The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe

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In "The Tell-Tale Heart," what might the vulture's eye symbolize?  

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D. Reynolds eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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write9,532 answers

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The narrator tries to justify his murder of the old man by blaming it on his "vulture" eye, the old man's staring blue eye covered with a film. The eye creeps the narrator out, and because he describes it as vulture-like, we know he associates the old man with death. He seems to believe that, like a vulture, the old man is waiting for him to die so he can pounce on him and in some way metaphorically devour him. Or perhaps the care-taking the narrator has to provide feels like being devoured.

This assertion of a vulture eye seems, given the context, to be a classic case of psychological projection. In projection, we deny we feel certain impulses that are unacceptable to us. Instead, we attribute them to other people.

We know that the narrator wants to murder the old man because he acts on this impulse and does so. However, this is an unacceptable desire, and as the story shows through the beating heart, the narrator feels intensely guilty about it. He knows it is considered immoral in our culture to murder a vulnerable older person who can't defend himself. Therefore, the narrator has to project and envision the old man as an existential threat to his own life and being. The vulture eye symbolizes this. By seeing the old man as ready and waiting to devour him—rather than vice versa—the narrator can ethically justify his murder: after all, it now becomes, on an unconscious level, self defense.

The narrator clearly has not thought this all out: as psychology would tell us, this all occurs unconsciously. The tip off is the characterization of the eye as vulture like.

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litteacher8 eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The old man seems to be blind in one eye. In the narrator's psychosis, he somehow develops a fantasy that the eye is evil. He decides to kill the old man in order to put an end to the evil eye. To me, the eye symbolizes the narrator's psychosis and mental instability.

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kiwi eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The narrator also refers to the eye as 'a pale blue eye, with a film over it' suggesting that it has a cataract. New World vultures are classed as birds of prey as well as scavengers and the narrator may have been considering that the old man may be either predator or prey himself - with 'vulture' tendencies he could be the hunter or the hunted.

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accessteacher eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Note that the narrator refers to the old man's eye as an "Evil Eye," and we associate vultures as creatures of evil due to their rather antisocial nature of eating dead animals and humans. This helps us therefore to understand the profound impact that the eye had on the narrator and why it haunted him so.

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bullgatortail eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The eye is a malignant source of evil, and the word "vulture" is used because the vulture is black (black = evil), and it hovers about, waiting to feast on dead flesh.  

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mwestwood eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Perhaps the vulture eye is an omen, reflective of what is to happen to the narrator.  For, the narrator declares, "Whenever it fell upon me my blood ran cold." And, so, the narrator becomes...

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mrs-campbell eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Mike Rosenbaum eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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dgyair67 | Student

What I got from it was that perhaps the "vulture eye" could be the someone who judges him. Like the hunter who preys on someone and feels of them (Edgar's writing, style of life, etc.)

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emzy12 | Student

Te eye in the story is obviously described as horrible and 'the eye of a vulture.' A vulture is a bird of prey and we usually associate those with death. A vulture also flys high over things, always watching so we could assume that the old man is a parental type character, perhaps a father or a master to the narrator - although we can never be sure. The old man doesn't like being always watched over so he decides to destroy the old man to be rid of this feeling of being trapped by it. However in the end when the police catch up with the narrator it is proven that someone is always watching you.

The eye could also represent a theme for the story - The old man has a hideous, repulsive eye; outwardly, he is ugly. But, as the narrator admits, he is otherwise a harmless, well-meaning person. The narrator, on the other hand, is inwardly ugly and repulsive, for he plans and executes murder; his soul is more repulsive than the old man's eye.   For this reason he is a worse person and in the end doesn't get away with what he has done.

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