Image by Daniil Kuželev

the "I"

16 december 2019

excerpts from an essay on "The Tell-Tale Heart," a short story by Edgar Allan Poe


The old man’s eye is far more than an eye. It is far more than the narrator’s reason for killing the old man. The narrator is not actually murdering the old man—he is attempting to murder his own madness. In light of “eye” and “I” being homonyms, Poe’s diction prompts the reader to consider a larger, more symbolic meaning of the body part. Namely, the narrator is trying to rid himself of the “I,” or the insanity growing inside him. It is no coincidence that Poe has chosen an eye—an external source of insight into another’s soul or true self—to epitomize the culmination of the narrator’s madness. The old man, or the human manifestation of the narrator’s insanity, watches the narrator lose his mind through his “pale blue eye, with a film over it.” The “film” represents a skewed lens through which the story is told and only further emphasizes the unreliability of the narrator. While vision is thematically distorted throughout the story, hearing gradually intensifies to the consequence of extreme paranoia. The narrator thinks his is eliminating the “I,” or his own madness, by killing the old man; however, the malicious act ironically destroys any sanity he once had.


After looking deeply into the narrator’s mental instability, the reader questions if there even is an old man. The “I” metaphor suggests that the man could just be a figment of the narrator’s imagination, something that he perceives as his insanity escalates. In analyzing the deterioration of his mind, Poe makes a greater statement about the consequences of revenge. The narrator believes he frees himself from his suffering and the evil in his life by killing the man while in fact he only suffers more from his malice. Revenge puts him in a place of deeper instability rather than allowing him to regain control of his mind. In a sense, the narrator kills himself by killing the old man as the consequence of trying to benefit himself at the expense of another.