Figurative Language in The Tell-Tale Heart

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  • 0:00 The Beating Heart
  • 0:53 Figurative Language
  • 1:21 Hyperbole
  • 2:19 Simile
  • 3:34 Personification
  • 4:33 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sharon Powell
In Edgar Allan Poe's short story, 'The Tell-Tale Heart', figurative language is used as a way in which to add an element of suspense and horror to the story. This lesson discusses Poe's use of figurative language.

The Beating Heart

In Edgar Allan Poe's short story, The Tell-Tale Heart, the theme of paranoia and its consequences are at the center of the tale. The main character, whose name is not revealed and who is the narrator, speaks of a madness that has come upon him. During this bout with madness, this man decides that an old man who lives within his residence - more specifically, that old man's eye - has become a threat that must be eliminated. As such, the man suffering from paranoia kills the old man and buries him under the floorboards. Police show up at the door, as someone has reported the old man's cry. The murderer hears the beating of a heart, which becomes louder and louder. He confesses his deed to the police, as his conscience has taken the form of a beating heart that is audible to his ears only.

Figurative Language

There are different types of figurative language used by Poe in The Tell-Tale Heart. In the beginning of the tale, the main character speaks about his state of mind and how it has enhanced all of his senses. He begins to foreshadow something bad that he has done by saying, 'Listen! I will tell you how it happened.' Foreshadowing is giving notice or warning of what is to come. Here, the narrator is saying something has taken place that he feels needs to be explained by describing the loss of his sanity.


In this lapse of sanity, he uses figurative language to describe his newfound sense of hearing. He states, 'I heard sounds from heaven; I heard sounds from hell!' In this sentence, Poe is using hyperbole. Hyperbole is a statement that is exaggerated and not intended to be taken literally. In this case, the character did not actually hear sounds coming from either of these places; this exaggeration is a way in which to get across the keen sense of hearing that he is now experiencing. The use of hyperbole is also used when the narrator states, 'For a whole hour I did not move.' The narrator was slinking into the room where the old man was sleeping. The old man heard him and cried out, 'Who's there?' The narrator had to stand quiet until the old man resumed sleep; it was not an entire hour, but describing the time in such a way gives the reader an idea of how still and quiet the narrator had to stand in place. In this manner, the suspense of the story is conveyed to the reader.


In describing the old man who has become an object of paranoia, Poe employs the use of a simile. A simile is a comparison between two unlike things using 'like' or 'as.' In this case, Poe says, 'His eye was like the eye of a vulture, the eyes of one of those terrible birds that watches and waits while the animal dies, and then fall upon the dead body and pull it to pieces to eat it.' Poe expresses the reason for his fear of the old man by using this type of figurative language. The vision of the old man's eye as belonging to a bird of prey who is waiting to feast upon the narrator's carcass provides insight into the reason behind the ultimate actions that he takes. When he decides to kill the man, he has rationalized it as self-defense against a dangerous enemy.

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