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What is the setting of "The Tell-Tale Heart" by Edgar Allen Poe?

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hussain63 | Student, Grade 10 | eNotes Newbie

Posted July 20, 2010 at 8:51 PM via web

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What is the setting of "The Tell-Tale Heart" by Edgar Allen Poe?

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lnorton | College Teacher | (Level 3) Adjunct Educator

Posted July 20, 2010 at 10:13 PM (Answer #1)

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First, a bit of background: Edgar Allen Poe was an American author who was born and raised in Virginia, and later spent time living in New York City and Philadelphia. He died in Baltimore, Maryland. His stories are often not specifically set in one city or another; Poe's attention to setting is focused more on the specific houses/rooms/etc. that his characters inhabit, and the particular atmospheres these domains create. Additionally, in Poe's stories, the first-person narrators (as he often employed such characters) suffer from various mental problems, and seem to confuse fantasy and reality. They re-construct the world, and this reconstruction confuses the audience in regards to what is real and what is imaginary. In some ways, the characters' minds become a "setting."

"The Tell-Tale Heart" is told retrospectively, which means the character is remembering the story rather than living it. He seems to be recalling the events while locked up in a prison or mental institution. He tells of living in a house with an old man (probably a close relative, though the elderly man is never specifically identified). The two seem to live in a normal-enough house. They have neighbors who later call the police; this indicates that the neighbors live close enough to hear and/or see anything unusual that goes on. This proximity, at least in Poe's time, implies an urban setting.

In summary: the story's action takes place in a home--or, at least, the character tells us this. However, there are other aspects that inform the setting. He is delivering the monologue from a jail or psychiatric facility; that is another setting. Finally, his mind is also the "setting" of the story, in that he is creating it there--we cannot be sure what actually occurred, where it occurred, or if it even truly happened at all.

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clairewait | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted July 20, 2010 at 10:26 PM (Answer #2)

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The exact setting of "The Tell Tale Heart" is never specified in the short story.  From the details however, we can certainly deduce that the man is in a small house.  This house (I actually imagine a cabin) is probably in a very remote place.  Events take place at night (as the speaker requires the use of a lantern) and there is a creaky door hinge, as well as a wooden floor.  If you wanted to throw historical context in there, you could imagine a cabin in the woods (Poe wrote at the end of the romantic period) without much natural light - however, not so far from town that a police force could not be contacted and show up.

I encourage you to think of this story from a different angle however.  Because the exact setting is not mentioned, it is not necessarily important.  The big question at the end of this story concerns the reliability of the narrator.  Is he crazy?  (Odds are, YES.)  Then, the setting could be in the narrator's head.  Perhaps this is all a crazy vision/dream/story created inside the twisted mind of our psychotic narrator.

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demcmillen | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Adjunct Educator

Posted July 21, 2010 at 11:48 AM (Answer #3)

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The setting for this story is only hinted at and never really fully stated. However, since the police show up after the neighbors report hearing a scream in the night, we can guess that the setting is an apartment in an apartment house or a small house with neighbors close by. The story also takes place in the wee hours of the morning.

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