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Edgar Allan Poe uses a wide variety of literary techniques in his short story “The Tell-Tale Heart” to enhance the story’s effectiveness and to emphasize its meanings. Among those techniques are the following:
- Plunging into the midst of things (in medias res), as in the very first sentence, which takes us by surprise and places us immediately inside the head of the “nervous” narrator.
- Using a first-person narrator whose mental state is questionable (to say the least), thus creating suspense not only about the story’s plot but about the condition of the narrator’s mind.
- Having the narrator directly address an unknown “you” (as in the first sentence), so that even more curiosity is created. Whom is the narrator addressing? What are the circumstances of the address? Is the narrator perhaps addressing us (as readers) directly? The “dialogic” opening of the story creates an effect of “you are there,” as if the story is taking place in the present moment.
- Making mysterious allusions, as in the intriguing reference to “the disease” in the second sentence. As soon as we read this sentence, we want to know what disease the narrator has in mind, how far it may have progressed, how it may have affected him, etc.
- Alliteration, as in all the “h” sounds of the final sentence. These help reinforce our sense of the narrator’s excitement and of his emphatic phrasing.
- Repetition, as in the phrases “how healthily – how calmly” in the final sentence of the first paragraph. Repetition again reveals the narrator’s emphatic phrasing, his intense desire to be heard and understood.
- Irony, as in the final sentence of the first paragraph, where the speaker claims to be healthy and calm when in fact he seems just the opposite.
- Metaphorical language, as when, in the first sentence of the second paragraph, the narrator reports,
It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain; but once conceived, it haunted me day and night.
Here the narrator speaks of “the idea” as if it were a ghost that “haunted” him. Such language reinforces our sense that the narrator is mentally unstable, even as it also contributes to a sense of dark foreboding. Whatever “the idea” was, it seems to have frightened the narrator, and perhaps it will frighten us as well (as indeed it does).
- Exclamatory phrasing, as in the sentences “I think it was his eye! yes, it was this!” Such phrasing – which is used repeatedly in this story – contributes to our sense that the narrator may be unhinged. It also contributes to the consistency of Poe’s characterization of the narrator. He seems unhinged from the beginning and, if anything, grows even more unhinged by the ending of the tale.
- Alternation of sentence length and variation of sentence structure, as in the long last sentence of the second paragraph, followed by the two short sentences that open the third paragraph. Such variation prevents the narration (and narrator) from seeming monotonous and also contributes, in this story, to our sense that the narrator is unstable and unpredictable.
In all these ways and many others, Poe’s diction and use of various devices of language contribute to the memorable impact of his story as well as to its themes and meanings.
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