illustration of a human heart lying on black floorboards

The Tell-Tale Heart

by Edgar Allan Poe
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What are some examples of smell, taste, and touch imagery/descriptive language in "The Tell-Tale Heart"?

While Poe does not use smell or taste imagery in "The Tell-Tale Heart," some examples of touch imagery include the eery sense of the thin shaft of lantern light touching the old man's "evil eye" and the touch images of the narrator pounding the floorboards with a heavy stride and scraping a chair across the floor.

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The narrator describes the old man’s room as being as “black as pitch,” and though the old man is clearly awake, the narrator “kept pushing [the door] on steadily, steadily.” While the first description is a visual (sight) image, the second description could be considered a tactile (touch) image as we can certainly imagine the feeling and movement of our hand flat on a door, pushing it open ever so slowly.

The image of the narrator’s “thumb slipp[ing] upon the tin fastening” of the lantern he carries could be considered another tactile image. The narrator fears the old man’s “pale blue eye” and says that the sight of it makes “[his] blood run cold.” This tactile (touch) image of feeling oneself go cold all over due to fear or dread is familiar to most readers who have experienced a similar physical sensation of chill resulting from fright. There is a reason we say that scary things feel chilling.

The narrator also says that the old man, lying awake and afraid in bed, listening for more strange sounds, has

caused [the old man] to feel—although he neither saw nor heard—to feel the presence of [the narrator’s] head within the room.

The speaker suggests that the old man can physically feel the narrator’s presence in the room, and if you’ve ever felt the presence of someone near you in a dark place or even the feeling of someone looking at you, then this image might be familiar as well.

There are many examples of auditory (sound) imagery throughout the story, especially since the narrator believes his sense of hearing to be especially “acute.” The narrator purports to have heard the “death watches in the wall,” a kind of beetle that feeds on walls and makes a particular kind of sound while eating. He also describes the old man’s “groan of mortal terror,” which is different from a cry of pain or grief.

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The horror in this story emerges from the vivid descriptive imagery that the narrator uses to describe how he stalks the old man at night. While he does not use smell or taste imagery, he does describe standing still in a creepy way night after night in the darkness, watching and listening to the old man. Then he says,

I resolved to open a little—a very, very little crevice in the lantern. So I opened it—you cannot imagine how stealthily, stealthily—until, at length a simple dim ray, like the thread of the spider, shot from out the crevice and fell full upon the vulture eye. It was open—wide, wide open...all a dull blue, with a hideous veil over it that chilled the very marrow in my bones

We can imagine the narrator standing still in the darkness for a long time and the old man lying awake, terrified from sensing someone in the room. The narrator conveys a sense of touch as he describes how slowly and carefully he opens the lantern and shows the single streak of light coming from the lantern to touch the "vulture eye." We can feel the sensation of cold, too, as the narrator reacts to the eye with a "chill" that enters his bones.

Near the end of the story, the narrator uses touch imagery to describe how he tries to mask the sound he imagines he hears of the dead man's heart, beating louder and louder:

I paced the floor to and fro with heavy strides, as if excited to fury by the observations of the men—but the noise steadily increased. Oh God! what could I do?...I swung the chair upon which I had been sitting, and grated it upon the boards, but the noise arose over all and continually increased.

We can feel the "heavy strides" hitting the floorboards and the sensation of the grating of the chair on the floor as he tries to muffle the sound of the heart. We can also feel the motions of the narrator's arm and shoulder muscles as he swings the chair.

Concrete descriptive imagery puts us into a scene and helps us feel as if we are there. This raises our own emotional level to a higher pitch than merely using abstract words would. Poe was a master at using specific descriptions to raise his reader's sense of terror.

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In the opening paragraph, the narrator describes how powerful his senses have become.

     The disease had sharpened my senses—not destroyed—not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. 

Although there is little or no mention to the senses of taste or smell, the sense of touch is evident. His touch is light and careful. He prepares carefully each night for a week in the hope of killing the old man, taking an hour to slowly open the door. 

     And every night, about midnight, I turned the latch of his door and opened it—oh so gently! And then, when I had made an opening sufficient for my head, I put in a dark lantern, all closed, closed, that no light shone out...
      I undid the lantern cautiously—oh, so cautiously—cautiously (for the hinges creaked)—I undid it just so much that a single thin ray fell upon the vulture eye.

But he cannot kill the man until he can see the open eye. These actions, both the snail's pace of his movements and his unwillingness to commit the act until all is right, help to create a sense of terror and suspense. His later physical action is one of gruesome madness.

     I dismembered the corpse. I cut off the head and the arms and the legs.

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