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In the middle of the nineteenth century, Edgar Allan Poe was at his peak of writing poetry for literary magazines. He had critiqued and written many classic stories such as “The Raven” and other well-known stories.  The stories coming from the mind of Poe were always dark and riddled with layers of symbolism. Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” conveys a symbolic way of showing how one man drives himself farther into insanity through his own guilt. Furthermore, he uses dark diction to emphasize the self-destructiveness of guilt and how it can fluctuate the confidence of a man.

Understanding the plot is a key factor in comprehending the meaningfulness of this dark story. Therefore, a brief summary is due. A nameless man is the caretaker of another older nameless man. The older man’s eye is extremely bothering to the caretaker (who is arguably insane already), so he decides to act on the “vulture eye” and kill the older man. The man is extremely careful to hide the body so that no one will ever find it. Eventually, the police arrive at his door because a neighbor heard a scream, so the police then proceed to search the house and ask the man questions. With his confidence and adrenaline at an all-time high, the man invites the police to sit down and relax, convincing them there is nothing wrong. He even decides to literally sit on top of where he has hidden the dismantled body parts. However, guilt sets in and the man apparently hears the heart beating underneath him, which drives him crazy until he finally confesses his sins. This story has many underlying meanings to it; however, the most prominent symbolisms to focus on are guilt and insanity. There is ambiguity in Poe’s intended meaning of the story, sparking arguments from many readers such as, whether the man was insane before or after the killing if the man could hear the heart beating, and what the eye truly represents.

Through killing the man, there were pros and cons for the caretaker. On the bright side, the man does not have to bear the mental harm that the older man’s eye provides to the caretaker. However, the consequence is that there is now a secret bomb that has been planted within the man’s psyche: guilt. This guilt is not relevant to the man at first due to the adrenaline rushing and the overwhelming feeling of relief that he feels due to no longer having to be tortured by the eye. There is not a definite indicator within the story that shows he is starting to question his actions; however, he unconsciously feels the effects of his prior actions. For instance, the man begins hearing the heartbeat of the dead. Once this begins, we can see his true form come out within the story through how Poe used diction and word choice. The story is in first-person perspective, so the reader is seeing the story through the narrator’s eyes, allowing the reader to see a disconnect between the narrator’s perception and what is probably really happening. This is when we can truly see his perspective and watch him drive himself into confession. As said before, there are arguments about whether he is crazy before the kill or after; however, it is definite that, as he is sitting on top of the body, he has become crazy at this point in time.

Poe uses many subtle literary elements to broadcast a point through his writing. When the narrator meets two policemen, Poe’s depiction of his reaction reveals the man’s insanity, arrogance, and true flaws. The narrator says,

I smiled, —for what had I to fear? I bade the gentlemen welcome. The shriek, I said, was my own in a dream. The old man, I mentioned, was absent in the country. I took my visitors all over the house. I bade them search—search well. I led them, at length, to his chamber. I showed them his treasures, secure, undisturbed. In the enthusiasm of my confidence, I brought chairs into the room, and desired them here to rest from their fatigues, while I myself, in the wild audacity of my perfect triumph, placed my own seat upon the very spot beneath which reposed the corpse of the victim. (Poe 7)

This is when the narrator was extremely cocky and calm about his actions. The narrator’s invitation to the officers to “search-search well” (Poe 7) reveals his secret desires for the officers to actually find the body. He does not know it yet, but the guilt is building inside him, and his arrogance is, in a way, a manifestation of his guilt. Through this, there is a certain underlying emotion that he wants the officers to find the body. If he wanted to get away with it, he would have let the officers do their search then leave. But instead, he invites them to talk and sit down literally on top of the body. So, this can lead to an underlying desire to be caught. Another thing to look at is the underlying meaning of specific words as well. Poe uses the word “repose” which implies the one who is resting will eventually get back up. This can be referred to when the heart metaphorically starts beating again. Another word Poe used is “enthusiasm” which from the etymology of said word, can be referred to the word the Greek word entheos which means: “divinely inspired, possessed by a god”. This enthusiasm could be that he’s possessed by his guilt into sitting above the body, leading to his confession and arrest. Not only are there meanings in the emotion that he puts into the story, but there are literally hidden meanings in individual words throughout.

“The Tell-Tale Heart” is filled with many symbolisms and hidden meanings such as how the heart beating is the guilt building inside the narrator. Edgar Allan Poe truly poured his heart (no pun intended) and soul into this piece to show the struggles of mental health. From this, we can truly see how guilt can engulf a man and lead him to self-destruction.


Works Cited

GoonCartoons. “Swing You Sinners! 1930 animated cartoon short Fleischer Brothers surreal, dark abstract content” YouTube, posted the video from the original creator, 10 Mar. 2017,

Harper, Douglas. “Enthusiasm.” Online Etymology Dictionary, 2020,

Laser Time. “Mickey Mouse- The Haunted House (1929)” YouTube, posted the video from the original creator, 29 Oct. 2015,

Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Tell- Tale Heart.” Elegant Ebooks Originally published in The Pioneer, 1843.

Spoeth Creations. “Edgar Allan Poe: The Tell-Tale Heart” YouTube, posted the video from the original creator, 30 Nov. 2016,

TheFilmandTVChannel. “The Tell-Tale Heart – Short Film of the Edgar Allan Poe Story” YouTube, posted the video from the original creator, 21 Sep. 2009,

TheReReRetard. “Silly Symphony Hell’s Bells 1929” YouTube, posted the video from the original creator, 22 Nov. 2012,

0do0m. “The Tell Tale Heart (UPA, 1953)” YouTube, posted the video from the original creator, 31 Oct. 2015,


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