Throughout history, short stories have been used to convey ideas about morality. For example, Aesop’s fables have often used animals and symbols to communicate and teach lessons that apply universally to humanity. Similar to this, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tel-Tale Heart is a prime example of a parable used to express the dangers of a guilty conscience, at an extreme regret.
There are many elements to The Tell-Tale Heart that make it a story of moral teaching. The narrator in this short story is nameless, as well as the old man, the police officers, and neighbor. The intentional ambiguity here creates a lack of ownership of the story, thus allowing anybody to take on the role of the “madman'”. The lesson of morality can be applied to everyone. Additionally, the many confusing and unreliable remarks made by the narrator force the reader to have their own point of view about what kind of morality Poe is trying to communicate. The eye may be symbolic of a wrongdoing or a secret that is haunting the narrator’s conscience. The narrator establishes the hatred towards the old man’s eye early on in the story. The narrator emphasizes the fact that it is strictly the eye that he hates, not the old man. The eye is described as being a pale blue with a film over it (Poe 715). The eye is concealed and unable to be seen, just as a secret may be. It is obscured and not fully revealed, just as the truth is not, with a secret. The eye is characterized as that of a “vulture” (Poe 715, 716) throughout the story. Vultures feed on the weak, dying, or already dead creatures. The narrator may feel that he is being preyed on by this eye, which is also the secret. This secret is “preying” on him, and perhaps this secret will be the death of him.
When the narrator is able to see the eye, it makes him furious (Poe 716). He describes the “hideous veil…that chilled the very marrow in my bones”. The narrator may be afraid of his secret being exposed. The fact that the line between concealment and exposure is so thin, like a veil, frightens the narrator. He relates to this fear when he incites it in the old man. He says, “I knew what the old man felt and I chuckled at heart” (Poe 716). Perhaps he is mocking the veil, calling it hideous because it does such a bad job at hiding his conscience. Either way, he is happy to witness fear in someone other than himself, for a short period of time.
All of these elements are a reflection of the narrator himself. He may be the veil that is trying to conceal the evil eye. As well as, the evil eye may be a part of him he is trying to conceal. It is interesting that the words “eye” and “I” both sound the same. It is one of the many subtle confusions that Poe creates that works very well in the confused state the narrator is in. The narrator faces a parallel struggle in now concealing a conflict that is known to the reader: the murder of the old man. Ultimately, it is the narrator’s beating heart, his conscience, as it grows louder and louder that makes him go into a state of paranoia and reveal that he killed the old man. The narrator again uses the term “hideous” to describe the heart, just as he had the eye (Poe 718). He again may be disgusted by his conscience and the control it has over him. He cannot be at peace but instead has had to kill, or suppress, the eye that holds his wrongdoings. As Poe shows, in the end, the truth comes out.
The heart is present in both the conflict with the eye and the conflict with the murder. Poe does this through the repetition of the phrase “a low, dull, quick sound -much such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton” (Poe 716, 717). The heart, or his conscience, is buried inside him, just as the watch is inside the cotton. The way Poe describes this makes it sound like he is describing a bomb, that is going to explode, foreshadowing the final event at which it does, when he reveals to the police that he committed the murder. The opposition to this argument is that the narrator may simply be mad, and does not possess guilt at all. He often says strange things he thinks will prove his sanity that actually makes him appear more insane. For example, he associates skill with sanity in “It took me an hour to place my whole head within the openings…would a madman have been so wise as this?” (Poe 715). He is in a constant conflict with proving to the reader that he is not mad. However, that is the very essence of the moral.
It may very well be that the paranoia faced by concealment and the guilt of his wrongdoing is what caused the narrator to go “mad”, something Poe may be suggesting can happen to any of us. Also, perhaps this is the narrator’s way of attempting to outsmart his conscience. By showing his clever and deceptive ability, he appears in control. He says “Never before that night, had I felt the extent of my own powers” (Poe 715). However, it is ironic that Poe proves that he is actually at the mercy of conscience, and has no power at all. He is unable to face his rongdoings in the eye head on and is unable to conceal his murder from the policemen. Though Edgar Allan Poe may be describing a dark and twisted murder by a mad man, there is reason to believe that he may also be convincing the reader of a universal truth. He is providing a warning by giving the reader an insight of what extreme an extremely guilty Conscience can cause that may be applied to the readers own conscience, to a lesser extent.
- Poe, Edgar. “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Baym, Nina, and Robert S. Levine. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. New York: W.W. Norton&, 2013. 714-18. Print.