Applying Literary Terms

After reading a literary text, the next step is to analyze it. 

We want to think about the story, its characters, and the various choices that the author made in constructing the narrative. 

In short, we want to figure out what we can say about the text. This is where literary terms can be very useful. 

This page provides a run-down of how we might apply several terms to an analysis of “The Tell-Tale Heart.”

As a next step, you may also want to look at a sample literary analysis essay based on these ideas. You will quickly see that not all the analysis on this page makes it into the essay. And that is part of the process too. After we develop our analysis and ideas on what we can say about the story, we want to narrow our focus and decide how to best create a coherent interpretive argument about the text. 

Applying Selected Literary Terms 

Narrative Perspective (Point of View) –Point of view in literature refers to the position of the narrative voice in relation to the events of a story. If the narrator is involved in the story, then the story is being told from the first person perspective. If the narrator is outside the story “looking in,” then the story is being told from the third person narrative point of view. 

Types of Narrative Perspective:
First Person Point of View
– a narrative perspective that speaks with the voice of a character inside the story (or one character at a time)this perspective will often use “I” (the first person pronoun)

“The Tell-Tale Heart” uses first person narrative perspective. This choice effectively forces the reader to “listen” to the narrator as he tells his story and limits the reader’s knowledge to only what the narrator shares. 

This choice is important because it emphasizes the narrator’s way of understanding his own story (which is crazy!). 

By telling the story from this limited point of view and from “inside the mind” of the killer, Poe is able to create a story about insanity from the perspective of the an insane person. We get to hear and feel what insanity might be like. We’re invited inside the insanity, so to speak, and this is a result of using a first person narrative perspective. 

Symbolism –The use of one object or idea to represent another object or idea. The idea of representation is key here and for symbolism to be effective the correlation between the symbol and the idea it represents should be relatively clear. Common, generic examples of symbolism are the rose as a symbol of love, new leaves as a symbol of spring and darkness as a symbol for mystery.

The “vulture eye” in “The Tell-Tale Heart” is symbolic of the narrator’s paranoia and insane sense of threat.

The beating of the dead heart in “The Tell-Tale Heart” may be seen as symbolic of the narrator’s sense of guilt and/or continuing paranoia.

Irony –Irony takes several forms all of which rely on the co-existence of multiple meanings or ways of understanding a given circumstance.
Verbal Irony occurs when a term or phrase is used to express an opposite idea (as in the use of sarcasm).

The narrator says he is not insane, but his story is very clearly an indication of a profound psychological break. 

Dramatic irony occurs when a character or characters (and the audience) has possession of information that other characters do not (as in the end of Romeo & Juliet where the audience knows that Juliet has taken a sleeping serum but Romeo believes she is dead).

The story uses dramatic irony effectively when the police come to the house. The reader knows what the narrator knows – there is a dead body under the floor boards. 

The police do not know this, which creates a situation of dramatic irony. The tension around the narrator’s secret is only made possible by the fact that the reader is “in on the secret.” 

Situational Irony occurs when a highly unexpected outcome occurs, which seems to revise or refute the meaning of the events leading up to the outcome (as in the case of “The Story of an Hour” wherein the protagonist dies in response to discovering that the person she believed to be dead is actually alive).

The narrator carries out his plan perfectly. He wants to get away with murder and he almost does. But in the end, he is caught because he gives himself away. This is an unexpected twist and it’s especially ironic when we consider the narrator’s careful planning and execution of his plan (pardon the pun).

Yet another layer of situational irony is present  when we consider the narrator’s claim that he is perfectly sane. His psychosis (hearing the heart beat of a dead man) leads him to confess his crime to the police. 

Verbal Irony occurs when a term or phrase is used to express an opposite idea (as in the use of sarcasm).

The narrator says he is not insane, but his story is very clearly an indication of a profound psychological break. 

Repetition –This is both a plot technique and a rhetorical device. When used as a plot technique, repetition can help to communicate the nature of a story’s conflict as a scene or set of events is repeated an the specific details that change in subsequent repetitions stand out from what is repeated. Repetition can also demonstrate a narrator’s state of mind in the case of a first-person narrative.

Exaggeration –This technique is often used ironically and appears when what is stated in a narrative is not to be taken literally but instead understood as hyperbole or intentional overstatement. 

Exclamation –This technique is punctuated often with an exclamation mark and is used to create emphasis and also used to demonstrate a certain pitch of attitude in a narrative voice.

Repetition, exaggeration and exclamation are all used together in “The Tell-Tale Heart” and they help to communicate the narrator’s fragile state of mind. 

The narrator repeatedly says that he is perfectly sane. Toward the end of the story, he seems to get caught in a mental loop where he hears the heart beat of the dead man and enters a state of frenzy.

His exaggerations of his great care in sneaking slowly into the old man’s room are later echoed by his exaggerations of the volume of the beating heart.

These thoughts are conveyed as exclamations throughout the story with actual exclamation marks attached.  

By presenting these paranoid observations as repeated exclamations, Poe creates a character that is clearly on the edge of a psychological break-down – or already over the edge. 

Figurative Language – The use of language in creative ways that are not intended to be taken literally – Often this takes the form of comparisons of unlike things (metaphor, simile; synecdoche) but can also take the form of colloquial sayings, hyperbole, and metonymy). 

This line from “The Tell-Tale Heart” uses figurative language (metaphor) to compare the narrator to the personification* of death (e.g., “Death”):

“All in vain; because Death, in approaching him had stalked with his black shadow before him, and enveloped the victim.”

*Personification – Attributing human qualities to non-human things.

The figurative language here gives a succinct insight into the kind of dark connections the narrator is making as he plots to kill the old man. It also suggests a false sense of grandeur in the narrator and implies that he sees his actions in terms of power, respect and awe. He does not see the more obvious fact that he is a young, strong man plotting to kill a defenseless elderly fellow. 

By personifying death, we might also see a suggestion that the narrator feels that he is not entirely in control of events. Thus he is not morally responsible for what happens. (It’s Death doing the killing, not him.)

In this way, the figurative language underscores the story’s thematic interest in guilt – even an insane person who outwardly denies any moral responsibility finds himself unable to avoid guilt. His insanity may lead him to say he isn’t guilty, but his insanity also manifests a symbol of his guilt that is inescapable. He can’t silence the beating of the dead man’s heart.


Published by eric m martin

A writer, teacher and coffee shop owner living in the southern reaches of the Mojave Desert.

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