What are two main symbols in "The Tell-Tale Heart," and what does each one represent?

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In the short story "The Tell-Tale Heart" by Edgar Allan Poe, the narrator describes the motivation, preparation, performance, and aftermath of a murder he commits. He lives with an old man and explains that he cannot stand one of the man's eyes, which he calls "the eye of a vulture." He prepares thoroughly for the murder by rehearsing what he will do. When the time comes, he rushes into the old man's room, smothers him, and then dismembers him and hides the body under the floorboards. Police officers come to investigate a disturbance, and the narrator confesses to the murder as he imagines that he hears the old man's heart still beating under the floorboards.

A symbol in literature represents something beyond the literal meaning. Symbols can be objects, marks, people, words, or locations. Poe uses symbolism several times in "The Tell-Tale Heart." We'll look at some examples, and then you can select two that you consider are most important.

First of all, the narrator speaks of a disease he has that makes his senses hyper-acute. This disease, whether real or imaginary, is symbolic of the narrator's insanity and rationalization for his misdeeds. Instead of confessing that he has a conscience and emotions, he uses a supposed disease to justify what he does.

The old man's eye is symbolic of the old man's authority over the narrator, especially in areas pertaining to conscience. The narrator confesses that he loves the old man and that the old man has never wronged him or insulted him. He focuses on the eye, therefore, as the object of his anger, without really understanding why he feels this way.

The lantern, the way that the narrator practices with it, and the way that he shines a tight beam to light only the old man's eye and nothing else, is symbolic of the focus that the narrator brings to his criminal behavior. His intense focus is another detail that the narrator uses to try to convince whoever he is speaking to of his sanity.

The beating of the heart is symbolic of the narrator's subconscious guilt. Just as he hides the old man's dismembered body under the floorboards, he attempts to conceal his guilt for committing the foul murder beneath a series of complex rationalizations. However, he cannot pull this off successfully. He is not as devoid of conscience as he supposes. The old man is dead, so his heart cannot really have been beating. The narrator imagines the sound because he is consumed with guilt, even if in his insanity he doesn't consciously realize it.

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The two outstanding symbols in the story are the eye and the heart. The narrator's constant references to both makes it clear that they are central to the story and its dramatic development.

It is the old man's eye that, from the outset, is clearly a symbol of the narrator's deepest fear and his obsession. He despises the eye for it represents something malicious and epitomizes all that he dreads. He describes it as "...the eye of a vulture" and "--a pale blue eye, with a film over it." Both these descriptions make it clear that the narrator associates the eye with malevolence. Vultures are associated with death and decay for they feed off carrion, while the fact that that the eye has such an unusual color and has "a film over it" suggests something inhuman and supernatural. The old man is described as benign, but the narrator is overwhelmed by his strange eye and states:  

...it was not the old man who vexed me, but his Evil Eye.

Whenever the narrator perceives the eye, he is violently disturbed and he plans to kill the old man, thus removing the eye from sight forever. On the evening of the planned murder, he describes the overwhelming effect it had on him:

It was open--wide, wide open--and I grew furious as I gazed upon it. I saw it with perfect distinctness--all a dull blue, with a hideous veil over it that chilled the very marrow in my bones; but I could see nothing else of the old man's face or person: for I had directed the ray as if by instinct, precisely upon the damned spot.

At this point the narrator also becomes aware of something else: the beating of the old man's heart. Just as the eye became an obsession, so too does the beating heart. It is the continuous pounding of the old man's heart that drives the narrator to utter madness. He leaps into the room and kills the old man, believing that he must silence the heart so no one will hear it.

The beating heart, at first, is a symbol of the old man's fear. The narrator mentions:

...there came to my ears a low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. I knew that sound well, too. It was the beating of the old man's heart.


...the hellish tattoo of the heart increased. It grew quicker and quicker, and louder and louder every instant. The old man's terror must have been extreme! It grew louder, I say, louder every moment!

It also symbolizes the narrator's own fear, especially of discovery, because in his mad state he believes that everyone else can hear the man's heart beating. He imagines the heart beating louder and louder and thinks that the increased volume will wake others and he will be caught.

In addition, the narrator's compulsive obsession with the sound of the old man's heartbeat foreshadows later events when he becomes overwhelmed by the belief that he is still hearing the heart and thinks that his interrogators can hear it too. He is overcome by his delusion and confesses to his crime.

It is easy to surmise that it is the narrator's guilt that, as the title suggests, forces him to reveal his crime and that the incessant, ever louder heartbeat he hears is a symbol thereof, but it is more his own depravity, inner malice and insanity that betrays him. He does not present even a smidgen of remorse.

The eye and the beating heart, therefore, are, in addition to the above, also symbols of this. 

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A symbol is an object that stands for something, and has greater meaning that its literal purpose in the story.  Two symbols in “The Tell-tale Heart” are the heart and the eye.

The most obvious symbol in the story is the beating heart.  It symbolizes guilt.

“Villains!” I shrieked, “dissemble no more! I admit the deed!—tear up the planks! here, here!—It is the beating of his hideous heart!” (p. 6)

The narrator hears the heart beating as he is talking to the police, because he is eaten up with guilt.

Another important symbol is the eye.  The narrator is obsessed with this old man’s eye.  He calls it an evil eye, and when he saw it his “blood ran cold” (p. 4).

I think it was his eye! yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture—a pale blue eye, with a film over it. (p. 4)

The purpose of these symbols is to increase the suspense and horror of the story.

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