Literary Devices in The Tell-Tale Heart
In 1836, Poe wrote an essay called “The Philosophy of Composition,” in which he proposed a theory about writing which claimed that a “unity of effect” distinguished something as good writing. The unity of effect claims that a work of fiction should elicit an emotional response from the reader that is meticulously orchestrated by the author. Writers therefore have to make specific choices about tone, word choice, theme, setting, conflict, and plot. Every element of a story was made to propel the story forwards. For this reason, the style, form, and tone are important literary devices in “The Tell-Tale Heart.” The sentences are choppy and disjointed to show the narrator’s scattered mind; frequent repetition demonstrates his obsessive nature, and his tendency to interrupt himself mid-sentence shows his illogical thinking patterns. The story begins in medias res, in the middle of a narrative, with the narrator confessing his crimes to an unknown person, and by extension the reader. This device draws the reader into the text. We unwittingly become his confidant as the narrative forces us into the mind of a madman.
Literary Devices Examples in The Tell-Tale Heart:
The Tell-Tale Heart
"no..." See in text (The Tell-Tale Heart)
Notice that the narrator does not tell us exactly what he did to leave no trace of the old man's murder, but instead he focuses on absences. His repetition of "no" focuses on his ability to erase the old man instead of showing his audience his actual actions.
"just as I have done..." See in text (The Tell-Tale Heart)
"Just as I have done" could refer to the narrator listening to the death watches in the old man's room over the past eight nights. However, it could also signify that the narrator has been sitting up in his own bed similarly contemplating his own death night after night before he hatched his plan to kill the old man.
"louder—louder—louder!..." See in text (The Tell-Tale Heart)
Notice how Poe uses repetition at the end of the story to show the narrator's descent into insanity. Whereas at the beginning of the story, the style and the content are in tension, now the style and the content mirror each other. The narrator is no longer claiming his sanity.
"watch ..." See in text (The Tell-Tale Heart)
Here the motif of the watch appears to symbolize time moving forward. While the narrator was able to conflate hours of the day and symbolically stop time after he killed the old man, he is now unable to block out the sound of the heartbeat which he compares to a ticking clock. Time has symbolically started and he once again realizes that he is moving towards death.
"corpse..." See in text (The Tell-Tale Heart)
Notice the detail that the narrator uses to tell us that he removed all humanity from the old man. He is now a "corpse"; he is fragmented into parts. In highlighting the physical dissolution of the old man's body, Poe is able to signal to the reader that the beating heart is in the narrator's head.
"must have been..." See in text (The Tell-Tale Heart)
Whereas earlier in the story the narrator presumed to have omniscient knowledge of what the old man was thinking, here he can only assume what the old man thinks. In the moments leading up to the old man's death, the narrator stops identifying with the old man.
"watch ..." See in text (The Tell-Tale Heart)
The narrator reinvokes the motif of the watch in order to compare it to the old man's heartbeat. Using this comparison, the narrator links the watch, a symbol of time, to the heartbeat, a symbol of life. In this way, time and lifespan becomes inextricably intertwined.
"very, very..." See in text (The Tell-Tale Heart)
Notice how Poe uses repetition to create intensity and build tension within the story. The narrator continuously insists that he is not mad; however, with this constant repetition, Poe creates a frenzied tone that suggests the narrator is less stable than he claims.
"vulture eye...." See in text (The Tell-Tale Heart)
Vultures are birds that feed on dead carcasses and gather around sick or injured animals in anticipation of their death. Vultures are a symbol of coming death or immanent death. In characterizing the eye as a "vulture," the eye becomes a symbolic omen of death. This suggests that the original thought that drove the narrator to kill the old man is his fear of death.
"victim..." See in text (The Tell-Tale Heart)
This depiction of Death demonstrates the narrator's fear of dying. That Death's victim is presented as powerless in the face of Death suggests the narrator feels the same helplessness. Remember that the narrator is suffering from an unknown disease which may be the source of his fear of death.
"Death..." See in text (The Tell-Tale Heart)
The narrator personifies Death as a character that maliciously stalks and then kills. This description of Death mirrors the very actions that the narrator takes. The narrator in this sense attempts to embody his conception of Death.
"watch's minute hand..." See in text (The Tell-Tale Heart)
The "watch" is a motif that comes up four times throughout this story. Since a watch is both a physical and auditory reminder of time, this motif could symbolize the narrator's conscious understanding that his time is running out. Each time the watch is mentioned, or the watch ticks, the narrator remembers his own mortality.
" it was not the old man who vexed me..." See in text (The Tell-Tale Heart)
Notice that the narrator keeps insisting that he bore no ill will towards the old man. He keeps hinting at his motive to murder by invoking the symbol of the eye. However, this symbol continues to create suspense as the audience still does not know what idea the eye stands for.
" you would..." See in text (The Tell-Tale Heart)
Notice that the address shifts here. Whereas at the beginning of the story the narrator accuses the "you" of believing that he is mad, here the narrator suggests that the "you" would be in collusion with his actions. The way in which the narrator addresses his audience, this unidentified "you," demonstrates his disconnection from reality.
"I made up my mind..." See in text (The Tell-Tale Heart)
Notice that unlike the first sentence of this paragraph, the narrator is actively deciding to kill the old man. This suggests that the "idea" that haunted him was not the decision to murder but something else about the old man. Poe uses this ambiguity to create suspense as the reader will now search for the narrator's motive.