“The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe
“The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe is believed to be one of the writer’s greatest short stories. It represents a detailed and extensive investigation of one man’s paranoia. The story is extremely minimalistic. Thus, the author does not pay attention to unnecessary details, leaving only the most important elements of the short story. As a result, the work leaves much room for reader’s imagination. “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Poe makes the reader feel depressed because of its tone, symbolism, and a very static main character.
With the help of tone, the whole atmosphere of the short story can be studied. The usage of stylistic devices has a huge impact on the emotional coloring of the work. Thus, the author uses a wide range of epithets (for example, evil, mad, dark, dreadful, dim, black, stifled, hideous, hellish, mournful) to create the mood of this heartbreaking story: “Meantime the hellish tattoo of the heart increased” (Poe 95). Moreover, sometimes the tone is overtly gloomy or even more melancholic, which makes the reader want to cry or feel depressed: “He was stone dead. His eye would trouble me no more” (94).
The narrator of the story most of the time feels miserable and sometimes pathetic. He even seems to be a mentally and physically ill person who does not want to admit his illness: “Ha! Would a madman have been so wise at this?” (92). Since the narrator’s life is miserable, he thinks about committing a wicked action, murder, as something natural. Thus, the main character gets so furious at the old man’s eye that he decides “to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever” (92). Despite understanding his behavior, the reader becomes sad. As a result, the whole atmosphere of the story makes the reader feel depressed.
Symbols take central stage in this unpredictable piece of writing by Poe. It is not easy for the reader to find and understand all of them because it is not a work of light fiction. Hence, it creates the impression that the reader can only see the tip of an iceberg. Undoubtedly, the main symbols in the story are the old man’s eye, the watch, the bed and bedroom.
The old man’s eye has blue color with a film covering it: “He had the eye of a vulture – a pale blue eye, with a film over it” (92). Literally, it means that the person has an illness, such as corneal ulcer. However, symbolically, an eye represents inner vision of a character. Moreover, it is known as a symbol of one’s outlook. In addition, the old man’s eye has a strange power that makes the narrator’s blood run cold. Thus, the eye helps the heart; it alerts the narrator to some danger. After the death of the old man, the narrator hears an unbearable sound: “I felt that I must scream or die! And now – again! – hark! louder! louder! louder! louder!” (96). The man believed it was the beating of old man’s heart, which made him believe that the eye could still see.
The watch is another symbol used by Poe. It was mentioned four times in the story. Obviously, the watch represents time, both visual and auditory. Each tick of the watch means the movement of the narrator closer to the murder and the old man closer to the imminent death: “just as I have done, night after night, hearkening to the death watches in the wall” (93). Moreover, the main character compares himself to the watch, but his watch is not fast enough: “A watch’s minute hang moves more quickly than did mine” (93).
The bed is commonly associated with a safe place where people can rest and feel some relief after a long day. Nevertheless, the author completely changes it, turning it from a safe place into weapon, with the help of which the narrator kills the old man: “I dragged him to the floor, and pulled the heavy bed over him” (94). As a consequence, the author turns the meaning of bed and bedroom upside down. Instead of safe place, it is the scene of crime.
The narrator declares twice that he suffers from a particular illness which makes his perception aggravated. However, it is impossible to understand whether this statement is true or not. The loud beating of the heart that the narrator hears might be either a product of the murderer’s imagination or the result of such an exotic illness: “You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing. But you should have seen me” (92).
One thing is obvious – the narrator is different from average people. His reality is blurring, and his moral qualities are poor. Moreover, the character cannot understand what is happening and why he does some particular things. He does not know why his blood runs cold when he sees the old man’s eye, and why he begins to stalk him. As a result, the narrator wonders whether things are happening only in his head or other people also can see and hear them. His mind is wandering: “My head ached, and I fancied a ringing in my ears: but still they sat and still chatted” (95).
Moreover, it is evident that the main character does not change during the fast-moving plot. From the very beginning of the story, the reader can see that he wanders from proper conduct. Indeed, the narrator is the same person at the end of the story as he was at the beginning. Even though he tries to be friendly and cheerful and pretends to be another person, he cannot do it for a long time. Clearly, the narrator hears some noises instead of silence: “And still the men chatted pleasantly, and smiled. Was it possible they heard not?” (96). Therefore, it shows that the narrator is the static type of character.
After having read “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Poe, the reader would be in a gloomy mood due to its heartbreaking plot. This short story is so complex and gripping because of the author’s mastery. Particularly, the use of such elements of fiction as tone, symbolism and a static character of the narrator make the short story so depressive. All of these elements are equally important and help the reader to understand the whole book.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Tell-Tale Heart.” The Oxford Book of American Short Stories, edited by Carol Oates Joyce, Oxford University Press, 1992, pp. 91-96.