Like many of Edgar Allen Poe’s works, “The Tell-Tale Heart” is full of death
and darkness. Poe used many of the real life tragedies he experienced as inspiration for
his gothic style of writing. Poe dealt with many aspects of death and madness in his
stories, madness again is playing a key role in the plot. In this short story Poe used
literary devices such as point of view and symbolism to give it a more dramatic effect and
add to the madness the narrator portrays.
Poe’s use of the point of view device is very evident in “The Tell-Tale Heart”.
The madman that speaks through the entire story talks in an unreliable first person view.
Because of the man’s obvious madness you are not sure what is taking place in the
introduction and what the actual events of the story were. Although there is a definite
madness in the man’s attitude and he is constantly aware of it yet he makes many claims
that he is not mad at all. “You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing. But you should
have seen me. You should have seen how wisely I proceeded-with what caution-with
what foresight-with what dissimulation I went to work!Ha!-would a madman have been
so wise as this?” He is obviously well aware of his madness but he tries to justify it by
saying that he is not mad because he puts so much effort and wisdom into his deeds. It is
kind of an ironic statement that he justifies his madness in the wisdom he shows in the
insane act itself. This is like a student saying he is not cheating because he had to “do
work” to get the plagiarism. There is ironically no “method to the madness” in his
argument. After the narrator commits the murder he again tries to justify his present
madness. “If still you think me mad, you will think so no longer when I describe the wise
precautions I took for the concealment of the body. The night waned, and I worked
hastily, but in silence.” Even after the thought of possible murder has left his mind and
he has done the act, he again justifies his deeds by his precautions. In his mind things are
not what they actually are in reality in the least bit. In another part of the story the
narrator tries to explain what he says we see as his madness. “And now have I not told
you that what you mistake for madness is but over-acuteness of the senses?” The
resulting madness the narrator sees in the old mans heart is in his words just an extra
sensitive hearing. That in his mind is what is wrong with everyone else’s thinking but
only he knows to be true.
Symbolism is another literary device that Poe used strongly in “The Tell-Tale
Heart”. In other Poe works like “The Raven”, Poe uses one object and tries to play upon
it the most of the plot in the story. The title of the story gives the reader the symbol from
the beginning, as the heart. Although he uses the heart as a symbol, Poe also uses other
symbolic representations too. From the beginning of the story, the narrator tries to
describe his reasoning in killing the old man. “It is impossible to say how first the idea
entered my brain; but once conceived, it haunted me day and night. Object there was
none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had
never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye! yes, it was
this!Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees-very gradually-I
made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye for ever.”
The narrator clearly states that there is no logical reason fro him to kill the old man, but
for some reason the narrator cannot think of anything but the man’s eye and says that it
gave him the idea of murder. The chilling feeling that the eye gave him planted in him,
the thought to kill the old man, and after thinking about it day and night, that is what
brings the narrator to his mad state. He is so obsessed with it that he goes into the old
mans room every night at midnight to slowly open the door and carefully look at the
man’s eye while he is asleep in bed. The last night when the old man wakes he shines his
light on the man and describes it. “It was open-wide, wide open-and I grew furious as I
gazed upon itbut I could see nothing else of the old man’s face or person; for I had
directed the ray as if by instinct, precisely on the damned spot.” Just looking upon the
eye the narrator feels a sense of anger build up inside him, showing another reason for his
madness. The bond between him and the eye is also seen in how directly puts the light
on his eye when he enters the room.
The main object of symbolism however is the beating of the heart of the old man
the narrator hears because of his madness. “Meantime the hellish tattoo of the heart
increased. It grew louder and quicker, and louder and louder every instantIt grew
louder, I say, louder every moment!I thought the heart must burst. And now a new
anxiety seized me me-the sound would be heard by a neighbor!” Because of the
narrator’s own madness he is hearing this heart beat as though it is as loud as a scream.
The end of the story however is when the heartbeat really does take on meaning though.
Even though he had been good to get rid of the body and the policemen in his house did
not suspect anything, it was the “beating of the heart” that gave him away. “The ringing
became more distinct:until, at length, I found that the noise was not within my earsI
gasped for breath-and yet the officers heard it notIt grew louder-louder-louder! And
still the men chatted pleasantly, and smiledno, no! They heard!-they suspected!-they
knew!-they were making a mockery of my horror!-this I thought, and this I thinkI felt
that I must scream or die!-and now-again!-hark! louder! louder! louder! louder!
louder!” I think that the beating of the heart the narrator is his guilt for killing the old
man, and just like in the old man’s room, it derived from his madness. His madness was
the thing that drove to murder and to confess to it.
“The Tell-Tale heart is kind of saying that your own heart knows what you’ve
done and in the long run guilt will find you out. In this story Poe used point of view and
symbolism together so that this truth could be seen actually how it is written.