gothic fiction short story of The Tell-Tale Heart

Edgar Allan Poe’s gothic horror short story The Tell-Tale Heart was my option for this assignment. The unidentified narrator of the story attempts to assert that he is emotionally stable, but he unwittingly reveals that he is mentally ill. The character is a murderer who plans to murder the elderly man with whom he lives. This paper essay will analyze the characters, tone, and symbolism used by the author to convey his message and theme.
In his short tale, Poe uses physical characteristics to describe the main characters. The vulture-eye of the old man shows that he could be going untreated and that he is neglected or sick. The author also uses the actions in his characterization. For instance, the activities of the narrator such as plotting, spying, and murdering portray him as a dangerous individual.

The old man is a passive character in this story. He is described as having the unnatural blue eye which is likened to that of a vulture. The old man is rich and posses some powers. Poe shows the character of the old man as weak and helpless when de describes that the old man could not do anything even when he was facing danger, and only what he could do is to sit in his bed, open his vulture-eye and cry. Poe also reveals that the old man is alienated. This trait can be seen in the act of the suspicious neighbor who decided to call the three policemen to find out what was going on in the house where the narrator and the old man lived. It can be noted that not only the narrator was afraid of the old man’s eye. This situation could imply that in the neighborhood, the old man had been left aloof due to his unnatural eye. Furthermore, his demise that was caused by the narrator could symbolize the biases and the abuses that originate from the physical difference between him and the neighbors (Shen 335).

Another character is the narrator who reveals himself as a murderer by recounting how he killed the old man. It is difficult to judge what is valid from what he narrates since he seems not to differentiate between real and unreal things, and therefore he is unreliable. Albeit his endeavor to prove that he is not mad, his speech, acts, and bizarre reasoning demonstrates that he is insane. The narrator makes the reader to doubt his state of mind when he says ‘‘True—nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?” This quote illustrates that the narrator is mentally ill and his nervousness could be as a result of a quilt of murder haunting him.

The narrator is a murderer. This character trait can be seen from his statement where he claims not to have any motive for the killing, but he agrees that he dislikes the old man’s eye. The tension and uneasiness that could be noted in the voice of the narrative were used effectively by the author of the story to reveal the quilt of the narrator. The narrative creates a gothic tale which is full of psychological torment and horror episodes.

The narrator took the role of a death watch to control the time of the old man’s death for eight nights, and he seemed to enjoy spying on him. This act indicates that the narrator is perverse as evident by these lines, “I could scarcely contain my feelings of triumph, to think that there I was, opening the door, little by little, and he not even to dream of my secrets deeds or thoughts (Poe 105). These lines show that the narrator enjoyed killing another human being which is contrary to moral uprightness and human nature. The narrator was also a very cautious person. This can be seen when he says “I moved it slowly- very, very slowly, so that I may not wake the old man. It took me an hour to place my whole head in the opening…” (Kennedy and Gioia 109). The precautions that he undertook to ensure he did not wake up the old man prove that he is cautious.

The tone

Poe used a tone that can make the reader feel melancholic and want to cry. The author used both the tone of sadness and nervousness together to convey his theme. The narrator is uneasy and nervous as he narrates how he killed the old man whom he claims to love. The narrator is pathetic and seems to have lived an evil life which got worse after he murdered the old man who had not wronged him in any way. Since the story is told by a mentally ill man, the reader is kept at a state of constant sadness because the audience can neither unravel the motive of the death nor prove the sanity of the narrator. Although it could be established that the narrator is a murderer, his frantic tone and nervousness reveal that he is a sad person.


From the beginning, the reader is introduced to symbolism by the use of the heart as the title of the fiction story. The narrator starts by trying to describe his motive in murdering the old man. The narrator reckoned that he did a heinous act, and he even questions how the evil purpose entered his brain. It could be seen that the killer is so heartless because the victim had done nothing that could warrant death. The narrator says “I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold, I had no desire. I think it was his eye! Yes, it was this!? 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.” (“Edgar Allan Poe’s Aesthetic Theory, The Insanity Debate, And the Ethically Oriented Dynamics”) This confession indicates that the narrator had no logical reason to kill the old man. Therefore, Poe used the heart to symbolize the heartlessness and inhumane character of the narrator. The heart was also used to represent a bodyguard for the eye that could alert it to see.

Poe describes the eye of the old man as blue with a veil covering it. This condition reveals that he could be suffering from a physical injury in his cornea. However, the author intentionally used this description to depict the inner problems that the old man could be experiencing from such as the old man’s view of the society and the world. The filmic eye is stuck which explains the victim’s lack of action even when facing danger. Although the eye is dull and suffers blurred vision, it has strange powers that are supernatural. The narrator says that “replaced the boards so cleverly, so cunningly, that no human eye – not even his [the old man’s] – could have detected anything wrong….” This statement the old man’s blue eye had the power to see secret things (Shen 326).

The author used a watch as an allegory to represent time. In human life, time is seen as the only thing that watches an impending death, and each tick of the watch indicates a movement closer to the unavoidable death of the human beings. This human fact was relayed to the reader when the author wrote: “A watch’s minute hand moves more quickly than did mine” (Shen 326). The narrator compared himself to a watch by controlling the time that he would kill the old man. It is expected that only the natural forces should control the death of an individual, but the narrator became a walking death agent. The death watch that bangs its head on the wall is used to symbolize the death that knocks on the life of a human being.

The bed and a bedroom is a private place which is considered a safe place for a person to sleep. However, in this story, the bed was used to symbolize the opposite of what is expected. Since an individual is vulnerable when in his bed sleeping, the narrator took advantage of this and employed it as a weapon to take away the life of the old man, and no wonder Poe used bedroom symbolically to represent the burial place.

Works Cited

“Edgar Allan Poe’s Aesthetic Theory, The Insanity Debate, And the Ethically Oriented Dynamics.” Scribd,

Kennedy, X J, and Dana Gioia. Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing. 5th ed., University of Southern California, 2016.

Poe, Edgar A. Tell Tale Heart – the Short Stories of Edgar Allan Poe (fantasy and Horror Classics). Read Books Ltd, 2017.

Shen, Dan. “Edgar Allan Poe’s Aesthetic Theory, the Insanity Debate, and the Ethically Oriented Dynamics of “The Tell-Tale Heart”.” Nineteenth-Century Literature, vol. 63, no. 3, 2008, pp. 321-345.

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