A Basic Summary
Before we begin our analysis of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” Let’s take a look at a summary of the story.
The story begins with the narrator telling us that he’s not insane. He claims his senses are sharpened and he is able to hear sounds in heaven, Earth and hell (but he’s not crazy). He then discusses his “idea.” He’s not sure how the idea entered his mind, but once it entered he had to kill the old man (remember, he’s not crazy). He then concludes it was the old man’s eye that prompted the murder.
The narrator opens the door of the old man’s bedroom seven consecutive midnights. On the eighth night, he opens the door, hears the old man’s heart, smothers him to death with a mattress and dismembers his corpse (but he’s not crazy). It’s apparent the narrator thinks he suspects that we suspect madness because he claims this next piece of evidence will convince us he really isn’t mad: he places the dismembered corpse under the floor planks in the old man’s room (I’m not convinced).
When the police arrive, the narrator invites them to sit right above the dead body. Everything is going well until the narrator hears the old man’s heart and confesses (to the crime, not to insanity).
Symbolism in the Story
The next step in our analysis of “The Tell-Tale” Heart is a look at symbolism in the story.
The Eye – There are many symbolic interpretations of the old man’s eye: (1) The eye represents the “I”; that is, it represents the essence of the old man; (2) The eye holds mysterious powers, according to the narrator, and may symbolize the inability of the narrator to hide his secret sins; (3) The old man’s eye is “pale blue, with a film over it,” indicating a lack of visual clarity and reliability. In this sense the eye symbolizes the narrator in so much as all the information we receive comes through his distorted mind, much in the same way everything the old man sees is filtered through his distorted eye. Furthermore, the story is told through the narrator’s perspective, who claims his actions are on account of the distorted eye, which suggests the point of view is literally and symbolically filtered through the old man’s eye.
The Heart – Traditionally the heart symbolizes the emotional center of the individual. In “The Tell-Tale Heart,” it symbolizes the narrator’s guilt. He hears the heart twice, immediately before killing the old man and when the police are investigating the crime. Is it possible the narrator hears his own heart?
The Old Man’s Bedroom – The narrator’s intrusion into the old man’s bedroom violates honorable conduct (especially when you take into account the whole murder thing). Speaking of violating someone, take a look at how the narrator describes his entrance into the room: “When I had made an opening sufficient for my head…I thrust in my head. Oh you would have laughed to see how cunningly I thrust it in! I moved it slowly–very, very slowly” (173). The narrator recounts on the eighth night, “I heard a slight groan…It was not a groan of pain or of grief–oh, no!–it was the low stifled sound that arises from the bottom of the soul when overcharged with awe” (174). What does this description sound like to you?
Watches – Poe loves clocks and watches (see “The Masque of the Red Death” and “The Pit and the Pendulum”). Clocks, watches, and time symbolize the approach of death. The narrator, who literally controls the time of death for the old man, compares himself to a watch’s minute hand. He also mentions the “death watches in the wall.” For those who didn’t know, death watches are a species of beetles that live in walls and bang their heads to attract mates (see violating the old man above).
- Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Tell-Tale Heart.” The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Tales. New York: Signet, 1998. 172-177.
This post is part of the series: Short Story Study Guides
- Summary and Analysis of "TheTell-Tale Heart"
- "The Tell-Tale Heart" Study Questions with Answers
- Study Guide for "The Cask of Amontillado"
- Symbolism and Irony in "The Cask of Amontillado"