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“Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe

In 19th century American literature, Edgar Allan Poe (1809 – 1849) took his rightful place as a writer and poet, whose works became the first examples of American national literature. Edgar’s endeavor played a significant role in world literature: he stands at the origins of the poetry of symbolism, detective, and science fiction prose. To unravel the strange mystical and romantic symbolism of many of Poe’s creations is an unusually difficult task, and in its entirety, it still remains unresolved today. This paper analyzes Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart and its contribution to the imagination of guilty conscience in literature. Symbolism, Conflicts / Resolution, and epiphany are significant in illuminating the theme of a guilty conscience in The Tell-Tale Heart.

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Poe’s story is a monologue of a man who decided to kill his old neighbor. The narrative begins in medias res, and the reader cannot know for sure anything about the characters and their relationships with the real world. Despite the tradition of the film adaptations of Tell-Tale Heart, where the main character is a man, it is difficult even to conclude the narrator’s gender from Poe’s story itself. The narrator believes in his sanity, seeking the reason for the crime in the fact that the old man had an evil “vulture eye”, the sight of which made the narrator furious. In his confession, the main character describes in detail how he came to commit this act. Eventually, his troubled thoughts led him to the exposure to the police, since he could not bear the fear of the police hearing the loud pounding of the victim’s heart anymore, the sound which followed the narrator throughout the story.

The central place in the story is given to the two capacious symbols – the eye and the heart. It is difficult to omit these two items since the author focuses primarily on them, although the entire story can be read through the lenses of symbolism (Kennedy et al. 237). The first is typical of Poe’s texts; the second is typical of the romantic tradition in general (Jandaghi and Zohdi 315). The eye represents a guilty conscience in its genesis and development. According to the plot, the main character was irritated by the old man’s eye, which is why he killed him. It is connected with the murdered person through a feeling of guilt: the narrator was tormented by his own thoughts and contemplated this eye constantly. The main character subconsciously felt guilty, and, by his actions, he unconsciously wished a punishment for himself. Nevertheless, during his reflections, the optical organ is a way of justification and escape from reality for the narrator.

The main character loves and hates the old man at the same time. Rather, he hates the strange “vulture eye”. In general, an image of a vulture is an image of a bird of prey associated with death and decay. The eye can be seen as a metaphor for the power and oversight of the murdered over the protagonist. In this sense, he is under the tyranny of the person he killed. It is typical of Poe to use the eye in his works as a metaphor for fear, horror, and anxiety (Jandaghi and Zohdi 317). In fact, the eyes are the door to another world that scare and instills horror; it is the open door to the soul of another person. However, the killer also has his own artificial eye – it is a lantern with a narrow curtain.

Another central symbol in the story is the heart. The description of the heartbeat helps the author manipulate the time in the text, either accelerating or slowing the temporality of events. Moreover, it refers to the inner psychological world of the main character. At the same time, the narrator uses the heartbeat to compare life and death, linking the beat to hours. Thus, the pace of the pulse is used as a symbolism for death and life. It remains unknown whose heartbeat the narrator hears: whether the old man’s or his own. The loud pulsation coming from under the floor makes the narrator believe that everyone can hear it. It is essential that the killer does not seek an excuse, he insists that he is fully aware of what he has done and admits his guilt. After all, the police do nothing – they give the criminal an opportunity to repent. Thus, the narrator’s epiphany becomes both the climax and the end of the story (Amir 23). It is the only way to ease the guilty conscience, which has been troubling the narrator from the very beginning. Thus, epiphany and the conflict resolution coincide in this short story.

It is widely believed among literary scholars that Poe’s experiments in this direction became the starting point for many of Dostoevsky’s ideas and influenced other prominent authors. It is not an accident that in the novel Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky uses Poe’s method and shows that the strictest judge of a person is their own heart. As the basis of the novel’s plot, Dostoevsky, similar to Poe, takes the theme of an irrational “ideal” crime, when only his own guilty conscience can betray a murderer. The duel between Porfiry Petrovich and Raskolnikov is based on the fact that the murderer himself comes to the idea of self-punishment for the evil he has done, as well as in the story of Edgar Poe.

Works Cited

Amir, Shamaila. “Stylistic Analysis of the Short Story ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ by Edgar Allan Poe.” Angloamericanae Journal, vol. 3., no. 1, 2018, pp. 18-28.

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Jandaghi, Hatameh Sadat, and Esmaeil Zohdi. “Symbolism in Edgar Allan Poe’s Selected Short Stories.” Theory and Practice in Language Studies, vol. 8, no. 3, 2018, pp. 314–319.

Kennedy, X. J. et al. Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing. 14th Edition., Pearson Education Limited, 2020.

Poe, Edgar A. The Tell Tale Heart: Stories and Poems by Edgar Allan Poe. Mojo Press, 1995.

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