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”The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe

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Edgar Allan Poe was not like most writers of his time; he was most “famous for his cultivation of mystery and the macabre” (Charles). Poe did not have a very pleasant life, with the deaths of his mother, brother, foster mother, and his wife (all caused by tuberculosis). Because of the many misfortunes of death in his life, he also had problems with drinking, drugs, and gambling. Although Poe was not very popular within his time, he grew to “national fame”, for “his most famous poem, “The Raven”. Much of Poe’s work is focused on terror and sadness, but he also had “sensitivity to the beauty and sweetness of women” (Charles), which inspired touching lyrics of his more angelic poems. With the touch of darkness in his writing, he came up with tales “of death, wickedness and crime, survival after dissolution, [and] fatality” (Charles). Although it is not clear as to why Poe wrote such dark stories in his lifetime, one could assume the pain from the losses of his loved ones played a role. Writing in such darkness, could be his coping mechanism to dealing with all the loss and pain throughout his life. “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe is suspenseful and detailed.

The narrator starts off the story by telling the reader how he loves the old man and has nothing against him personally, except his “evil eye”. The narrator feels the need to free himself from this evil sort and decides to kill the old man. So for a week the narrator sneaks into the old man’s room to watch him, but on the eighth night the old man hears the narrator and wakes up. The narrator waits for a long time, in the darkness, and then floods the light of the lantern on the old man’s eye. He then drags the old man off the bed and then pulls the bed on top of him. The narrator then checks to see if the old man is dead, which he is, and then cuts him up and places the dismembered body beneath the floor boards. Soon the policemen came to the house after complaints of screaming coming from within the house. Once let in, the narrator lies to them by saying that it was he who had screamed, and that the old man was out of town. The narrator assures that nothing has gone wrong here, and then he hears the old man’s heart beating.

The beating starts to get louder and louder, and then he confesses to killing the old man. There are many types of literary elements in making a great story. Literary elements are one of the key factors to a story because they keep the reader captivated within the tale. Without these elements the story would be uninteresting. In Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” the elements of symbolism, irony, and imagery are used through out the story to show how the narrator is associated with key items within the story. In this short story the symbolism of the eye has two meanings. The first meaning is that the “eye” has a connection to the narrator, by symbolizing that he has inner issues within himself. The old man’s eye was vulture like and had “a pale blue [iris], with a film over it” (Poe 702). This “film” on the eye is detonating that the narrator has a problem with his outlook on the world. The other meaning is that some critics consider the “eye” to have a double meaning (“ The Tell-Tale Heart…” 240). The critics say, “the external “eye” of the old man is seen in contrast to the internal “I” of the narrator”(“ The Tell-Tale Heart…” 240). This statement is implying that Poe used logic distortion by using homophones to cover what the narrator is really trying to hide from the reader, his insanity.

The overall symbolism of the eye is focused on the psychological state of the narrator. Even though he ends up killing the old man, for his eye, the narrator sets himself up for his own destruction. Poe’s use of irony, of the situation, has the reader stunned by how the narrator reveals himself at the end of the story. At the beginning of the story the narrator had “made up [his] mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid [himself] of the eye forever” (Poe 702). As he is beating the old man, he yells in “[fear] that the neighbors would hear the heartbeat growing…louder” (Howard 3). Within minute of committing the crime, three police officers show up and inspect the house for any foul play. The narrator then sits them down in the old man’s chamber and chats with them. After several minutes of conversation, the narrator starts to hear this ringing noise. This particular sound made him more anxious, “I talked more freely, to get rid of the feeling” (Poe 705). Yet, the sound increased making him more nervous to a point where he couldn’t overpower the sound any longer.

So he then screams to the officers “dissemble no more! I admit the deed! –tear up the planks!” (Poe 705) Even though “the narrator destroys the [eye], thus ensuring his own [incarceration] (Howard 3), he ultimately got what he wanted. It’s ironic how the narrator got what he wanted, but also destroys himself in the process. Throughout the planned process of killing the old man, the narrator made sure that every little second counted. Within the story, time is of the essence. “The central image of the beating of the heart he associates with the ticking of a clock”, and the “death-watches (a kind of beetle that makes a ticking sound)”give the reader an image of time (May 1). The role of time, itself, is a big part in counting down the hours to the old man’s death. Upon the eight night the narrator tells the reader that “[a] watch’s minute-hand moves more quickly then did mine” (Poe 702). Here the narrator is comparing himself to a watch, a watch “watching” the old man’s death. “[H]e emphasizes how time slows down and almost stops” (May 1).

Meaning that he is the one controlling the precise time of when to kill the old man. That night the old man knew something was going to happen to him, when he sensed someone was near. Thus, making the narrator uneasy by hearing the old man’s heart “[growing] louder…[and] louder every moment” the narrator stood there watching him (Poe 704). Even though the old man’s life was cut some what short, he can’t out live his “time”, “for the tale that every heart tells is the tale of time—time inevitably passing, with every beat of the heart bringing one closer to death” (May 1). In conclusion, most of Poe’s stories have a dark sensation to them; it gives the reader a little taste of what it’s like to be inside his mind. He is able to get his readers to understand what he putting into words by his use of literary elements within his stories. Poe uses different kinds of elements to help create the theme and plot of his stories. With the use of symbolism, irony, and imagery in this story, Poe is showing the reader how the narrator is linked to key items within the story.


Charles CestreThomas Ollive MabbottJacques, Barzun. “Poe, Edgar Allan.” Britannica Biographies (2011): 1. MAS Ultra – School Edition. Web. 20 Feb. 2012 Howard, Ronald W. “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition (2004): 1-3. MagillOnLiterature Plus. Web. 9 Apr. 2012. May, Charles E. “The Tell-Tale Heart: Overview.” Reference Guide to Short Fiction. Ed. Noelle Watson. Detroit: St. James Press, 1994. Literature Resource Center. Web. 9 Apr. 2012. Poe, Edgar A. “The Tell-Tale Heart.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 7th ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 2008. 702-05. Print.

“The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe.” Short Story Criticism. Ed. Anna
Sheets-Nesbitt. Vol. 34. Detroit: Gale Group, 2000. 239-287. Literature Criticism Online. Gale. Lamar University – Beaumont. 9 April 2012

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