Edgar Allan Poe is one of the most critically acclaimed contemporary writers, and also, there is no doubt that he’s one of the icons of the police genre and horror stories. He was born and died in the nineteenth century, and surprisingly, published his only novel in 1838, for the rest, he remained a journalist and writer of short stories.
This time we’re going to analyze one of Poe’s short stories that despite its clean and perfect narrative that seems linear and simple, for many, it’s full of symbolism towards life as well as towards the internal conflicts of a man: The Tell-Tale Heart.
This story narrates the way in which the protagonist becomes a murderer, affirming that he’s not crazy because a person with little mental health wouldn’t have planned and executed a plan as perfect as his, taking care of every detail. The protagonist prepares to assassinate an old man with whom he lived, and at the end of the story, he ends up confessing his crime to the police.
What is the magic of this work written by Poe? Besides the active conflict within the protagonist’s mind about whether they should consider him crazy or not, the short story has aspects that invite us to analyze and find analogies everywhere.
Next, we will present what these aspects are, and what have been the criticisms that other people have offered about this magnificent work.
2. Argument of the story
Before immersing ourselves in the symbology of the story, we must bring up what The Tell-Tale Heart is about.
Written by Edgar Allan Poe in 1843, tells a man who tries to prove his supposedly mental health by giving details of how he planned and committed the murder of an old man with whom he lived. And confessing in a sinister and detailed manner all the reasons that led him to become a homicide.
The narrator insists from the first moment that he is a normal person, although his senses are very acute. The old man with whom he lives has an eye veiled by a pale blue film, like the eyes of vultures. This causes anxiety in the narrator, to the point that one day he decides to kill him.
He insists on the care he puts on and the precision of his actions, for example, in watching the old man sleep through a crack in the door. One day, when the old man opened his eye, the narrator decides to choke him with his own pillow. Then he tears up the body and hides it under the floor; finally, erase all traces. The police will come at the request of neighbors who have heard noises. The murderer invites them, confident, shows them the house and leads them to the room under which lies the dismembered corpse. Soon, the narrator seems to hear a noise. When he thinks horrified that it’s the heart of the old man who is giving him away, he collapses and confesses, loudly asking the policemen to raise the floorboards.
The most interesting part is that the story begins at the end. The beginning seems like a conversation with one or several people, and it has been speculated that the narrator is confessing to a guardian, a judge, a journalist or a doctor or psychiatrist. This may be so because of the need to explain the narrator in detail. What follows is a study of terror, but, more specifically, the memory of it, since the narrator tells of past events.
This preamble also serves to immediately capture the reader’s attention about what is being told. From this point, as was proper in Poe, each word is focused on the advance of the story, which makes this story short possibly the best reflection of the author’s theories about what a perfect story should be.
The engine of the story is the narrator’s insistence, not on his innocence (which would be normal) but on his sanity. But this reveals a self-destructive drive since it’s pretending to demonstrate sanity through guilt in the crime.
His denial of madness is based, above all, on the systematic nature of his homicidal behavior, on his precision and on the rational explanation of irrational behavior.
Thus, the final scene is nothing more than the result of the character’s guilt. Like many other characters in traditional macabre literature, passions dictate their nature.
3. Literary devices
Throughout the story, the author is responsible for utilizing literary figures outlined by the character in the story to denote certain key aspects of his attitude and personality. Some of the literary devices that the author uses are metaphor and irony. It also presents a series of images throughout the text.
Metaphors in The Tell-Tale Heart
A metaphor occurs when two things of a completely different nature are compared to refer to each other. According to Christoph Haase (2002), a metaphor “means of figurative language, an indirect comparison without a word showing this comparison.”. As Poe’s story unfolds, we can find a handful of metaphors. For example:
1. ‘His eye was like the eye of a vulture.’
The narrator mentions the reference of ‘vulture’s eye’ three times.
One way to interpret this is also to think directly about what this animal means. Vultures take advantage of the sick and the dead. If the old man is a vulture-like person, there is no way to know; nevertheless, this is what our narrator symbolizes.
If the vultures take advantage of the dead and almost die, and the narrator in the ‘vulture’s eye,’ does this mean that the narrator is dead or almost dead?
The eye also has some rather strange things. It seems boring and unseen, but it has strange powers. It makes the narrator’s blood cool.
2. “In the quiet night, in the dark silence of the bedroom, my anger became fear — for the heart was beating so loudly that I was sure someone must hear.”
Usually, in our daily life, we conceive our bedroom (and therefore, our bed) as a symbol of home, protection, and security. In contrast, in the short story of Edgar Allan Poe, this bed symbolizes exactly the opposite.
The narrator violates the privacy and security of the old man, completely defying him until he is murdered. This, from the perspective of Poe could mean that perhaps, that the element that provides us security, can be our greatest weakness icon.
Perhaps when (and where) we feel more secure, it’s when we are most vulnerable to others.
3. “The hands of a clock move more quickly than did my hand. Never before had I felt so strongly my own power; I was now sure of success.”
This, perhaps, is one of the most notorious resources during history and is mentioned four times.
A clock/watch is a representation of time. Although in this story, it can be said that time is watching death. Each tick of the clock symbolizes a movement closer to the inevitable death faced by all humans, and in this case, the death of the old man.
On the last night, our protagonist compares himself to a watch that is watching the death of the old man, and at the same time, controls everything that has to do with it. Then, the narrator becomes a walking watch of death.
Another of the main literary resources presented by the author is irony. Throughout the story, the protagonist emphasizes that he has control over his abilities, while the whole story proves otherwise.
Also, at the beginning of the story, the narrator doesn’t seem to give importance to the morality of his actions, diluting the commonly accepted principles (considering that the murder violates the rights and moral principles of the society in which it’s contextualized). The narrator put above morality, the acceptance of his mental health as something superior and almost supreme. The whole debate is not about whether he is good or bad, but about whether he is crazy or not.
Ironically, at the end of the story and when the narrator is not supposed to care about any moral precept, he feels guilt. This guilt is reflected in the way he ‘listens’ to the old man’s heart when the police are at home, and when this sound increases, forcing him to confess his crime.
However ‘perfect’ and ‘planned’ his crime may have been, as the narrator proclaims, a part of him succumbed to the guilt and a bit of morality that forced him to tell the whole truth.
There are mixed feelings and views from critics about this story. Some acclaim it, and others criticize the implausibility that exists even when it is a work cataloged as ‘realistic’.
One of Cassie Hillerby’s criticisms (2014) is that the realm of the ‘real’ world of this Poe work lost some credible aspects and that some of these could be of ‘another world’ to some extent. She comes to consider some details as incomprehensible using the theory of the mind.
More or less in that same line, David Rein (1960) claimed that the main character could be based on Poe and that he’s being guided by an ‘intense hostility’ that doesn’t have any external stimulus but comes from the man himself, who in this case would be the narrator.
On the other hand, Brett Zimmerman (2001) offers a different perspective since he offers his opinion on this Poe story from the point of view of rhetoric and slightly from a judicial point of view, criticizing initially the opinions of those who don’t suggest that the discourse of Poe in The Tell-Tale Heart is sufficiently rhetorical or argumentative. Zimmerman acknowledges that Poe managed to take the reader to the point he wanted through the ‘confession’ of his character, and despite any criticism from this author, we will take this as a positive aspect in the short story of Edgar Allan Poe.
4. Final notes
Criticized and acclaimed, there is no doubt that Edgar Allan Poe is one of the writers who went down in history and will remain in it for his creativity and magnificence at the time of writing (regardless of how many people claim that their talent is due to their personal problems, health diseases, and traumas during his life).
The Tell-Tale Heart is a short story that didn’t have much impact, not like other works of Poe, nevertheless deserves wide recognition for the vast use of metaphors and other literary resources that are able to keep the reader caught from the first minute. Not to mention the perfect eloquence that the narrator of the story has, and Poe’s strange way of presenting us with the mind of a murderer.
This is an flawless story that is not only analyzed from the literature, but has been taken into account for studies of psychology and even oratory and law.
The Tell-Tale Heart is a work of art and should be recognized as an icon in Gothic literature, the one that Poe knew perfectly well how to lead.
- POE, E.A. (1843). The Tell-Tale Heart.
- HAASE, C. (2001). Understanding metaphors in everyday language.
- HILLERBY, C. (2014). Mind-Style in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart. The United Kingdom: The University of Nottingham.
- REIN, D. (1960). Edgar A. Poe: The Inner Pattern. New York: Philosophical Library.
- ZIMMERMAN, B. (2001). Frantic Forensic Oratory: Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”. Published by: Penn State University Press.