The Fall of the House of Usher. (L to R) T'Nia Miller as Victorine LaFourcade, Rahul Kohli as Napoleon Usher in episode 101 of The Fall of the House of Usher. Cr. Ricardo Hubbs/Netflix © 2023

The World of Poe: ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ and the Guilt That Weighs on Us

Edgar Allan Poe often weaves a story that we can all understand amid our pain, even with the fear he inflicts within his tales. The Tell-Tale Heart takes you into the mind of a justified killer—and while you think, at first, this is a simple story about one man’s journey with his own justification, the justification is, in its own right, a warped look at what it takes for one man to take the life of another. The Tell-Tale Heart brings us an idea: What if you were a kind murderer? What if you made sure the person you were planning to kill had the time and energy to live a week of life before you murdered them? Would that make it better?

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What would happen if you heard only that heartbeat time and time again? Poe’s work is a study of guilt and the all-consuming feeling of what is haunting you taking over to such an extent you just can’t take the pain any longer. In Poe’s work, there is often a theme of some feeling inflicted by the narrator. The Tell-Tale Heart starts with the idea of justifying this dark deed and the need of the narrator to do so for his own “sanity.”

Starting with the narrator deciding that the old man with pale blue eyes must die, the narrator finds ways to delay his death, waiting a week for him to live and taking his time to do so. Already, it is planting the seeds for the guilt he is inevitably going to feel. Whenever you know something will make you feel burdened, you find ways to justify those things for your peace of mind. The narrator believes one extra week makes the murder of the old man okay.

The guilt that lives on

A non-stop beating, the heart tormenting the narrator—what is so incredibly fascinating about the story as a whole comes entirely from the fact that it weighs on us as readers, just as it weighs on the storyteller. Guilt is a heavy drug that ruins someone from the inside out. To see it laid out so plainly paints a picture of that feeling in such a way that readers fully understand how guilt can drive one mad with a desire to tell anyone who would listen about their misdoings.

The narrator could have gotten away with it. He could have simply left the body hidden, and no one would have known his crime. But the weight of what he had done suffocated him, and before he could get away with his “perfect” murder, he was forced to shriek at the world around him. It is, in a way, a perfect glimpse into what guilt really is and how it affects us. Guilt isn’t about how the wrong thing can ruin someone. It is how that crime can tear them apart. That feeling—the fear of being caught, of someone knowing what they’re capable of? All of that feels like too much. The guilt is all-consuming, and it is what makes The Tell-Tale Heart so brilliant.

(featured image: Netflix)

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Rachel Leishman
Rachel Leishman (She/Her) is an Assistant Editor at the Mary Sue. She's been a writer professionally since 2016 but was always obsessed with movies and television and writing about them growing up. A lover of Spider-Man and Wanda Maximoff's biggest defender, she has interests in all things nerdy and a cat named Benjamin Wyatt the cat. If you want to talk classic rock music or all things Harrison Ford, she's your girl but her interests span far and wide. Yes, she knows she looks like Florence Pugh. She has multiple podcasts, normally has opinions on any bit of pop culture, and can tell you can actors entire filmography off the top of her head. Her work at the Mary Sue often includes Star Wars, Marvel, DC, movie reviews, and interviews.