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Symbolism in the Tell Tale Heart Essay

The short story The Tell-Tale Heart written by Edgar Allan Poe is considered to be a psychological story as it touches upon human feelings and emotions which sometimes can take possession of human mind and lead to uncontrolled actions. The author of the literary work pays readers’ attention to a great deal of symbols which help to understand the main ideas and themes of the story.

My goal in this essay is to discuss the author’s symbolism in the short story The Tell-Tale Heart and to represent the role of these symbolic interpretations.

In order to give explanation of symbolism in Edgar Allan Poe’s story The Tell-Tale Heart, it is necessary to tell about the role of symbolism in the literature.


Symbolism is a special literary technique which is used by the authors to make the images in their literary works more colorful and deeper. Symbolism is represented by the use of some object in the literary work which stands for some meaning connected with the theme of the story. Symbolism may be either obvious for understanding or hidden. In the second case the reader should ponder over the main ideas and themes of the literary work. (Britton)


It is known that all the stories written by the famous American writer Edgar Allan Poe have a great deal of symbolic interpretations. The story The Tell-Tale Heart is no exception. It is not difficult to find symbolism in the title of the literary work.

The Tell-Tale Heart – one of the Symbols in the Story

The heart is a symbol of human emotional center. Moreover, it is the major organ in the human body. The heart can speak, cry, joy and so on. When we are happy, our heart is happy too. When we have negative emotions, our heart cries. Human heart can love and hate.

Edgar Allan Poe decided to choose such a title for his story because he wanted to show that the heart can speak and can tell the truth. The heart in the story symbolizes the conscience of the main character, the quilt which the main character tried to hide. As the main character of the story is at the same time a narrator, he represents his feelings, his emotions and his thoughts.

The narrator can hear the beating of his heart twice: the first time he hears his heart before the crime and the second time – when the police came to the house and started to investigate the crime. (Cleman 43)

The Eye as a Symbol of Human Identity

Another symbolic interpretation in the story is the eye of the old man. The eye in this case stands for the old man’s identity, his essence in this world. The narrator has a fixed idea that the old man who lives next to him and meets him every day is looking at him with his Evil Eye which “transmits a curse on him”. (Cleman 46)

The eye has a great mysterious power over the narrator who considers that the old man cannot see the world around in a proper way. Everything and everybody are distorted by the old man’s eye. The eye which is “blue with a veil covering it” filters the visual information and the narrator is afraid of it: “It chills the very marrow in his bones”. (Poe 21)

The other important thing is that the narrator who killed the old man tried to hide his body and he “replaced the boards so cleverly, so cunningly, that no human eye – not even his could have detected anything wrong”. (Poe 22)

The narrator knew that somebody’s eye could break his secret.

The Watch as a Symbol of Time

It is known that the term watch was used several times in the story. The watch stands for the representation of time that plays an important role in the story. The watch is a thing that controls time. The representation of time is also connected with death. The watch ticks and approaches the time of death. The narrator says that “the watch’s minute hand moves more quickly than did mine” and compares himself to watch which controls time. (Wingchi-ki)

The narrator is sure that the death is waiting for the old man: “He was still sitting up in the bed listening; – just as I have done, night after night, hearkening to the death watches in the wall”. (Poe 25)

The other very important thing is that the narrator compares heart beating with the watch. He says: “There came to my ears a low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton”. It is clear that the narrator has some mental illness and he hears the heart beating due to his ill imagination. The heart of the old man is a watch for the narrator. (Cleman 51)

The Lantern as a symbol of the narrator’s protection

The narrator uses the lantern to protect himself from the old man’s eye. The lantern is his weapon. It is known that the narrator spent a lot of time in the darkness in the old man’s bedroom. The lantern was used by the narrator to light the old man’s eye which had negative effect on him.

The Bed in the story as a Symbol of the Murder Weapon

The narrator uses the bed and bedroom as a place of murder. He chooses the old man’s bedroom as a place of murder while there are a lot of other places around in the house and outside. The narrator wants to find his victim in the place where most people have rest and sleep. The human sole and body are helpless in sleep that is why it is the easiest way to kill a person in his bed. The narrator knew that the old man would feel safe in his bedroom that is why he chose that place to kill the old man. (Cleman 48)

The Narrator’s Acute Imagination

It is clear that the narrator’s acute imagination provoked him to have emotional stress which was connected with the old man’ eye. The narrator had a fixed idea to kill the old man.

As the idea of murder “haunted him day and night”, the narrator was sure that he could kill the old man and leave no traces but he did not think about the trace of murder left in his sole. His mental disease made him feel awfully. (Cleman 50)

The narrator had “over acuteness of his senses” that helped him to hear the beating of the heart in the floorboards. His acute senses made him imagine different things. The symbolism used by the author in the story helps to see the inner feelings of the narrator who has some mental disease. The narrator is sure that the old man tortures him with his tell-tale heart that does not want to die and makes everything possible to solve the mystery of the crime.(Wingch-ki)


In conclusion, it is necessary to say that Edgar Allan Poe is a master of horror stories the main distinctive feature of which is using of symbolism. His short story The Tell-Tale Heart is a good example of the author’s using of symbolism. Such symbols as the eye, the watch, the lantern, the bed and the bedroom help the readers to get deep understanding of the main character’s feelings and ideas, his understanding of life and death, his emotional stress which broke his secret of murder at the end of the story. The narrator could not handle the situation and told the police the truth. The tell-tale heart of the old man forced him to show the dead body which was hidden in the floorboards.

Works Cited

Britton, V. Understanding Symbolism in Literature. World Literature. Suite101.com. Available February 9, 2010 from:<http://www.suite.com>
Cleman, J. Irresistible Impulses: Edgar Alan Poe and the Insanity Defense. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers. 2001. Print.
Poe, E.A. The Tell-Tale Heart. New York: Signet. 1998. Print.
Wingchi-ki, M. Ego-Evil and The Tell-Tale Heart. Renascence: Essays on Values in literature. 61(1). Marquette University Press. 2008. Available from:<http://www.questia.com>