Edgar Allen Poe both enchants and alarms audiences in “The Tell-Tale Heart.” From psychological mystery to frightening reality, readers are pulled into the narrative of a grisly murder. Throughout Poe’s short story, there remains a rather thin line between imaginative style and downright paranoia. This lends to the ironic symbolism throughout the short story. The central images of the tale are that of the old man’s eye, eerie sense of the night and beating heart. Each of these images plays a critical role in the narrator attesting to his sanity, or confirming the lack thereof. Critics have both praised “The Tell-Tale Heart” as one of Poe’s greatest works and likened it to little more than a written display of grotesque madness.
Poe’s “Tell-Tale Heart” recounts the murder of an old man through, seemingly, an insane narrator. More striking, however, is Poe’s ability to incorporate the use of night into the scene. The stillness and darkness does not just enhance the scene, it envelops the scene. The night takes on almost human characteristics and increases the narrator’s paranoia to other aspects of the story, such as the eye and heart beat. The entire story takes place over the span of eight nights.
Each passing night escalates the narrator’s apparent need to contend with the old man’s physical ailments. The narrator’s use of a lantern to shed a ray of light on the eye foretells of the actual impact of the darkness on the setting. The narrator uneasiness in the night strengthens the maddening impact the eye has on the narrator’s insane mind.
Additionally, the emotional setting or the role of the mad narrator is the most provocative issue of “Tell-Tale Heart”. Perhaps this is due to the ironic nature in which the narrator consistently lays claim to his sanity. The narrator’s insanity is rooted in the obsession with the old man’s eye which, consequently, was “the eye of a vulture…” The narrator snuck into the old man’s bedroom each night for seven and would shine a beam of light across the eye only to become more enraged, as a result.
Finally, the day came that the narrator felt it necessary to come to grips with his own ailments and found relief from his agony in spilling the old man’s blood. A sane individual would simply separate themselves from the old man, so that the eye was not an issue or disregard the handicap altogether. The narrator, however, believed it was absolutely essential that he kill the old man to affect a positive gain in himself. Besides, the narrator trusted he was helping to put the old man at peace from the forsaken eye by killing the old man.
Moreover, after killing the old man and dismembering the old man, the narrator decides to hide the parts underneath the floorboards. Soon after, however, the police show up and the narrator becomes so nervous after hearing what he thinks is the old man’s heart beating; that he confesses to his actions. The heartbeat, though, is the narrator’s own. The narrator proceeds to detail the events to police based on the illusion of hearing the dismembered old man’s heartbeat.
Yet, all the while, the narrator argues he is completely sane. The narrator confesses his crime as “perfect”. Also, he equates insane people who commit such acts as madmen due to clumsiness. However, a common perception is that once a murder is committed and the perpetrator mutilates the remains, a level of insanity is present. This is due to the fact that even in death, individuals are entitled to certain levels of humanity; or, so many people believe. The separation of the old man’s body into sections further deprives the old man of this dignity.
Furthermore, depriving the old man of his dignity came with its own ironic price. The arrival of the police does not signal an external power struggle of wits and determination. The internal strife to overcome the narrator’s paranoia and guilt leads to the narrator’s confession of murder.
The police actually just happen to be there when he cannot hold himself together. In admitting to the old man’s murder, the narrator accuses the policemen of being “villains”, and establishes his inability to distinguish fantasy and reality. This break in reality is compounded by the fact that throughout the retelling of the events, the narrator continuously believes he is being mocked by the police offices. The narrator persistently asserts he is sane, yet, he hears heartbeats and is so overwhelmed with grief that it finally does break through the bravado.
Edgar Allen Poe’s “Tell-Tale Heart” is a story of amazing imagery, yet, an unbelievably dark tale of madness. Through physical and emotional settings, Poe throws the audience inside the narrator’s mind. As the gruesome account unfolds, Poe’s management of words is very effective and enhances the symbolism of the story.
The narrator consistently, even to a fault, argues his sane state of mind. Finally, Poe’s description of the settings, the narrator’s bravado and the ironic symbolism unite to produce a story which critics have called everything short of utter genius to a simple grotesque tale of madness. Either way, Poe has struck that special cord in some many diverse audiences that few stories ever do.