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Symbols Used by Edgar Allan Poe in His 'The Tell-Tale Heart' and 'The Black Cat': Critical Essay

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Edgar Allan Poe describes the feeling of guilt and fear through symbols in the stories ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ and ‘The Black Cat’. For instance, the eye in each story symbolizes how the narrator views himself. However, the narrators are both seen differently. Additionally, the space beneath the floorboards and the space behind the wall both symbolize the subconscious. Although these areas are relatively similar, they refer to different significations. In both stories, these two pairs of symbols are presented, in which they also contribute to the themes of guilt, paranoia, and misplaced anger. The symbols help further deepen the analysis of the narrators’ personalities and actions.

Anger is an emotion that we feel when we’re frustrated or if something doesn’t meet our expectations. The levels of anger may impact one to act differently. In ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’, the eye of the old man is significant because it reflects on the narrator himself. The narrator loved the old man but was still bothered by something about him. “I think it was his eye! Yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture – a pale blue eye, with a film over it” (1). The eye represents the narrator in a way that symbolizes his insanity. The ‘film’ that covers the eye of the old man makes it a little more unclear, which represents how the narrator is unclear of his insanity. At the beginning of the story, he doesn’t admit he’s mad but rather nervous. He had nothing against the old man, but still decided to project the blame on him and kill him for his eye. He had done that because he wanted to simply get rid of his insanity that was the cause behind the eye of his bother. However, after he killed the old man, he dissembled his body, which doesn’t prove his sanity at all. It shows that the narrator is mentally ill for killing someone he ‘loves’. By comparison, the eye from ‘The Black Cat’ depicts how the narrator sees himself. The eye, specifically referring to Pluto’s, symbolizes the narrator’s id. The id refers to one’s instinct that responds to any urges and desires. “At once, wild, terrible anger filled me, and I could feel nothing except burning hate. Slowly I took a knife from my pocket, opened it, and then carefully cut out one of Pluto’s eyes from its socket” (5). The relationship between the narrator and Pluto was very close and they both loved each other very much. The narrator ended up removing Pluto’s eye because Pluto tried to run away from him. This sparked immediate anger within the narrator, which caused him to react irrationally. The eye also exemplifies his insanity in a way where he’s killing the animal that he loves more than the others. The symbol of the eye from both stories contributes to the theme of misplaced anger. Both the narrators in the story thought that killing the ones they love will solve all their problems. Instead, it worsened the situation. Their insanity prevented them from controlling their own minds. Rather than taking the time to calmly think, their unstable mentality took the anger out of them and misplaced it.

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One’s mental instability can impact one to commit immortal actions. Another pair of symbols presented in both stories is the space beneath the floorboards and the space behind the wall. As the space is hidden by another piece of object, it symbolizes the subconscious. Our subconscious is the space that stores such fears, immortal urges, selfish needs, and experiences in our minds. In ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’, the space beneath the floorboards symbolizes the subconscious, as it was where the narrator hid the body of the old man. “I then took up three planks from the flooring of the chamber and deposited all between the scantlings. I then replaced the boards so cleverly, so cunningly, that no human eye – not even his – could have detected anything wrong” (3). The subconscious underneath the floorboards is a reference to how our subconscious lies underneath the active control of our minds. In other words, it represents his guilt and immortality, which are all parts of the subconscious. Similarly, in ‘The Black Cat’, the space behind the wall is a symbol for the subconscious as well. “Do you see how well built this house is? These walls, you will notice, are very strong. As I said these words, I knocked on the wall with a stick – the wall where I had hidden my wife!” (9). The space behind the wall symbolizes the subconscious due to the narrator’s thought of hiding his dead wife in it. This action is considered a shameful experience and an irrational urge that lies within the subconscious of the human mind. It influences the way one thinks and feels. These symbols from both stories contribute to the theme of guilt and paranoia. Ironically, both narrators ended up blowing their cover and eventually confessed what was behind the wall. To further explain, their ego plays a part where they are conscious of what they are doing and decided to admit their guilt instead of hiding it. In addition, the cause for their confession is paranoia. The narrators’ extreme anxiety and fear that stays within their subconscious impacts them to be unable to hide the true reality from themselves.

The fact that we are unable to escape the reality of the world sometimes allows us to be more conscious of our surroundings. Edgar Allan Poe displayed feelings of guilt and fear through the symbols of the eye and the space beneath the floorboard and the wall in ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ and ‘The Black Cat’. These symbols can be compared as both the eye of the old man and Pluto reflect on how the narrator sees himself. Further in-depth, the eye of the old man symbolizes the narrator’s insanity, while the eye of Pluto symbolizes and focuses more on the narrator’s id. Both eyes contribute to the theme of misplaced anger and its impacts. Meanwhile, the space beneath the floorboard and the space behind the wall symbolizes the narrator’s subconscious. It’s where the guilt and immortal urges are visually and mentally hidden. This leads to the themes of guilt and paranoia on how they are connected. In these two stories, Edgar Allan Poe was able to present psychology in literature with symbolic significance regarding how our feelings can impact our actions.

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Symbols Used by Edgar Allan Poe in His ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ and ‘The Black Cat’: Critical Essay. (2023, November 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 5, 2024, from
“Symbols Used by Edgar Allan Poe in His ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ and ‘The Black Cat’: Critical Essay.” Edubirdie, 15 Nov. 2023,
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Symbols Used by Edgar Allan Poe in His ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ and ‘The Black Cat’: Critical Essay [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2023 Nov 15 [cited 2024 Mar 5]. Available from:
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