The literary work offers another problem word that affects the central figure. Telling the story, the narrator focuses on hearing, stating, “Have I not told you that my hearing had become unusually strong?” (Poe 66). It can be the first sign of severe mental problems peculiar to the hero. Hearing noises and things that no one else can hear can be referred to as hallucinations, which are usually symptoms of mental disease with multiple complications and high risks both for a person and people surrounding him/her (Kachur 49). At the end of the story, the narrator confesses as the sound of heart beating becomes unbearable for him “But why does his heart not stop beating?! Why does it not stop!?” (Poe 67). It means that he/she is not able to control hallucinations and mind anymore. He/she gives up metaphorically and literally, as his/her crime destroys the psyche.

Oedipal Complex

The story also appeals to the Oedipal complex and issues related to this state. It is a state characterized by feelings of desire for an opposite-sex parent and anger toward his/her same-sex parent (Kachur 49). At the beginning of the story, the narrator confesses in his/her warm feelings related to the older man, “I even loved him. He had never hurt me” (Poe 64). Moreover, both characters lived in the same house, which makes them similar to a family. Following this model, the narrator kills the older man because of the Oedipal complex or jealousy. From this perspective, the ill eye serves as the trigger or the factor used to explain the subconscious desire to harm and even kill a man (Kachur 49). Furthermore, the inability to accept the murder is another factor proving the existence of some Oedipal dynamics. For this reason, it is another vital psychological aspect of the short story.

Psychoanalytic Concepts

The central character’s behavior is another factor showing the presence of severe mental problems. The narrator uses shot and emotional phrases, with the repetition of the same themes, motifs, and ideas. Furthermore, he/she describes the murder in detail to prove that he/she can plan and that his/her mental state is fine (Poe 66). These symptoms can be explained regarding psychoanalytic and its major concepts. The main character is nervous, and he/she suffers from hyperesthesia or a condition with increased sensitivity to stimuli given by a certain sense (Kachur 49). The main character cannot cope with his/her hearing, meaning that he/she refuses to accept information coming from the outer world. As a result, the narrator fails to struggle with this feeling and confesses, showing that his/her problems with the psyche come from some previous traumas or experiences (Kachur 46). For this reason, the story has a deep psychological meaning.

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The Story and the Author

Analyzing the story, it is also vital to remember that any text can provide much information about its author. Edgar Allan Poe gives many details about the psychological state of the narrator, his/her fears, feelings, and emotions. Moreover, the author manages to create a dull and pressing atmosphere, using specific sentence structure, words, repeated questions, and assurances (Shulman 251). It demonstrates Poe’s correct understanding of the state he wants to describe in the short story. Moreover, investigators of his creativity admit the author’s ability to discuss various psychological states with correct symptoms and signs. It means that Poe might have suffered from similar problems and had symptoms described in the texts (Shulman 252). For this reason, the author possesses an enhanced understanding of people’s psychology and can use it to create outstanding texts.

The Story and a Reader

Finally, every reader analyzes a text through the prism of his/her worldview and psychology. Interpretation of this story shows how a person understands the motifs of a sick person and whether he/she can understand that a character suffers from a severe disorder or another similar health problem. “The Tell-Tale Heart” shows that a reader is interested in psychology and psychoanalysis and correctly realizes the complexity of the human mind and motifs promoting certain actions (Shulman 250). From another hand, the differences in the story’s interpretations show the priorities of people and how they view various triggers. As with any literary work, this short story can help to understand a reader better.


Altogether, “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe is a short story centered around a person with severe mental problems. The main character kills an older man and cannot handle it, confessing to the police. The author uses various symbols, such as an eye, or hearing to emphasize the complexity of the narrator’s state and show readers that he/she is sick. The story also underlines Poe’s ability to create realistic images of people with mental diseases and their problems. For this reason, this short story is one of the classic examples of psychological thrillers with an interesting plot and disputable issues.

Works Cited

Kachur, Robert. “Buried in the Bedroom: Bearing Witness to Incest in Poe’s ‘The Tell-Tale Heart.’” Mosaic: An Interdisciplinary Critical Journal, vol. 41, no. 1, 2008, pp. 43–59, Web.

Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Tell-Tale Heart.” American English, Web.

Shulman, Robert. “Poe and the Powers of the Mind.” ELH, vol. 37, no. 2, 1970, pp. 245–262, Web.

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