Repetition In The Tell Tale Heart
In "The Tell-Tale Heart" how does the use of repetition relate to the conflict?
The conflict in this story is between the narrator and nature. It isn't the old man he conflicts with; it's the man's "vulture eye." It is likely that the "film" over the old man's eye is caused by glaucoma, a disease of the elderly (those nearer death), and vultures are often associated with death as well. Therefore, it seems that the sight of the old man with his old person's disease reminds the narrator of his own mortality. Human mortality is a fact of nature, and so it is really nature that the narrator is in conflict with because he fears death and acts to remove any reminders of it. Repetition in his narrative draws attention to his unstable mental state as it raises tension and illuminates the conflict.
On the night that the narrator finally kills the old man, he says, "there came to my ears a low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton." He believes it to be the sound of the old man's heart, but we know that this cannot possibly be true: he wouldn't be able to hear another person's heart beating from all the way across the room. Later, after he has murdered and dismembered the old man, the narrator uses almost exactly the same language to describe what he believes is the old man's still-beating heart. He says, "It was a low, dull, quick sound—much such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton." We understand that he cannot possibly be describing a sound made by a dead man's heart, and so it must be his own heart that he hears and misinterprets in his fear. These lines both rely on the auditory imagery of a watch ticking, and timepieces in literature are very often symbolic of human mortality, especially in Poe's stories. This fits here, as we begin to understand that it is death the narrator really fears, and it is his own heart that he hears ticking away his life—he cannot face this fact, because his mortality seems so frightening to him (earlier in the story, he described the way he would awaken at night feeling the same mortal terror the old man felt when he sensed death at his door). The repetition of this imagery and symbolism draws our attention to the conflict and shows us just how much the narrator fears death, so much so that he has been driven crazy enough to kill an old man who reminds him of it.
Repetition serves to intensify the drama, heighten the conflict, make everyone anxious and stressed, and overall make for a more suspenseful telling of the tale. In this story, it is in the description of the heart getting louder that there is a lot of repetition. Poe could have written once, "The beating heart grew louder" and then moved on, but that is not very intense at all. Compare that to "It grew louder—louder—louder!...and now—again!—hark! louder! louder! louder! louder!" Saying it over and over like that makes the situation seem much more dire, anxious, and helps the reader to feel the narrator's distress. Think of it as standing at the edge of a cliff; someone tells you to jump, then walks away. But if they are standing behind you insisting over and over, "Jump! Jump! Jump now!" it transforms the situation into a much more conflicted one; you must battle not only your decision, but the insistent tone of the demands. You can't ignore the demands, and they take over all else. Poe does this in the story; we can't ignore the beating heart at the end, because Poe puts it front and center with his repetition; in that moment, we are like the narrator, to whom the beating heart has become everything. Repetition is a great way to intensify the conflict, make it more real to the reader, and prioritize the storyline how the author wants it to be.