The Tell-Tale Heart Questions and Answers
by Edgar Allan Poe

The Tell-Tale Heart book cover
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What are the two main symbols in the story "The Tell-Tale Heart"? What does each one represent? What is one other symbol Poe might have chosen?

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D. Reynolds eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The eye and the heart, both body parts, are the main symbols in the story. The narrator is particularly repelled by the old man's "vulture" eye. A vulture is a bird that feeds on dead flesh, so the eye represents both death and preying on another. The eye is also blue, a color that often symbolizes coldness. The eye, which seems to be watching the narrator, is specifically what the narrator wants to snuff out. It is also a symbol of light, intellect, and wisdom, so while the narrator casts it in evil terms, it is difficult to know why he kills it (and the old man with it).

The heart represents the emotions and the conscience. The loudly beating heart that the narrator believes is coming from the dead man (though it may be his own heart pounding) is what causes the narrator to confess. It symbolizes the lack of closure murder brings and the way our crimes can haunt us even when we believe they are dead and buried.

Other symbols to use instead would need to encompass the same ideas as the eye and the heart. A book that the old man insists on reading might also symbolize evil, coldness, intellect, light, and wisdom, and could creep the narrator out as much as does the eye. A ringing church bell could also be a sound that represents conscience—if the narrator hallucinated it ringing louder and louder, it might symbolize being tortured by guilt.

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Gretchen Mussey eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The main symbols in Poe's classic short story "Tell-Tale Heart" are the old man's "Evil Eye" and the beating heart. The old man's eye is described as having a film or veil over it, and the narrator refers to it as a "vulture eye." The old man's eye also has an enormous influence over the narrator, who seems tortured and bothered by it to the extent that he feels compelled to murder the old man. The old man's dull eye symbolically represents his perception, which is obscured and prevents him from realizing that he is in imminent danger. The old man's beating heart symbolically represents the narrator's guilty conscience. After dismembering the body and hiding it beneath the floorboards, the narrator hears the heart beating. This auditory hallucination is associated with the narrator's guilty conscience.

In addition to the symbols of the old man's eye and beating heart, Poe also utilizes the watch, the lantern, and the house as symbols. The ticking watch symbolically represents the passage of time. The narrator's lantern symbolically represents his true intentions. The narrow beam of light in the old man's room is the terrifying truth of the narrator's malevolent thoughts and murderous plan. The house symbolically represents the narrator's subconscious. The narrator metaphorically tries to bury the old man's body in his subconscious, but the memory of his crime continues to rise into his mind, which is why he admits to murdering the old man.

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Olen Bruce eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The two main symbols in the story are the "tell-tale heart," which is the heart of the dead and dismembered man that beats so loudly that the guilty murderer can hear it, and the old man's "vulture eye." The heart beating beneath the floor boards represents the narrator's guilt. Even after he has killed the old man, the dead man's heart beats aloud from underneath the floor boards and makes the murderer admit his guilt. The old man's eye is compared to a vulture, and when a light is shined into the old man's veiled eye, the man's heartbeat quickens to the point at which it irritates the narrator. The old man's veiled vulture eye drives the narrator to madness. The old man's eye might then stand for the presence of death, as a vulture lurks around dying creatures and waits to prey on them. 

Poe could have chosen a number of other symbols, perhaps other symbols of the body. Perhaps, for instance, the old man could have had a deformed finger that seems to point to the narrator to indicate his guilt. The old man might have also had a twisted mouth that indicated that he was laughing at the narrator and his madness. 

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