Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, The Tell Tale Heart, is about a man who kills his roommate, an old man, for no apparent reason other than he is bothered by the appearance of his roommate’s eye. However, the story is also about the descent into madness. In The Tell Tale Heart, images and concepts related to the Eye, the Lantern, and the Heart symbolize different aspects of the narrator’s mental state.
The Tell Tale Heart uses the imagery of the eye, the main reason the narrator uses to explain why he kills the roommate. When considering the symbolism of the eye, the eye is often considered part of the window into the soul. When the narrator looks into the eye of the old man, he is seeing his own soul, a reflection of his evil self. In the beginning we see how the old man’s eye is described as “the eye of a vulture” (Poe, para. 2). The eye also has a layer of blue film over it. Both images convey images of death: the vulture is a bird of prey that feasts on corpses, while the blue film gives the eye an appearance of lifelessness. Later, when the narrator is attempting to see into the old man’s room, he lets a sliver of light come out of the lantern, which falls directly upon the eye. Here, the eye is seemingly aware of the narrator’s intentions, which he wishes to remain hidden. The eye is described as “a dull blue, with a hideous veil over it” (para. 6). The narrator soon obsesses over it, until he “could see nothing else of the old man’s face or person” (para. 6). As the eye grows worse in appearance, so does the narrator’s declining mental state. The eye is therefore a symbol of the narrator’s internal evil; he claims it is an “Evil Eye” (para. 3). The narrator claims the eye is the reason he commits the murder, but what he is actually seeing is a reflection of his own evil.
The light from the lantern is what makes the narrator able to see his own madness; this is reinforced by the fact that the lantern only casts light on the old man’s eye, which is the very thing that the narrator claims to be driving him insane. Lanterns are known for producing light, and when considered metaphorically, the illumination of a lantern provides knowledge. When kept dark, knowledge remains hidden. As the narrator gets closer to committing his crime, more light is revealed from the lantern. When the lantern is closed, the narrator is in control of his own mental state; however, the only time the lantern is fully open is right before he murders the old man, which is also when the narrator has lost control of his sanity.
Controlling the lantern therefore symbolizes the internal struggle of the narrator to maintain his sanity. When he loses control, the lantern is opened wide, so that his crime is fully visible. This shows how the lantern also functions to expose the narrator, as it is “thrown open” (para. 7) when the murder actually occurs. Previously, when the narrator was simply contemplating the murder, the lantern was kept “closed, closed, that no light shone out” (para. 3). When the progression of the lantern in the story is considered, it becomes clear that the lantern is a reflection of the narrator’s attempt to control his sanity. The narrator appears to cling to the lantern, describing it in great detail; the lantern therefore comforts the narrator, as a metaphor for narrator’s own grasp at sanity. This is what keeps him sane, but only when the lantern is kept dark. The lantern therefore symbolizes the narrator’s ability to control his own sanity, which he is able to do when it is dark, but when more light is emitted from the lantern, the more evil and sinister the narrator becomes.
As the most prominent symbol in the story, reflected in the story’s title, the heart does not appear until toward the end of the story, as a symbol of the narrator’s guilt and conscience. The narrator’s first mention of a heart is his own, when he opens the door for the police “with a light heart” (para. 8). The next mention of the heart is when he hears the murdered old man’s heart beating through the floorboards, where he is buried. Although the narrator hears the beating become more intense, the officers do not hear it, as it only exists in the narrator’s mind. The beating becomes so intense the narrators feels as if he must “scream or die” (para. 9). This escalation of the beating shows how his anxiety and guilt are becoming more intense over time, although he is at no risk of being discovered. However, the heart causes him to confess the crime, because the beating makes him realize the horrific nature of his actions. The final line of the story has the narrator revealing the body, identifying it only as “the beating of his hideous hear” (para. 10). This shows how his guilt has made him delusional, to the point where he imagined he could hear it beating. The heart is generally a reference for emotion or empathy; in The Tell Tale Heart, however, it has an association with guilt. This guilt is what causes the narrator to confess. The narrator is consumed with guilt, although he had originally been able to suppress it.
The symbolism associated with the eye, the lantern, and the heart all represent different aspects of the narrator’s psychological state. The eye is a reflection of how the narrator sees himself; the lantern represents his struggle to control his mental state; and the heart represents his guilt.
- Poe, Edgar Allan. The Tell Tale Heart. Originally published in 1843.