Literary Criticism of Tell-Tale Heart

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Bethany Lam
Mrs. Patrick
American Literature
22 December 2009
Literary Analysis and Criticism of “The Tell-Tale Heart”
Human beings have all experienced guilt, the consequence of committing a wrong, and the manipulation it has on decisions. In the short story “The Tell-Tale Heart,” author Edgar Allan Poe demonstrates the theme that guilt is strong and has the power to overcome conscience; he uses characterization, the conflict, and symbolism to communicate this message. The characterization of the narrator most clearly shows this theme. In addition to Poe’s use of characterization, his decision to show the struggle the narrator endures with himself reveals the causes of the narrator to succumb to his guilt. The use of symbolism throughout the novel draws attention to the narrator’s guilt and his insanity. “The Tell-Tale Heart” is told by a first-person narrator who tells of a story in hope of convincing the reader of his sanity though throughout the story, he shows the strong control his guilt has over him and his mind, and ultimately proves his insanity. The narrator describes his plot to kill an old man whom the narrator didn’t hate, but who he desired to kill due to the old man’s “Evil Eye” (Poe 1). The old man’s eye was pale blue and covered with a film. It gave the narrator chills in his blood. The narrator began his plot to commit the murder. He crept into the old man’s room every night at midnight for seven nights, but finding the eye closed as the old man slept, the narrator couldn’t bring himself to commit the deed. The narrator described himself as being “never kinder to the old man than during the whole week before” he killed him (Poe 1). On the eighth night, the old man awoke to the sound of the narrator chuckling as he was

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in the process of entering the room. When the narrator opened a gap in the lantern, the ray of light revealed the vulture eye. The narrator began to hear a sound which he believed to be the old man’s heart beating, and as the beating grew louder, the narrator’s anxiety grew which led the narrator to commit the murder by pulling the mattress over the old man. The narrator dismembered the corpse and buried them under planks of the flooring of the old man’s bedroom. The police arrived at the house, a neighbor having heard the old man’s scream during the murder, and found nothing out of place in the house. While chatting with the police, the narrator began again hearing the beating of what he believed to be the old man’s heart. The beating grew louder and louder, and no longer to able bear the sound, the narrator confessed to the police of committing the deed. The characterization of the narrator made the narrator’s insanity and sense of guilt vastly palpable. The narrator of the story is a first-person unreliable narrator as he is surmounted with insanity, and the reader is unable to know how much of the story the narrator tells is true. The characterization of the narrator helps prove his madness as well as his guilt, leading to his confession. He “strongly believes in the need for making methodical and calculated decisions but is eventually overcome by inexplicable psychological forces that stem from his irrational, unstable nature” (Historical Context 1). The narrator is spiraling into folly as he recounts the story of committing the murder of an old man. He begins the story saying that he is “VERY, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?” (Poe 1). The narrator admits to being nervous while committing the murder and now in the present. He doesn’t believe himself to be a madman as he tries to convince the reader of this by describing his reasons for murdering the old man and his precise and cautious steps he took throughout the murder. He explains being extremely kind to the old man as to trick him into never suspecting Lam 3

the murder. His precise plans included his slow and careful steps to...
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