Edgar Allan Poe is one of the most famous authors in American history. His tightly build, heart-gripping short stories has left everyone impressed and as he is well known for his poetry, he is well know for his prose as well. Symbolism is the most integral part of Poe’s short stories and it is necessary to understand it, so that his short stories can be understood completely. In this essay, the symbolism in The Tell-Tale Heart and The Black Cat will be analysed and the importance of it explained.
The Tell-Tale Heart is a short story that is evolved around the unknown narrator and the old man whom the narrator wants to murder. The old man possesses the “evil eye” and when the narrator finally manages to kill him and buries him under the floorboards as for officers not to find him, he can still hear the old man’s heartbeat which ultimately makes him confess. The old man’s “evil eye” plays an important role in the story. It is blue with some sort of “film” or “veil” that covers it. It is not completely clear what is represents exactly, but it can be interpreted as the characters of this short story having problems with their viewpoint towards the world – their inner vision is unclear. For them, everything is undisclosed and it is hard for them to depict the world and its surrounding. That can be connected with the reading of this short story – everything is hazy, unclear. It is read through this hazy eye and it makes readers confused.
Even though the eye is hazy and sees things unclearly, it sends chills down the narrator’s spine and it makes narrator feel uncomfortable. It is implied in the text, once the narrator hides the body, that not even the old man’s eye can see it anymore which brings the conclusion that once upon a time, that eye could see some things that were not in plain sight. The eye can also be connected to the heart. As mentioned before, what makes the narrator confess is the rapid heartbeat he hears that only grows louder and louder and even though the officers who are in the house do not hear it, it still makes the narrator confess. That alludes to the eye wanting to see and be seen again. Another instance when its connectivity to the heart is shown is when the narrator shuffles the light towards the open eye, so the heart beats an alert as to protect the eye.
What the narrator pays the most attention to is the “vulture eye” aspect of it. He is so obsessed with it, he mentions it the total of three times. It is said that vultures watch for sick or those dead. However, it is unknown if the old man is that kind of person. The point is not in that though. The point is that vulture is what he is to the narrator. The narrator’s fear raises the question of his “aliveness”. He might as well be dead or almost dead if his fear of vulture is so strong.
Another symbol that frequently appears in the story is a “watch”. It is mentioned four times and it is there to watch time and to “tell tales of time”. Poe uses a watch as a device that is bringing us closer to the death of the old man. On the eighth night, which is the night that the old man dies, the comparison is made by the narrator as he sees himself as a watch. He is the one controlling and playing with time, calculating carefully when he will exactly kill the old man. It is all in his hands and he is not ashamed to admit it.
The heart of the old man can also be interpreted as being a watch – in a metaphorical sense, of course. The heart watches everything and it counts down seconds and minutes that lead up to the old man’s death. After the old man dies, it stops. Heart stops working just like the watch stops working. However, a while later, it comes back to life to tell its own story – to tell about the death and the time of death and that way cleverly making the narrator stop being a watch. The narrator is, again, just human.
The third symbol appearing is the lantern. What is interesting is how the narrator never lets much light into the room. He always lets only one ray out – and it is all for his advantage. The lantern is what he can use against the old man. It is what ultimately helps him in killing the old man when the light hits his “evil” eye. There is also a possibility of it subtly hinting that nothing is completely dark – that there is always a little ray of light shining through the cracks – even in this story.
As the last symbol that is important to the story it is simply – bed and the bedroom. However, the bed in this story is not used in a traditional sense that it is known for. What narrator does is that he uses the old man sleeping as an advantage for his activities and plan. The bed, as a symbol of piece and rest, is given a completely different role, as the narrator murders the old man with his own bed. It is turned into a murder weapon, therefore the bedroom is a place of murder and not the place to rest and sleep.
The Black Cat is another one of Poe’s gripping mystery stories. It is about the man who kills the cat but seems to later on haunt him in the form of another cat. When talking about symbolism, the black cats are characters as well as symbols. The first cat is named Pluto and it is completely black from head to toe. It is a large cat and it is intelligent more than your normal can and very perceptive. The cat is living a normal life at the beginning, its owner loves him and takes car of him. However, later on, its owner starts abusing him, kicking him and mistreating him, not believing it to be “just a cat”. In the end, he is killed by his owner because he believes the cat to be some sort of a demon. The right perspective of Pluto is not easy to have, as it can be looked at from both perspectives: the one where the owner is just mad and Pluto is only a cat, or the one where the owner is right and the cat is not so normal after all, or maybe where it is both of these two options combined.
There is a possibility for Pluto to being an allegory for a murdered slave. He is hanged from the tree, so the interpretation is not completely stretched. A slave had no rights. Their life was in their owner’s hands and the owner could decide what he wants to do with them. It could be argued that the story tried to show how both people and animals alike, needed more protection from the legal side than they actually had. In Poe’s time, slavery was still much alive and Poe expressed the fear of it in the form of the black cat. Another symbol that Pluto might represent is that of a child. The narrator and his wife have no children, but still the story is heavily revolved around family and home. Both animals and children depend on adults when it comes to protection and care. This idea is supported by the narrator referring to the second cat’s cry as that of “the sobbing of a child”.
The difference between Pluto and the second cat is that the second cat misses an eye and has one white spot, therefore it is not completely black. However, according to the narrator that white spot only grows wider as the time goes by. It is not known why the cat misses the eye, although it is most likely it is from some kind of abuse. The narrator claims that the cat is some supernatural creature – almost as if Pluto came back from death to torture him and make him feel guilty for killing him. Then again, if the cat is looked from the point of view of being a supernatural creature, even a monster, it is not clear why the cat only waited to be on the verge of death before crying out and why it even cried in the first place.
Besides the cats, there is a symbol of a nightmare. The cat is described as a “Night Mare” by the narrator himself. He keeps having bad dreams because of him, so at one point he stops sleeping all together. For all of story, it is unclear whether the narrator is conscious and aware of his actions, whether he is sleeping and imagining it all or if maybe he is somewhere between those two states. Even the narrator says how often he is to doze off, so the combination of those two realities is what most likely occurs in the end. However, he says the situation is completely cat’s fault. He sees it as a sign of something evil and makes him feel guilty for what he has done. He starts sleeping only when the cat is murdered and when his wife is not there anymore as well.
The last integral symbol that will be mentioned is the weapons that the narrator used. It could be even seen as weird when taking into consideration the weapons he uses. Then again, Poe probably wanted to disturb the reader with the image of a cat hanging from the tree. What is even more disturbing is the gallows on the fur of the second cat because gallows is a structure that is used to hang people. If it is taken into consideration that slavery was still well and alive though, then Poe was probably no stranger from seeing someone (probably black) hanging from a tree.
Symbolism in Poe’s poetry is often used to make the reader uncomfortable, to make the reader scared. It is also used as a suspenseful motif and the symbolism is what keeps the reader interested in reading Poe’s work. It affects his short stories in many ways and they keep things intriguing and keep the reader guessing. His symbols are either very clear or very unclear and there can be many guesses made what they actually represent.
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