Edgar Allen Poe's short story, The Tell-Tale Heart, may be the best example of gothic fiction ever written. In it, Poe uses every aspect of story-telling to help contribute to the atmospheric intensity of the story. This utilization of every aspect of the storytelling process results in a gothic feeling that permeates every detail in the story. When the story opens, one realizes that Poe's narrative technique, which is to have a first-person narrator tell the story, contributes tremendously to the gothic nature of the tale. This is because the narrator quickly reveals himself to be unreliable, perhaps even mentally ill. The fact that the narrator is unreliable makes it difficult to discern the character of the people in the story. The narrator paints himself as an unsympathetic character, capable of gleeful murder but also trying to claim he feels remorse for those actions. That scenario initially seems to lead only to the conclusion that the narrator must be insane, but when one looks at possible interpretations of the symbolism in the story, the narrator's actions may seem reasonable. In fact, Poe's use of symbolism in the story is wonderful, not only because the images he chooses as symbolic are so powerful, but also because they can be very ambiguous, leaving the story open to interpretation by each individual reader. What that means is that different readers could come away with very different themes. Obviously mortality and compulsion are two of the themes of the story, but whether or not the reader thinks the narrator is mad helps highlight the other themes of the story.
In the introduction of the story, the narrator says, "True! -- nervous -- very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?" (Poe). These are the narrator's first words, letting the audience know that he is suspected to be mad. Immediately, the reader becomes wary of the narrator as a reliable source. After all, anyone who is arguing that he is not insane immediately seems as if he is insane. However, it is not only the narrator's statement that he is not mad that makes him appear unreliable. In addition to that, the narrator's self-proclaimed behavior makes him seem very suspect. He has decided to kill an old man, not because of any ill will or malice towards the old man, but because he finds the old man's eye to be very disturbing. The descriptions that the narrator gives of how he feels about the old man's eye lead one to believe that the narrator is suffering from some type of schizo-affective disorder, because he believes that the eye has powers that are greater than those of a normal eye. Moreover, he seems to ascribe those enhanced powers to the eye's apparent disease, which is revealed by the cloudy appearance of the eye. This all leads one to the conclusion that, even if not technically insane, the narrator is not rational. However, this is based on the narrator's statements that the old man has done him no wrong, but the audience knows that the narrator is unreliable. What if the old man has done some wrong to the narrator?
For example, imagine if the narrator is not insane? The narrator is only insane if the old man truly has done him no wrong. There have been some suggestions that The Tell Tale heart is an example of Southern Gothic writing. If the narrator is a slave and the old man his white master, then the blue eye, which might symbolize whiteness, and, therefore, racial oppression, the narrator's fixation with the old man's eye no longer seems quite so irrational. Moreover, what if the narrator is not a male, but a female, and still a slave? Even as a freewoman, if one imagines a sexual relationship, whether consensual or not, between the two at some prior time in their relationship, it is easy to imagine a child with the same blue eyes. Did the narrator have to give away a child, or worse, have a child sold away from her because of the tell-tale blue eye? Obviously, this is information not contained in the story. However, the reality is that there is no back-story to the story. All the audience knows is that the narrator somehow became fixated upon the idea of the old man's blue eye and decided that he (or she) must kill the old man. Without knowing the back story, it is very difficult to know the character of the narrator.
Furthermore, without the back story, it is very difficult to know the character of the old man. The audience knows that the man is old, because the narrator says that the man is old. For a story written in the 1840s, when life expectancies were much shorter, old could mean anywhere from one's early 40s. The fact that his eye has a white film on it suggests that the man has cataracts, which would lead one to the conclusion that the old man is a bit older than his 40s, but that is mere conjecture on the part of the audience. Without knowing the narrator's age, it is impossible to know how old the old man actually is. There is little else that the narrator directly reveals about the old man. The audience knows that the old man lives with the narrator, though the audience has no idea what relationship the two characters have. The fact that the narrator refers to the old man as an old man and not as father, uncle, brother or any other kinship designation suggests that the two do not have a family relationship, but that could just as easily be the narrator's means of distancing himself from the murder that he has committed. The old man appears to trust the narrator because the old man has wealth, as revealed by the narrator showing the police that the old man's treasures have been unharmed, which, at that time, would have given him power in a relationship. However, the old man also has some suspicions and fears. When the narrator inadvertently wakes the old man on the eighth night, the old man rises, but does not call out and ask for the narrator. He shares a house with a younger person, upon whom he presumably relies for some things, but does not call out to that person when scared in the middle of the night. That suggests some fear. In fact, there is other information suggesting that the relationship between the narrator and the old man has not been as peaceful as the narrator suggests in the beginning of the tale. When the neighbor hears the old man's scream, he contacts the police because he fears foul play has occurred, rather than rushing next door to help his neighbor. This suggests that perhaps there has been some type of violence between the narrator and the old man in the past.
The symbolism in the story can provide hints of a back-story, though they are open to interpretation. The old man's blue eye is a symbol of the all-seeing eye, which can see knowledge. Obviously, this eye suggests that the old man can see into the narrator's heart and learn of the narrator's intentions towards him. It is this eye that exacerbates the narrator's nervous condition and leads him to kill the old man. This symbolizes a fear of knowledge, and of discovery. Moreover, when one considers the time and place in which the story was written, the blue eye could be seen as a symbol of whiteness, and its all-seeing nature as a symbol of imprisonment and oppression. Many people assume that the old man's eye is the watchful eye of a parent and that the narrator and old man are related in that manner. However, without knowing more details about the narrator, it is difficult to limit the symbolism behind the eye. Instead, the eye must be seen as a symbol for watchfulness, and a waiting for some type of misdeed.
The story is also replete with symbolism about clocks and ticking sounds. The narrator makes several references to his movements, comparing them to the movements on a clock. The narrator makes reference to death watches in the wall, and death watch beetles are known for their clock-like ticking sounds. Of course, the sound of ticking foreshadows the sound of heartbeats. At times, the narrator suggests that he can hear the old man's heartbeat escalate. The ticking sounds also indicate that the old man's time is quickly coming to an end. Moreover, the idea of the death watch beetles can add a sexual element to the story, because death watch beetles make their characteristic ticking sound when looking for a mate. If one imagines a back-story in which the old man is a sexual predator and the narrator a victim, then a mating call coming from his room at the time that…