Imagery & Figurative Language in "The Tell Tale Heart"

Edgar Allan Poe is one of America's most prolific authors. His love of the macabre and study of the dark aspects of the human psyche have earned him a place in anthologies across the nation. Throughout his short stories, Poe utilizes stark imagery and vivid figurative language to paint the picture of darkness and despair. In "The Tell-Tale Heart," Poe uses imagery and figurative language to tell the story of a mad man who ultimately succumbs to the darkness.


Imagery is the use of description based on the five senses, or as the Purdue Online Writing Lab explains, "total sensory suggestion." This means that imagery captures anything that can be seen, tasted, smelled, touched or heard. Imagery paints the picture for the reader, so he or she feels almost a part of the scene.

"The Tell-Tale Heart" frequently uses auditory imagery. As the speaker goes mad, he becomes more obsessed with the sound of his neighbor's beating heart. The repetition of the sound of the heart is what actually drives the speaker mad and causes him to turn himself in to the police. There are also many examples of imagery that rely on the sense of sight, including many descriptions that involve the use of light and dark.


A symbol is simply something that stands for something else. In this story, Poe uses different physical objects to stand for something else. For example, the the narrative mentions the watch the narrator wears, which symbolizes the passage of time and the movement of life. The focus on the watch before the murder symbolizes the time the neighbor has left to live, while later there is a strong connection between the ticking of the watch and the beating of the heart.


Personification is a form of figurative language where human characteristics are given to inanimate objects. Authors use personification to help the audience relate to the story and to create a certain mood. “Death, in approaching him had stalked with his black shadow before him, and enveloped the victim" is an example of personification in this story. Death is not a person, and therefore could not literally stalk anyone, but presenting it as a predator creates a sinister mood.

Simile and Metaphor

Authors use comparisons to relate a possibly unknown item or idea in a story to something the reader is familiar with. These comparisons can add much to the mood of a story in very few words. In this story, the speaker describes the light from the lantern as "at length a simple dim ray, like the thread of the spider, shot from out the crevice and fell full upon the vulture eye." He compares the light to a spider thread to show how thin and tenuous the beam (and his perspective) is. Poe uses a metaphor when he describes the man's eye as being the eye of a vulture. Explaining the eye this way foreshadows the death that is to come. Because the audience connects vultures to death and decay, an ominous tone is set for both the neighbor and the narrator.

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