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What Does Poe’s “The Telltale Heart” Tell?

Updated on September 30, 2011

written by: Kimberly Horvath

What Does Poe’s “The Telltale Heart” Tell?

Edgar Allen Poe’s short story, “The Tell Tale Heart,” is a tale of horror in which the narrator vividly describes the murder of a harmless old man.Right from the start it is apparent to the reader that the narrator is a mad man, despite the narrator’s claims of sanity.Besides telling a horrific tale of murder, guilt, and paranoia, Edgar Allen Poe also puts forth a more complex psychological aspect for the reader to consider.Through the clever use of symbolisms and contradicting statements throughout the story, Poe indirectly entices the reader to consider the relationship between opposing emotions and the thin line between perception and reality.

Immediately the narrator admits that he is nervous, he also admits that he is afflicted by some disease, which has heightened his senses, especially that of his hearing.“TRUE! nervous, very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am;” (Poe.)“The disease had sharpened my senses,Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell.” (Poe.)The narrator then offers to calmly tell of his murderous crime and offers his calmness as proof of his sanity.“How then am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily, how calmly, I can tell you the whole story.” (Poe.) Within these few lines the narrator is admitting to being extremely nervous, and to having a disease which has sharpened his senses, mainly his hearing, and at the same time is denying the existence of mental illness and declaring his calm telling of the murder, which he committed, as proof of his sanity.In this example the reader can see that one’s perception can greatly affect what they believe to be true and possibly create a false sense of reality.Here the narrator believes himself to be sane and believes that the murder and the events that took place in relation to the act can all be logically justified.The narrator believes his perception of circumstances to be accurate, thus creating an alternate reality in his mind.

The narrator then goes on to describe how he loves the old man, but is revolted by his eye.He describes the old man’s eye as vulture like and evil, and is preoccupied by his disgust for the eye. “I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye! Yes, it was this! One of his eyes resembled that of a vulture -- a pale blue eye with a film over it.” (Poe.) The narrator is so revolted by the old man’s eye that he decides he must take the man’s life in order to rid himself of the revolting eye.Here the narrator is experiencing conflicting emotions of love and hate at the same time.In order to cope with such powerful opposing emotions the narrator treats the old man and his eye as two separate entities, once again creating a false sense of reality in the narrator’s mind.This is an interesting aspect to explore because much of humankind has, at some point, experienced simultaneous emotions of love and hate.In “The Tell Tale Heart,” Poe has allowed these interrelated emotions to become separated from each other, by separating the beloved old man from his revolting eye.Furthermore it is only in the alternate reality, that has been created by the narrator’s false perception, that it would be possible for the old man’s eye to exist apart from the man.It is important to note that even though the narrator views the eye as detached from the old man, the narrator is still aware that in order to destroy the eye he must destroy the old man as well.Therefore; just as love and hate coexist, the object that one loves and hates must be viewed as a whole, and not as two parts.

Lastly, Edgar Allen Poe uses symbolism to further embellish the psychological concepts presented in “The Tell Tale Heart.”The most obvious and most relevant is that of the eye, which is what causes the narrator’s paranoia, fear, and obsession throughout the story.The eye, in symbolism, generally represents ideas of truth, judgment, and authority, however, when covered, “a pale blue eye with a film over it.” (Poe,) the eye can symbolize deceit.In this case the eye is evil, “for it was not the old man who vexed me but his Evil Eye” (Poe.) In many cultures it is believed that the “evil eye” has the ability to curse those it looks upon.In this story the eye clearly does not represent the old man, but instead it is possibly representative of a deceitful reality that is based on the perception of a mad man.The narrator also shines a lantern on the old man’s eye for seven nights, only to find that the eye is closed until on the eighth night, when he murders the old man.“It was open, wide, wide open, and I grew furious as I gazed upon it. I saw it with perfect distinctness -- all a dull blue with a hideous veil over it that chilled the very marrow in my bones, but I could see nothing else of the old man's face or person, for I had directed the ray as if by instinct precisely upon the damned spot.” (Poe). The ray of light from the lantern symbolizes truth and purity.Once again Poe has created a conflict, by using an eye that represents deceit, and a light, representing truth.Once destroying the eye and consequently the old man, the narrator is overcome by guilt.This emotion is represented by the beating heart, which the narrator believes is the old man’s, even though he is dead.Although the narrator feels justified in destroying the eye, he still feels a great sense of guilt over killing the old man, whom he loved.It is this guilt, represented by the beating heart, which causes the narrator to confess his crime to the authorities.

Through this horrific tale Poe has delivered a notion of coexistence between love and hate, and falsity and truth.The use of contradicting statements and symbolism presents these ideas as reoccurring themes in the short story, “The Tell Tale Heart”.Edgar Allen Poe cleverly uses a delusional mad man to narrate a story of a terrifying crime as a means to convey the complex relationship between perception and reality, and the opposing emotions of love and hate.

Works Cited:

Poe, Edgar Allen “The Tell Tale Heart.” Web, Camden County College English Department, © copyright 2006, Anthony Spatola.All Rights Reserved | August 09, 2011.


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