Text: Thomas Ollive Mabbott (E. A. Poe), “The Tell-Tale Heart,” The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe — Vol. III: Tales and Sketches (1978), pp. 789-799 (This material is protected by copyright)


∞∞∞∞∞∞∞


[page 789:]

THE TELL-TALE HEART

This story is a supreme artistic achievement. Since it is an uninterrupted speech of the protagonist, it preserves the unities completely, and is often read as a dramatic monologue.

It is one of the series of Poe’s tales founded on popular superstitions. In this case it is the Evil Eye — something feared in so many parts of the world that it seems fruitless to seek an exact source for Poe. He probably heard of the Eye at first hand while he was stationed at Fort Moultrie in Charleston Harbor, since Negroes in South Carolina (as I was reminded by my student, Harriet Holman) sometimes carry a horse chestnut (a “buckeye”) as a protection. It should be remembered that a man who possesses the Evil Eye need not be wicked, for many people (for example, in Hungary and Sicily) think it may be unwillingly acquired, and some kindly men avoid looking at other people intently. In the story, the veiling of the eye is probably symbolic, although any deformation of an eye is widely regarded with apprehension.

Although Poe’s narrator tells a plain and simple story, which leaves no doubt that he is mad, the author carefully leaves unanswered the question of how much is hallucination. Did the protagonist go mad before he fancied the old man had the Evil Eye — or did a real Evil Eye drive the young man mad? Most readers suppose that the killer hears his own heart.*

If Poe needed no special source for his main idea, he based his plot on two literary sources that can be pointed out with confidence, for there is evidence that Poe saw them. The chief inspiration was a description by Daniel Webster of a real crime committed in Massachusetts, when John Francis Knapp employed Richard Crowninshield, Jr., of Danvers, to rob and kill Joseph White of Salem on the night of April 6, 1830. The criminals were apprehended and Crowninshield committed suicide, but Knapp [page 790:] was brought to trial July 20 to August 20, 1830. Webster was employed as a special prosecutor, and Knapp was convicted. Webster’s Argument on the Trial . . . was published as a pamphlet at Salem during the year. The following are pertinent extracts from his speech:

An aged man, without an enemy in the world, in his own house, and in his own bed, is made the victim of a butcherly murder, for mere pay. Truly, here is a new lesson for painters and poets. Whoever shall hereafter draw the portrait of murder, if he will show it. . . where . . . last to be looked for . . . let him not give it the grim visage of Moloch. . . Let him draw, rather, a decorous, smooth-faced, bloodless demon; a picture in repose, rather than in action; not so much an example of human nature in its depravity, and in its paroxysms of crime, as an infernal being, a fiend, in the ordinary display and development of his character.

The deed was executed with a degree of self-possession and steadiness equal to the wickedness with which it was planned. The circumstances now clearly in evidence spread out the whole scene before us. Deep sleep had fallen on the destined victim . . . A healthful old man . . . The assassin enters . . . With noiseless foot he paces the lonely hall . . . and reaches the door of the chamber. Of this, he moves the lock, by soft and continued pressure, till it turns on its hinges without noise; and he enters, and beholds his victim before him . . . The face of the innocent sleeper . . . show[s] him where to strike. The fated blow is given! . . . It is the assassin’s purpose to make sure work . . . To finish the picture, he explores the wrist for the pulse! He feels for it and ascertains that it beats no longer! The deed is done. He retreats, retraces his steps to the window . . . and escapes. He has done the murder. No eye has seen him, no ear has heard him. The secret is his own, and it is safe!

Ah! Gentlemen, that was a dreadful mistake. Such a secret can be safe nowhere . . . True it is, generally speaking, that “murder will out” . . . the guilty soul cannot keep its own secret. It is false to itself; or rather it feels an irresistible impulse to be true to itself. It labors under its guilty possession and knows not what to do with it. The human heart was not made for the residence of such an inhabitant . . . The secret which the murderer possesses soon comes to possess him; and like the evil spirits of which we read, it overcomes him, and leads him withersoever it will. He feels it beating at his heart, rising to his throat, and demanding disclosure. He thinks the whole world sees it in his face, reads it in his eyes, and almost hears its workings in the very silence of his thoughts. It has become his master . . . It must be confessed, it will be confessed. [page 791:]

Webster’s remark on the “lesson for painters and poets” was the kind of challenge Poe sometimes took up.

A contributory source of the action was pointed out by Edith S. Krappe in American Literature, March 1940. This is “A Confession Found in a Prison in the Time of Charles the Second,” by Dickens. In the “Confession” a murderer tells how he killed his little nephew for his fortune, and placed his chair over the child’s secret grave in the presence of two visitors. Bloodhounds drove him away, and the body was discovered. It may be noted that Dickens’ criminal disliked his nephew partly because he could not look the child in the eye.

Poe had his tale ready late in 1842 and sent it off to Bradbury & Soden, publishers of the Boston Miscellany, which he supposed was edited by Nathan Hale Jr. Hale had been succeeded, however, by Henry T. Tuckerman, who had the publishers send word of rejection with the comment, “If Mr. Poe would condescend to furnish more quiet articles, he would be a most desirable correspondent.” Poe had the manuscript sent to Lowell, who, on December 17, 1842, accepted the story for the first number of The Pioneer, which appeared early in 1843.§

TEXTS

(A) Boston Pioneer, January 1843 (1: 29-31); (B) Broadway Journal, August 23, 1845 (2: 97-99); (C) Works (1850), I, 382-387.

Griswold’s text (C), showing auctorial revisions, is followed.

Reprints

The Dollar Newspaper (Philadelphia), January 25, 1843, from the Pioneer. This was the first issue of the Dollar Newspaper and the reprint was noted by Killis Campbell (MLN, May 1917). [Dwight Thomas in a recent letter points out that the Philadelphia Spirit of the Times (January 26, 1843) and other papers [page 792:] carried advertisements of the new weekly which announced “Three Excellent Stories. One by Willis, one by Poe, and a third entitled ‘Precious Minutes.’ ”]

Spirit of the Times (Philadelphia), August 27, 1845, probably from the Broadway Journal.

THE TELL-TALE HEART.   [C]

TRUE! — nervous — very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses — not destroyed — not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth.(1) I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily — how calmly I can tell you the whole story.

It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain; but,{a} once conceived, it haunted me day and night. Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye! yes, it was this! {bb}One of his eyes resembled that{bb} of a vulture — a pale blue eye, with a film over it. 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.(2)

Now this is the point. You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing. But you should have seen me. You should have seen how wisely I proceeded — with what caution — with what foresight — with what dissimulation I went to work! I was never kinder to the old man than during the whole week before I killed him. And every night, about midnight, I turned the latch of his door and opened it — oh, so gently! And then, when I had made an opening sufficient for my head, I{c} put in a dark lantern, all closed, closed, [page 793:] so that no light shone out, and then I thrust in my head. Oh, you would have laughed to see how cunningly I thrust it in! I moved it slowly — very, very slowly, so that I might not disturb the old man’s sleep. It took me an hour to place my whole head within the opening so far that I could see him{d} as he lay upon his bed. Ha! — would a madman have been so wise as this?(3) And then, when my head was well in the room, I undid the lantern cautiously — oh, so cautiously — cautiously{e} (for the hinges creaked) — I undid it just so much that a single thin ray fell upon the vulture eye. And this I did for seven long nights — every night just at midnight — but I found the eye always closed; and so it was impossible to do the work; for it was not the old man who vexed me, but his Evil Eye. And every morning, when the day broke, I went boldly into the{f} chamber, and spoke courageously to him, calling him by name in a hearty tone, and inquiring how he had passed the night.(4) So you see he would have been a very profound old man, indeed, to suspect that every night, just at twelve, I looked in upon him while he slept.

Upon the eighth night I was more than usually cautious in opening the door. A watch’s minute hand moves more quickly than did mine. Never,{g} before that night, had I felt the extent of my own powers — of my sagacity. I could scarcely contain my feelings of triumph. To think that there I was, opening the door, little by little, and he{h} not even to dream of my secret deeds or thoughts. I fairly chuckled at the idea; and perhaps he{i} heard me; for he moved on{j} the bed suddenly, as if startled. Now you may think that I drew back — but no. His room was as black as pitch with the thick darkness,(5) (for the shutters were close fastened, through fear of robbers,) and so I knew that he could not see the opening of the door, and I kept {kk}pushing it on{kk} steadily, steadily.

I had{l} my head in, and was about to open the lantern, when my thumb slipped upon the tin fastening, and the old man sprang up in the bed, crying out — “Who’s there?” [page 794:]

I kept quite still and said nothing. For a whole{m} hour I did not move a muscle, and in the meantime I did not hear him{n} lie down. He was still sitting up in the bed, listening; — just as I have done, night after night, hearkening to the death-watches, in the wall.(6)

Presently I heard a slight groan, and I knew{p} it was the groan of mortal terror. It was not a groan of pain or of grief — oh, no! — it was the low stifled sound that arises from the bottom of the soul when overcharged with awe.{q} I knew the sound well. Many a night, just at midnight, when all the world slept, it has welled up from my own bosom, deepening, with its dreadful echo, the terrors that distracted me. I say I knew it well. I knew what the old man felt, and pitied him, although I chuckled at heart. I knew that he had been lying awake ever since the first slight noise, when he had turned in the bed. His fears had been ever since growing upon him. He had been trying to fancy them causeless, but could not. He had been saying to himself — “It is nothing but the wind in the chimney — it is only a mouse crossing the floor,”(7) or “it is merely a cricket which has made a single chirp.” Yes, he has{r} been trying to comfort himself with these suppositions: but he had found all in vain. All in vain; because Death, in approaching him,{s} had stalked with his black shadow before him, and{t} enveloped the victim.(8) And it was the mournful influence of the unperceived shadow that caused him to feel — although he neither saw nor heard{u} — to feel the presence of my head within the room.

When I had waited a long tune, very patiently, without hearing him{v} lie down, I resolved to open a little — a very, very little crevice in the lantern. So I opened it — you cannot imagine how stealthily, stealthily — until, at length, a single dim ray, like the thread of the spider, shot from out the crevice and fell{w} upon the vulture eye. [page 795:]

It was open — wide, wide open — and I grew furious as I gazed upon it. 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.(9)

And now —{x} have I not told you that what you mistake for madness is but over acuteness of the senses?(10) — now, I say, there came to my ears {yy}a low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton.{yy} I knew that sound well, too. It was the beating of the old man’s heart. It increased my fury, as the beating of a drum stimulates the soldier into courage.(11)

But even yet I refrained and kept still. I scarcely breathed. I held the lantern motionless. I tried how steadily I could maintain the ray upon the eye. Meantime the hellish tattoo of the heart increased. It grew {zz}quicker and{zz} quicker, and louder and louder every instant. The old man’s terror must have been extreme! It grew louder, I say, louder every moment! — do you mark me well? I have told you that I am nervous: so I am. And now at the dead hour of the night, amid{a} the dreadful silence of that old house, so strange a noise as this excited me to uncontrollable terror.{b} Yet, for some minutes longer I refrained and stood{c} still. But the beating grew louder, louder!{d} I thought the heart must burst. And now a new anxiety seized me — the sound would be heard by a neighbor! The old man’s hour had come! With a loud yell, I threw open the lantern and leaped into the room. He shrieked once — once only. In an instant I dragged him to the floor, and pulled the heavy bed over him. I then{e} smiled gaily, to find the deed so far done. But, for many minutes, the heart beat on with a muffled sound. This, however, did not vex me; it would not be heard through the wall.{f} At length it ceased. The old man was dead. I removed the bed and examined [page 796:] the corpse. Yes, he was stone, stone dead. I placed my hand upon the heart and held it there many minutes. There was no pulsation. He{g} was stone dead. His eye would trouble me{h} no more.

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. The night waned, and I worked hastily, but in silence. 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.(12) I then replaced the boards so cleverly, so cunningly, that no human eye — not even his — could have detected anything wrong. There was nothing to wash out — no stain of any kind — no blood-spot whatever. I had been too wary for that. A tub had caught all — ha! ha!

When I had made an end of these labors, it was four o’clock — still dark as midnight. As the bell sounded the hour, there came a knocking at the street door. I went down to open it with a light heart, — for what had I now to fear? There entered three men, who introduced themselves, with perfect suavity, as officers of the police. A shriek had been heard by a neighbor during the night; suspicion of foul play had been aroused; information had been lodged at the police office, and they (the officers) had been deputed to search the premises.

I smiled, — for what had I to fear? I bade the gentlemen welcome. The shriek, I said, was my own in a dream. The old man, I mentioned, was absent in the country. I took my visiters all over the house. I bade them search — search well. I led them, at length, to his chamber. I showed them his treasures, secure, undisturbed. In the enthusiasm of my confidence, I brought chairs into the room, and desired them here to rest from their fatigues, while I myself, in the wild audacity of my perfect triumph, placed my own seat upon the very spot beneath which reposed the corpse of the victim.

The officers were satisfied. My manner had convinced them. I was singularly at ease. They sat, and while I answered cheerily, they chatted of familiar things. But, ere long, I felt myself getting pale [page 797:] and wished them gone. My head ached, and I fancied a ringing in my ears: but still they sat and still chatted. The ringing became more {ii}distinct: — it continued and became more{ii} distinct: I talked more freely to get rid of the feeling: but it continued and gained definitiveness — until, at length, I found that the noise was not within my ears.

No doubt I now grew very pale; — but I talked more fluently, and with a heightened voice. Yet the sound increased — and what could I do? It was a low, dull, quick sound — much such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. I gasped for breath — and yet the officers heard it not. I talked more quickly — more vehemently; but the noise steadily increased. I arose and argued about trifles, in a high key and with violent gesticulations; but the noise steadily increased. Why would they not be gone? I paced the floor to and fro with heavy strides, as if excited to fury by the observations of the men — but the noise steadily increased. Oh God! what could I do? I foamed — I raved — I swore! I swung the chair upon which I had been sitting,{j} and grated it upon the boards, but the noise arose over all and continually increased. It grew louder — louder — louder! And still the men chatted pleasantly, and smiled. Was it possible they heard not? Almighty God! — no, no! They heard! — they suspected! — they knew! — they were making a mockery of my horror! — this I thought, and this I think. But anything was{k} better than this agony! Anything was more tolerable than this derision! I could bear those hypocritical smiles no longer! I felt that I must scream or die! — and now — again! — hark! louder! louder! louder! louder!(13)

“Villains!” I shrieked, “dissemble no more! I admit the deed! — tear up the planks! — here, here! — it is the beating of his hideous heart!”

 


VARIANTS

[The following variants appear at the bottom of page 792:]

Motto:

Art is long and Time is fleeting,

And our hearts, though stout and brave,

Still, like muffled drums, are beating

Funeral marches to the grave.

Longfellow. (A)  [[n]]

a  but (B, C) comma added from A

bb . . . bb  He had the eye (A, B)

c  I first (A)

[The following variants appear at the bottom of page 793:]

d  the old man (A)

e  — cautiously omitted (A)

f  his (A)

g  Never (B, C) comma added from A

h  the old man (A)

i  the old man (A)

j  in (A)

kk . . . kk  on pushing it (A)

l  had got (A)

[The following variants appear at the bottom of page 794:]

m  a whole / another (A)

n  the old man (A)

o  death watches (B, C) hyphen added from A

p  knew that (A)

q  awe. (A)

r  had (A)

s  the old man, (A)

t  and the shadow had now reached and (A)

u  heard me (A)

v  the old man (A)

w  fell full (A, B)

[The following variants appear at the bottom of page 795:]

x  And now — / And (B); And now (C); reading adopted from A

yy . . . yy  a low, dull, quick sound — much such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. (A)

zz . . . zz  Omitted (A)

a  and amid (A)

b  wrath. (A)

c  kept (A)

d  louder! (A)

e  then sat upon the bed and (A)

f  walls. (A)

[The following variants appear at the bottom of page 796:]

g  The old man (A)

h  me (A)

[The following variants appear at the bottom of page 797:]

ii . . . ii  Omitted (A)

j  been sitting, / sat, (A)

k  Omitted (A)

 


[page 797, continued:]

NOTES

Motto:  The Longfellow quotation in the first version is the fourth stanza of “A Psalm of Life,” a poem published in the Knickerbocker Magazine, September 1838. Poe omitted the quotation in later versions, probably as only tangentially related to his tale. [page 798:]

1.  Compare Philippians 2:10, “. . . things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth.”

2.  The eye is a powerful and fearful instrument in a number of Poe’s tales — “the young Metzengerstein turned pale and shrunk away from the rapid and searching expression of his [horse’s] earnest and human-looking eye”; Egaeus “shrunk involuntarily” from the “lifeless, lustreless and seemingly pupilless” eyes of Berenicë. The beautiful eyes of Ligeia at once delighted and appalled the narrator. The most fearful eye of all is the accusatorial “solitary eye of fire” of “The Black Cat.”

3.  In “The Trial of James Wood,” Alexander’s Weekly Messenger, April 1, 1840, Poe stated that the extreme calmness of that murderer, when buying pistols to shoot his daughter, argued that the man was insane, as the jury found him.

4.  Since Poe’s narrator mentions calling the old man by name, the crime was not parricide, as some have suspected. A century ago, children did not address parents by name.

5.  See Job 38:9, for “thick darkness.”

6.  Wyatt’s Synopsis of Natural History, with which Poe was familiar — he probably assisted Wyatt in preparing it, and he reviewed it in Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine for July 1839 — on p. 128, under Coleoptera, Serricornes, reads: “Anobium . . . these Insects gnaw the wood of old furniture, and in the nuptial season call each other by striking the head upon the surface of solid bodies, after fixing themselves there firmly with their claws; the noise thus produced has procured them the vulgar appellation of Death-watch.” The phrase with its suggestion of superstitious implications has often been used in literature, referring to the sound usually ascribed either to the serricorn beetle or to a much smaller insect, Atropus pulsatorius. In his mention of the death-watch here Poe again unobtrusively provides, as he frequently does, the possibility of a natural explanation for hypercritical readers. [Recent discussions of the death-watch in this tale have been published by John E. Reilly, in American Transcendental Quarterly, No. 2 (11 Quarter 1969), 3-9, and E. Arthur Robinson in Poe Studies, June 1971.]

7.  Compare “The Raven,” line 36, “ ’Tis the wind and nothing more.”

8.  Compare Thomas Campbell, “Lochiel’s Warning,” line 56, “. . . coming events cast their shadows before.”

9.  See Macbeth, V, i, 39, for “damned spot.”

10.  In “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Roderick Usher “suffered much from a morbid acuteness of the senses.”

11.  Compare the lines from Longfellow’s “Psalm of Life” used as motto to the first version of the story, and also what, in “Reply to Outis” (Broadway Journal, March 29, 1845), Poe pointed out as Longfellow’s probable source, the lines

But hark! my pulse, like a soft drum,

Beats my approach, tells thee I come! [page 799:]

by Bishop Henry King, in his “Exequy,” from which Poe himself quoted the motto for the later versions of “The Assignation.”

12.  Scantlings are small timbers used to support a floor.

13.  Daniel Webster’s words, quoted in the introductory note above, are reflected here.

 


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 789:]

*  See Edward Wagenknecht, Edgar Allan Poe (1963), p. 60, for references to clinical books, including Sixteen Introductory Lectures (1811) by Dr. Benjamin Rush, who described the “remorseful criminal type” of madmen. At least one of my students suggested that everything was the diseased imagining of the speaker, who had really killed nobody, and mistook for policemen the guards from an asylum. See also reference in n. 2 below

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 790:]

  A copy of the original pamphlet has been examined at the New-York Historical Society. The passages here quoted may be more conveniently seen in the National Edition of Daniel Webster’s Writings and Speeches (1903), XI, 52-54. The pertinent material was found by Gunnar Bjurman; see his Edgar Allan Poe (Lund, 1916), pp. 220f. Poe’s attention may have been called to Webster’s speech by quotations from it in an article on the case of Mary Rogers in Brother Jonathan, August 21, 1841, where it was called “the most thrilling speech ever made in this country.” Poe quoted directly from that paper of the following week in “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt.”

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 791:]

  This tale is an early number of Master Humphrey’s Clock, begun by Dickens in April 1840 as a weekly vehicle for “essays, tales, adventures, letters from imaginary correspondents, and so forth,” but soon monopolized by The Old Curiosity Shop and then by Barnaby Rudge. As with many periodicals of the time, the separate numbers were brought together in one large volume; in this form Poe reviewed — and praised — Master Humphrey’s Clock in Graham’s for May 1841. (See Master Humphrey’s Clock and Other Early Stories and Sketches, by Charles Dickens, edited by Frank T. Marzials, London, 1891.)

§  Both Lowell’s letter to Poe of December 17 and Poe’s to Lowell, December 25, are printed by Woodberry (Life, I, 346-348).

 


∞∞∞∞∞∞∞


Notes:

Two of the lines from Longfellow’s poem are quoted by Poe in the postscript of a letter to A. M. Ide of January 25, 1845. (This letter was unknown to Ostrom or TOM. The letter was not published until 2001, when it was reproduced in an auction catalog. It was first collected in 2008.) In the letter, Poe gives the line as “Our hearts like muffled drums are beating.”


∞∞∞∞∞∞∞

[S:1 - TOM3T, 1978] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions - The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe (T. O. Mabbott) (The Tell-Tale Heart)