illustration of a human heart lying on black floorboards

The Tell-Tale Heart

by Edgar Allan Poe

Start Free Trial

Discussion Topic

The significance of the "vulture eye" in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart."

Summary:

The "vulture eye" in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" symbolizes the narrator's obsession and madness. He fixates on the old man's eye, perceiving it as evil and intolerable, which drives him to commit murder. This fixation represents his deteriorating mental state and serves as a trigger for his violent actions, highlighting the theme of insanity.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What does the "vulture eye" suggest in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart"?

The reference to a vulture's eye is found early in "The Tell-Tale Heart" by Edgar Allan Poe. The narrator tells us that he is nervous, mad (insane), upset--and yet quite calm. He starts to explain his story and what prompted him to do something dramatic and, probably, unforgivably bad.

He tells us about "the old man," someone the narrator both claims to love and wants to destroy. These two emotions are not usually compatible; however, in this case, the narrator thinks he can justify his behavior by explaining something important about the man.

He had the eye of a vulture--a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees--very gradually--I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.

The narrator did not want the man's money, has not somehow been hurt by the man; in fact, he claims to have a greta deal of love for the man. Somehow he thinks that this man's eye outweighs everything else about who the man is and how much he cares for the man. 

Poe is a master of the grotesque image, and a vulture's eye seems to suit that imagery quite well. It is not "normal" because it has a film of some kind over it, and the image implies some kind of evil. Several possible interpretations are possible.

Since the narrator refers to the vulture eye three times, it does seem to be a kind of fixation for him. It also seems to have some sense of power, at least in the mind of the narrator. This eye is able to "chill the very marrow in [his] bones" and "see" things that others cannot see (though even the old man's eye cannot see where the old man's body is now).  And yet the eye was not able or powerful enough to warn the man of his own imminent death.

Vultures are creatures which prey on the dead, so perhaps the vulture eye is a kind of foreshadowing of the narrator's death.

The word "eye" is a homonym (sound-alike word) for "I," and it is possible that our mentally disturbed narrator actually wanted to kill himself when he killed the "eye."  He tells us he wants to kill the old man and his eye, but perhaps he really just wants is to kill himself. This is a reasonable ironic theory, given Poe's use of irony in his writing. For example, in this story, the narrator is quite afraid the neighbors will hear the old man's loudly beating heart (which obviously no one but him hears); so he screams as he kills the old man and we know they heard that. This play homophonic play on words is something Poe would do, and the eNotes "themes" link, below, discusses this idea further.

Whatever else it is, the old man's eye is not literally like a vulture's eye. That means there is some symbolic meaning, and there are several possibilities from which to choose. Whatever it is, the narrator seems to be the only one moved by it. 

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What does the vulture eye represent and why do you think it is termed 'vulture eye' in "The Tell-Tale Heart"?

One explanation given by critics about the old man in "The Tell-Tale Heart" is that he is a "doppelganger" for the narrator, a double for him, and the narrator's hatred for the man represents his own self-loathing.  If this be the case, then the focus of the mad narrator goes to the eye that is bluish in its clouding as the object of his problems.  Perhaps, he may believe, it is the eye that is a curse upon him, making him so "nervous."  This eye that resembles a vulture's eye, that has a film which can cover it at times, stares at the narrator as the vulture looms over its prey in anticipation of death.

The fixation upon an object as the curse or reason for one's agony is not uncommon.  Lady MacBeth's fixation on the "damned spot" is the focus of her agonized mind, for example.  So, in order to relieve his psychological torment, the character must rid him/herself of this cursed object. Likewise, the narrator fixates upon the eye. Of course, the horror lies in the old man's realization that the narrator is mad and perceives his eye as this object, for he cries out before he is attacked.  The reader senses horror in the grotesqueness of the bizarre reasoning of the narrator. 

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What does the vulture eye represent and why do you think it is termed 'vulture eye' in "The Tell-Tale Heart"?

The eye is the bane of the narrator's existence.  It belongs to the old man whom the narrator cares for and nurses.  When I think of a vulture's eye, I picture a large, and bulging thing that sees all...perhaps all at once.  Without the vulture's eye, he would not be half as successful a hunter.  With this information, I think that the narrator is driven crazy by the "vulture" eye of his old man, perhaps because he does not relish the idea of being so closely watched.  One cold, dark evening, the narrator decides to put an end to the watching altogether, and he puts out the "hideous eye" by taking the life of its master. 

The eye, then, could be representative of authority--anything or anyone who "watches" the community for whatever reason.  Or, it could be that the narrator has a guilty conscience.  No one who has done something he or she isn't proud of enjoys being watched...it creates tension and paranoia.  Both of these aspects are evident in the narrator's personality.

Hope this helps!  Good Luck!  

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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

In Edgar Allan Poe's classic short story "The Tell-Tale Heart," the old man's "vulture eye" doesn't symbolize the window of the soul of the old man whose eye it is, as might be expected, but symbolizes the window of the narrator's soul and reflects the narrator's own disturbing thoughts, emotions, and obsessions. The more the narrator fixates on the old man's "vulture eye," the more the narrator reveals about himself and his own soul.

The narrator first refers to the old man's eye descriptively, almost dispassionately, as "the eye of a vulture—a pale blue eye, with a film over it." He describes the effect that the eye has on him, that it makes his blood run cold, and "very gradually," he says, he "made up [his] mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid [himself] of the eye forever."

Earlier in the story, the narrator assures the reader that it's only the old man's eye that vexes him and that he has no other reason for wanting to kill him.

Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire.

Only later in the story does the narrator refer to the old man's eye as "his Evil Eye"—capitalized by Poe for effect. By calling it an "Evil Eye," the narrator personalizes and demonizes the old man's eye, portraying it as a living, malevolent force in his life that must necessarily be destroyed.

Although the narrator describes the old man's eye as "pale blue"—blue being a traditional color of evil eyes—he makes no reference to the "evil eye" in the traditional sense as the source of any curse directed towards him, or as a harbinger of death for himself or for the old man. In fact, the narrator refers to himself as "Death," the "unperceived shadow" in the old man's room.

For "seven long nights—every night just at midnight," the narrator goes to the old man's room and shines a thin ray of light from his lantern on the old man's eye. The old man's "vulture eye," his "Evil Eye," remains closed for these seven nights, but the narrator's terror of the eye and his hatred of it grow steadily over those seven nights.

On the eighth night, repeating his ritual, the narrator goes to the old man's room, but this time he shines the light from the lantern on the old man's eye, and it's open, "wide, wide open." The narrator notes that the light from the lantern shines only on the old man's eye, "but [he] could see nothing else of the old man's face or person." The narrator has disassociated himself from the old man as a person, whom he said he loved, so the narrator can focus his murderous rage solely on the seemingly disembodied "Evil Eye."

The narrator's insanity is clearly revealed when his obsession shifts from the old man's eye to the "hellish tattoo" of the old man's beating heart.

It grew quicker and quicker, and louder and louder every instant. ... And now at the dead hour of the night, amid the dreadful silence of that old house, so strange a noise as this excited me to uncontrollable terror.

The narrator almost instantly transfers his terror of the old man's evil eye to his terror of the old man's beating heart, which becomes the new focus of the narrator's rage. Once the old man is dead, his "Evil Eye" is merely an afterthought.

"His eye"—no longer "the vulture eye" or "his Evil Eye" but merely "his eye"—"would trouble me no more."

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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

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.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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

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.
Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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

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.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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

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.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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

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.  

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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

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 disturbed in a cold premonition of evil to come.  Thus, he creates a rational for killing the old man whom, he declares, he loves. He must be rid of the eye to which he ascribes evil:  "For it was not the old man who vexed me, but his Evil Eye."

In his stories Poe applied a technique which he termed "arabesque."  This arabesque is a twisting and turning of details in a horrific way.  In "The Tell-Tale Heart," it is, indeed, the heart that tattles on the evil-doer.  However, rather than being the heart of the victim as the narrator imagines, it is the beating of his own heart that the narrator hears, his own conscience which he tries to silence long before the murder. This guilt is what causes the narrator's "blood to run cold" in the beginning when he sees the vulture's eye.  For, in an arabesque, the narrator sees already reflected in the eye the murder which he will later commit.  That is, he sees in the vulture eye of death, the evil which his soul already knows before the deed.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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

A vulture could be a symbol of coming death.  In the wild, when a vulture spots a sick or injured animal, it starts circling, waiting for it to die, and waiting for its chance to feed on the remains.  So, for the narrator to compare the old man's eye to a vulture, it could represent the coming death of the old man, and how his time is soon over.

Also, the narrator himself could have felt the prey of the old man.  A vulture is very a watchful, threatening bird.  It isn't a pretty songbird or a harmless robin; a vulture is large, predatory, and menacing.  Perhaps the narrator felt himself the potential victim of the old man, being stalked and pinioned for some evil plan. He felt he couldn't escape that evil, watchful eye, so decided to strike first.

Plus, a vulture's eye is just a creepy image; we can't discount Poe's proclivity for picking his images very carefully to enhance the overall mood of the piece.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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

The narrator describes the eye as being like the eye of a vulture.  Vultures are scavangers that swoop in upon dead animals to feast on the carcass.  Thus, they are ever-present and diligent.  They see everything.

The eye in this story symbolizes that sort of penetration.  The narrator is obviously disturbed and terrified that someone will see into his deepest fears and violent plans.  The eye represents the window into the mind and soul of the narrator.  It is always watching him - no matter what, he will be observed.  This comes true in the end when the police come and the narrator reveals his own guilt.  Somone is always watching - someone always knows.

You could also say that the eye is the conscience of the narrator.  It watches him because it knows that he is planning to do wrong, and the narrator is thus haunted by it.  Instead of trying to reconcile his desire with what his conscience knows is right, he chooses to destroy it.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In Edgar Allan Poe's "A Tell-Tale Heart" what does the eye symbolize?

The eye symbolizes the narrator's fear of death. Though the narrator claims to have no grudge against his roommate, ("He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire") he is disturbed to madness by the sight of him.

Poe's skin-crawling descriptions say it all: "One of his eyes resembled that of a vulture—a pale blue eye with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me my blood ran cold, and so by degrees, very gradually, I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye for ever."

Vultures are death-predators, feeding on carcasses. They circle around a dying or wounded animal, waiting for death. The narrator seems to feel that the eye fixes on him like a vulture.

The eye also may symbolize the narrator's fear of aging, period. That same description, "pale blue eye with a film over it" is a very common and accurate description of the eyes of elderly people, who, (to put it not-nicely at all, but after all this *is* Poe!) are coming along in the process of body shutting down.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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

The heart, of course, is vital to human life, its uninterrupted beating a sign that it is functioning and playing its role in circulating blood throughout the body.  Physicians use stethoscopes to listen the beating of the heart.  In one of Edgar Allan Poe’s best known stories, “The Tell-Tale Heart,” that particular organ plays a vital role in revealing the narrator’s incontrovertible madness – his protestations to the contrary.  The narrator is certain of his sanity, and that anybody forced to live with the old man’s “vulture eye” would act in precisely the same manner.  The old man’s eye, which remains open even in his sleep, slowly drives the narrator to a murderous rage.  He is certain that he can hear the old man’s heart beating:

“And now have I not told you that what you mistake for madness is but over-acuteness of the senses?—now, I say, 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. It increased my fury, as the beating of a drum stimulates the soldier into courage.”

Driven with madness to kill the old man and eliminate the source of his anxiety, the narrator finally seizes upon his opportunity and, in his words, entered the old man’s bedroom intent on carrying out the dastardly deed.  The beating of the old man’s heart, however, fills him with a terrible rage:

“And now at the dead hour of the night, amid the dreadful silence of that old house, so strange a noise as this excited me to uncontrollable terror. Yet, for some minutes longer I refrained and stood still. But the beating grew louder, louder! I thought the heart must burst. And now a new anxiety seized me—the sound would be heard by a neighbor! The old man’s hour had come! With a loud yell, I threw open the lantern and leaped into the room.”

The beating of the old man’s heart symbolizes his continued existence.  No surprise there.  That the narrator’s head is filled with the sound of that heart beating ever-louder, however, is maddening.  After he has killed the old man, dismembered his body and buried it under the floorboards, he is visited by three police officers dispatched in response to a report from a neighbor of a loud shriek – the old man’s final protestation.  Certain that the police officers will not locate the hidden corpse under the floorboards, the narrator feels he is safe and has gotten away with murder.   That his head is one again filled with the sound of a beating heart, however, suggests that his psychosis will not allow him the luxury of putting to rest the fate of his victim.  As the beating grows louder in his head, he finally cries out in the presence of the police,

“Villains . . . dissemble no more! I admit the deed!—tear up the planks!—here, here!—it is the beating of his hideous heart!”

The heart symbolizes a guilty conscience.  The old man is most assuredly dead, but the narrator is convinced that his victim’s heart continues to beat and has given him away.  The sound of the beating heart, however, is purely in his head. Poe titled his story "The Tell-Tale Heart" precisely because it is the old man's heart, in the mind of his killer, that tells on him.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on