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Symbols in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”

Poe’s short stories are widely known for the mystery and horror they hide. Being famous as an inventor of the detective genre, the writer filled his narrations with seemingly minute details that turned out to have had substantial importance in the end. “The Tell-Tale Heart” is one of the most famous stories in Poe’s legacy, the symbolism of which, manifested through the eye, the beating heart, and the lantern, allows analyzing the central ideas of the plot.

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Even though the word “heart” is present in the story’s title, the eye is the most vividly emphasized symbol throughout the poem. Eyes are frequently considered as the reflection of a person’s personality and honesty of nature. In the story, however, one of the eyes of the narrator’s neighbor is described in a rather sinister and unpleasant way. In fact, the narrator calls it “the eye of a vulture – a pale blue eye, with a film over it” (Poe). The eye has taken away the madman’s attention from anything else in the old neighbor. He admits that he “could see nothing else of the old man’s face or person” (Poe). By the end of the story, the reader realizes that the hideousness of the character the narrator sees in the eye belongs not to the old man but to himself. Being unable to endure it any longer, the narrator kills the owner of the eye in the hope of gaining peace with himself.

The beating heart is another important symbol of the story, representing the continuous uneasiness of the narrator, which he cannot get rid of even after murdering the old man. Throughout the story, the narrator often refers to himself as a wild and uncontrolled creature. He admits that the old man’s heart increased his “fury” and encouraged him to take action just like “the beating of a drum” affects a soldier (Poe). The heart also personifies the narrator’s lack of sympathy and emotions. Whereas the beating of the heart is what makes a person keep living, the madman refers to the neighbor’s one as “the hellish tattoo of the heart” (Poe). Finally, the heartbeat serves as the symbol of guilt since the illusion of its sound makes the narrator disclose his secret.

The third prominent symbol in the story is the lantern. Most prominently, the lantern represents the lack of insight and the desire to obtain it. With this purpose, the narrator makes “a very, very little crevice” in it and uses it to make the old man’s eye visible at night (Poe). By giving light to dark places, lanterns reveal the truth, which, in the case of the narrator, was destructive. Another point related to this symbol is that by using the lantern at night, the narrator underlines the humanity of the old man. Meanwhile, his own character is depicted as the evil one: the old man’s face is being lit up, whereas the narrator’s whole body is kept under the cover of gloom and blackness.

Symbols in Poe’s short story “The Tell-Tale Heart” are the means of uncovering the dark secrets and explaining the motives behind dark deeds. The eye, the beating heart, and the lantern each play an essential role in revealing the personalities of two main characters. The eye serves as the reflection of the narrator’s thoughts, the heartbeat is the trigger to murder and, at the same time, the reason why the madman admits his deed. Finally, the lantern’s focus reflects the hidden thoughts, and its lack indicates the obscure personality of the narrator.

Work Cited

Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Tell-Tale Heart.” The Poe Museum, 1843 Web.

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