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The Tell-Tale Heart: Symbolism & Imagery

Instructor: Ginna Wilkerson

Ginna earned M.Ed. degrees in Curriculum and Development and Mental Health Counseling, followed by a Ph.D. in English. She has over 30 years of teaching experience.

Poe's tale of fear and madness 'The Tell-Tale Heart' is short but memorable, providing an example of the clever use of imagery and symbolism. Let's take a look at some symbols and images from this short story.

The Tell-Tale Heart: Symbolism and Imagery

Edgar Allan Poe was the author of many poems and short stories written in the 19th century and was famous as a master of well-crafted tales of horror and mystery. One example of Poe's skill is the classic tale The Tell-Tale Heart (1843), narrated by a terrified and unstable man obsessed with his elderly neighbor's frightening appearance. As the story progresses, the poor fellow becomes so distraught that he finally murders the old man to relieve his fear.

Edgar Allen Poe
Edgar Allen Poe

The narrator opens the narrative by addressing the reader, insisting that he is perfectly sane. After all, would a madman plan a task so carefully? Would a madman be calm enough to hide the body so cleverly? His very insistence is the clue to reveal his unhinged state of mind, making the reader approach the telling of the tale already expecting a wild turn of events. Let's take a look at how Poe cleverly uses imagery and symbolism to make the narrative come alive.

Imagery

Imagery is a literary term based on the word 'image,' another word for 'picture.' Imagery is what helps us picture what's happening in a story in our minds as we read. In The Tell-Tale Heart, Poe masterfully paints pictures for us with his words and descriptions. We can visually imagine the terrible eye of the old man, the darkened room at midnight, and the dismembered body hidden beneath the floorboards.

As in many scary stories, most of the visual images in this tale involve the play of light and dark, exemplified by the flashlight shining on the old man's face, his fear in the darkness when he awakens, and the shadows in the room as the narrator talks to the police. All of these images help make the story more intense and memorable for the reader.

Not all imagery is based on visual images. Imagery can also involve sound; in fact, any of the five senses might be used. Logically, sight and sight are the most common type of imagery in written prose texts. Auditory imagery is imagery that uses sound, and it plays a major role in The Tell-Tale Heart. Perhaps the most horrible is the sound of the heart that continues to beat after the old man is dead and dismembered. Poe makes the reader actually hear the sound of the heart, first in the killer's head and then coming from beneath the floor of the room.

Illustration of The Tell-Tale Heart by Harry Clarke (1919)
Illustration of

Symbolism

Another literary device used in many of Poe's poems and short stories is symbolism, the use of something in the text that represents an idea or abstract concept. In order for symbolism to do its job, we need to have both a symbol and what it represents. Whatever happens to the symbol (or whatever job it does in the telling of the tale) is mirrored by what happens with the symbolized. This relationship is usually known as symbolic action.

In this story, the most easily recognized symbol is probably the beating heart. Let's see if we can understand the symbolic action involved here. When does the heart start beating for the narrator? He begins to hear the old man's heart beating when he startles the sleeper, who then sits up in bed and reveals the ''vulture eye'' that so disturbs the narrator. When he hears the heart continue beating from the floorboards, he has already murdered and dismembered his innocent neighbor and hidden the deed from the police.

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