Is there an unreliable narrator in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”?

Essay, 2007

8 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. Definition of the term “unreliable narrator”

3. Proofs for the unreliable narrator in “The Tell-Tale Heart”
3.1. Paratextual Signal
3.2. Contradictions
3.3. Psychological and emotional irregularities
3.4. Peculiarities on the stylistic level

4. Conclusion

5. Word Count

Works Cited

1. Introduction

Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Tell-Tale Heart” is not a “whodunit - we know right from the start who the murderer is.” (Benfey 29). The narrator describes in detail how he prepares and commits the murder of an old man, he lives together with. All of the time he “bases his plea upon the assumption that madness is incompatible with systematic action” (Robinson 94) and emphasises that he is not mad. “His plot is motiveless” (Hoffman 227), he only murders the old man because of his “Evil Eye” (Poe 278) and hides his dismembered body under the roofs of his room. After that he welcomes three police officers in the house and allows them to search the house. He still feels safe because he has perfectly hidden all indications for the deed. But then his own madness makes him go crazy, he thinks to hear the beating of the old mans heart so loud that it will betray him and finally he makes a confession of the murder.

We don’t get to know much about the narrator of this story, we never learn his name, his job, in what town he lives (Benfey 32). There are various texts which try to explain this or the narrators trains of thought. In this paper I will analyse the general kind of narrator, if we have do deal with an unreliable narrator or not and find proofs for my assumption.

2. Definition of the term “unreliable narrator”

The term “unreliable narrator” was invented 1961 by Wayne C. Booth in his book The Rhetoric of fiction. Here he describes the two different kinds of narrators:

At one extreme we find narrators whose judgement is suspect[…]. At the other are narrators scarcely distinguishable from the omniscient author[…]. In between lies a confused variety of more- or-less reliable narrators, many of them puzzling mixtures of sound and unsound. (Booth 274)

In modern dictionaries the unreliable narrator is also called the “fallible narrator” (Abrams 235) and defined as a narrator “whose account of events appears to be faulty, misleadingly biased, or otherwise distorted” (Baldick 268). It is said that “unreliable narration is frequently found in jokes, irony, satire and parody”, but that it can also ‘” emphasise biased perspective, limited knowledge, or serious character flaws” (Routledge 623). Unreliable narrations “always operate on at least two levels: what the narrator wishes the reader to understand and what the reader ultimately realizes.”(Bergman 44).

3. Proofs for the unreliable narrator in “The Tell-Tale Heart”

Most of the signals for unreliable narration I found in the book An Introduction to the Study of English and American literature by Vera and Ansgar Nünning. I will refer to their terms in the following (marked by “ibid.”) and apply these terms to the short story myself.

3.1. Paratextual Signal

As a paratextual signal the title (ibid. 121) is designated. Here, right in the beginning we can find proofs for the unreliable narrator of the short story. It tells us that it is about a “tell-tale heart”. At close range the words tell and tale attract attention. In the direct translation you may think, that someone in the story tells you a tale. Tales can be simple narrations, but imagine the tales of the Brothers Grimm, Little Red Riding Hood and so on. You can see, that tales are not always true stories, so the narrator of this story maybe tells you lies or tells the story from a very limited point of view and this would be unreliable.


Excerpt out of 8 pages


Is there an unreliable narrator in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”?
Ruhr-University of Bochum
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Edgar Allan Poe, The tell-tale heart, unreliable narrator, short story, evil eye
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Lena Spiekermann (Author), 2007, Is there an unreliable narrator in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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