Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Poe had definite ideas about the style and composition of the short story. To begin with, despite his wonderfully realistic descriptions in this and other tales, he advocated art over reality and believed that the artificial contrivances of the writer’s imagination could reveal more truth about the human condition than faithful adherence to observed reality. As Poe saw it, the short story was the ideal medium for conveying artistic insight because the reader was likely to give it his or her concentrated attention for the brief time it took to read it. Above all else, he insisted that the writer should make every part of the short story contribute to its total effect. “If his very initial sentence tend not to the outbringing of this effect,” wrote Poe, “then he has failed in his first step.” His devotion to that injunction is clearly demonstrated in “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Indeed, he excels in creating and developing that fascinating mood of mystery and madness that makes the story so irresistible.
Poe had the ability to portray his protagonists, mad though they might be, in sympathetic terms. The reader comes to understand the demented narrator, or at least to pity him, because his obsession is so overpowering.
Poe was a master of the first-person narrator, and that technique, so treacherous in the hands of a lesser artist, makes for unusual intimacy between the reader and the storyteller. Indeed, one is drawn into the tormented...
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The Tell-Tale Heart (Magill Book Reviews)
A nameless, first-person narrator tells, in initially cool but increasingly desperate tones, the story of his calculating murder of an old man for whose care he was responsible. His reason for telling the tale is to prove to the reader, whom he addresses directly, that he is not insane. In the telling, however, he demonstrates a perversity that not only reveals his mental imbalance, but also confronts the reader with the possibility of evil at the core of every human being.
“THE TELL-TALE HEART” exemplifies perfectly Poe’s notion of “unity of effect,” the conviction that every line of a story should contribute to a single, unrelieved effect on the reader. This is illustrated, as Poe insisted it should be, in the very first line: “True!--nervous--very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?”
Poe precedes Dostoevsky and modern writers in exploring motiveless evil. The narrator quickly informs us that he killed the old man for none of the usual reasons but only because he could not stand the look of the man’s blinded eye.
Poe’s primary interest, however, is not evil in the theological sense but as a species of psychological obsession. His fascination is with the working of the human mind, with the relation between hyperrationality and madness, and with a bent in human nature that all our reason cannot explain away. All of these are connected in the story with the incessant...
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Literature in the 19th Century
Poe wrote at a time when the United States was experiencing rapid economical and geographical expansion. During the mid-nineteenth century, the most popular authors in the growing United States were those who wrote adventure fiction. American nautical explorations (particularly of the Pacific region) and westward expansion captured the imagination of the public. Such Poe stories as ‘‘A Descent into the Maelstrom’’ and ‘‘The Gold Bug’’ reflect the public’s fascination with adventures at home and abroad. Poe’s America was a vibrant and self-assured young nation with a firm belief in its manifest destiny. James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, which outlined the moral struggles of an expanding country, was a moral tale that pitted the white man against Native Americans. Herman Melville was a favorite with readers, with his novels of sea-faring life, which often paled in comparison to the adventures of his own youth. Long, action-oriented novels such as these were a primary form of entertainment for many people. Washington Irving who lived and wrote in the emerging metropolis of New York City, began to catalogue some of the arising American folklore in his tales and stories, although he frequently traveled in Europe...
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As is usually the case with first-person narratives, there are multiple settings to the story. The action of the recounted tale takes place in the house the narrator shares with the old man. At the same time, the narrator is telling the story from either a prison or an insane asylum where he has been incarcerated. But even more importantly, the setting is actually inside the obsessed mind of the narrator himself, for the crucial climactic event of the story—his hearing the beating of the dead man's heart—take place solely within his own tortured imagination.
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Point of View
A notable aspect of ‘‘The Tell-Tale Heart’’ is that the story is told from the first-person point of view. The story is a monologue of a nervous narrator telling the reader how he murdered someone. He is eventually driven to confess to the police. The entire straightforward narrative is told from his point of view in a nervous tone. Through Poe’s masterful and inventive writing, the narrator’s twisted logic increasingly reveals that he is insane. By using a first-person narrative, Poe heightens the tension and fear running through the mind of the narrator. There is a clear connection between the language used by the narrator and his psychological state. The narrator switches between calm, logical statements and quick, irrational outbursts. His use of frequent exclamations reveals his extreme nervousness. The first-person point of view draws the reader into the mind of the insane narrator, enabling one to ironically sympathize with his wretched state of mind. Some critics suggest that the entire narrative represents a kind of confession, as at a trial or police station. Others consider the first-person point of view as a logical way to present a parable of self-betrayal by the criminal’s conscience—a remarkable record of the voice of a guilty mind.
The denouement, or the resolution, of the narrative occurs in ‘‘The Tell-Tale Heart’’ when the narrator, prompted by...
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"The Tell-Tale Heart," like many of Poe's stories, is deceptively simple at first reading. One might easily dismiss it as a story about a crazy murderer who kills without motivation. However, this would underestimate both Poe's idea of artistic control and his concern with the deepest urges of the human heart. To read "The Tell-Tale Heart" meaningfully, one must take Poe's fictional theory seriously and attempt to understand the relevance of all the details of the story. This transforms the temporal narrative flow of the story into a meaningful pattern which makes sense of what at first seems to make no sense.
Reading "The Tell-Tale Heart" is like trying to solve a mystery story; in this case, the mystery is the motivation of the killer. The key to motivation in a Poe story is his use of a central idea or effect to hold the story together. As a result, everything coheres around this effect and radiates from it. The core of the story is like an obsession that can be identified by the principle of repetition, since those obsessed return again and again to the core of their obsession. Thus, the reader must be alert to repetitions in the story, references to single-minded motifs or themes. These repeated details are the "clues" to the mystery; repetition is the principle by which the reader makes a distinction between relevant and irrelevant details. "The Tell-Tale Heart" is a classic example of Poe's method.
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Poe is unconcerned with the broad social issues of his time. His protagonists are, by and large, not social figures. Instead, they seem to live cut off from society, detached from the large world around them and either content to, or doomed to, live alone. It may be that the short story form itself, which Poe is most credited with creating in America, is a form that is less suited to dealing with social issues than it is with solitary people. The novel, which is able to place characters within a realistic external world, is more open to the depiction of social issues than the short story, which usually focuses on one or two characters confronting psychological and metaphysical issues.
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Compare and Contrast
1840s: Mental illness is thought to be related to immoral behavior or the physical degeneration of the central nervous system. Insanity is thought to be the result of such diseases as syphilis.
1990s: After years of institutionalizing mentally ill patients and subjecting them to electroshock therapy, modern treatment of mental illness such as depression, bi-polar disorder, and schizophrenia include counseling and drug therapy.
1840s: ‘‘The Tell-Tale Heart’’ is published in 1843. The story is a psychological thriller that invites the reader into the world of the narrator’s insanity. Other examples of Poe’s eerie, macabre style include ‘‘The Pit and the Pendulum,’’ written in 1842, which explores the dark side of human nature and features both cruelty and torture.
1990s: People continue to be fascinated by the dark side of humanity. The popular film Silence of the Lambs examines the psychological motivations of a serial killer. Best-selling author Stephen King along with other horror writers, explores the supernatural, the paranormal, and the way in which seemingly ordinary events can suddenly turn into terrifying encounters with psychotic killers.
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Topics for Discussion
1. The narrator insists from the very beginning of the story that he is not insane. What characteristics does he say prove his sanity? What characteristics suggest his madness instead?
2. Look carefully at the narrator's discussion of his motivation for the crime. Why does he assure the reader that he loves the old man and has no reasonable cause to kill him?
3. Notice how cautiously the narrator sets up the murder of the old man? How does he do this? Why does he take so long before killing him?
4. Notice all those places in the story when the narrator identifies with the old man. Discuss the nature of this identification.
5. Discuss all the references to time in the story—watches, clocks, time passing, etc. Why is the narrator so concerned with time?
6. Notice the narrator's insistence that what is mistaken for madness is actually an over acuteness of the senses. What sense is particularly acute? What relevance does this have in the story?
7. When the police call to investigate, why does the narrator invite them in and ask them to stay for a while? What does this reveal about his personality?
8. If this is not a supernatural story which actually presents the beating of a dead man's heart, then what makes the narrator finally confess? Explain.
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Although this is a story of madness, for Poe there is no such thing as "meaningless madness." Write a discussion of the nature of madness in the story.
2. Poe insisted that every detail in a short story should relate to its central effect and thus contribute to a unified story. What unifies this story? What central effect holds it together? How can you tell the difference between those details that are meaningful and those that are not?
3. Poe is often concerned with the theme of time and mortality, that is, how human beings are trapped in time and thus doomed to death. Explain how this story reflects this common Poe theme.
4. Look at other Poe stories which focus on an obsessed, seemingly mad, narrator, such as "The Black Cat," "The Imp of the Perverse," and "The Cask of Amontillado." What characteristics do the narrators in these stories share?
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Topics for Further Study
- Research the illnesses of schizophrenia and paranoia. Do you think the protagonist suffers from either of these conditions? Why or why not?
- Research how Manifest Destiny was a pervasive ideology in mid-nineteenth century America. How does ‘‘The Tell-Tale Heart’’ challenge the rationalism and optimism of a young nation?
- "‘The Tell-Tale Heart’’ was written more than 150 years ago. Why do you think it is still widely read today? What are some elements of the story which make it timeless? What makes a classic literary or artistic work?
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"The Tell-Tale Heart" is one of a group of Poe stories that deal with obsession and madness. The central and most explicit of these stories is "The Imp of the Perverse" (1845), a combination of story and essay in which a Poe narrator discusses and illustrates how humans often persist in some act or behavior for the very fact that they should not. Although the story notes such examples as procrastination in action and digression in speech, the central example is murder and a compulsion to confess.
Even more closely related to "The Tell- Tale Heart" is the story "The Black Cat," in which Poe once again uses the notion of the Imp of the Perverse, some primitive force in the human mind that drives one to commit an act for the very reason that one should not. Once again, the story focuses on a protagonist who murders someone and then gives himself away by a final act of bravado, much like the narrator in "The Tell-Tale Heart."
Other Poe stories which deal with an obsession or an unmotivated compulsion to murder are "The Premature Burial" (1844) and "The Cask of Amontillado." Stories which focus on a central character who seems obsessed and thus whose sanity is in question are "The Fall of the House of Usher" and "Berenice" (1835). "The Tell-Tale Heart" has been the subject of more than one film treatment, but the best version is a short animated film narrated by James Mason. The surrealistic animated images reflect the distorted psychological...
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- Listen & Read Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘‘The Tell-Tale Heart’’ and Other Stories is an audio-cassette recording packaged with a book. Produced by Dover Press, 1996.
- ‘‘The Tell-Tale Heart’’ was adapted into a black-and-white film starring Sam Jaffe in 1980. It is available on video from Facets Multimedia, Chicago.
- In 1934, ‘‘The Tell-Tale Heart’’ was made into a movie entitled Bucket of Blood starring John Kelt as The Old Man and Norman Dryden as the protagonist.
- In 1956, producer/director Lee W. Wilder loosely adapted two of Poe’s stories,‘‘The Gold Bug’’ and ‘‘The Tell-Tale Heart,’’ in his movie Manfish.
- In 1962, ‘‘The Tell-Tale Heart’’ was made into a British movie by director Ernest Morris. Known as The Tell-Tale Heart, it also carries the alternate title The Hidden Room of 1,000 Horrors. It is available on video from Nostalgia Family Video.
- In 1969, ‘‘The Tell-Tale Heart’’ was made into an animated film narrated by actor James Mason. A Columbia Pictures release, it is also available on video.
- Another audio recording is available from Downsview of Ontario, Canada. Tales of Mystery and Horror features the voice of actor Christopher Lee. Produced in 1981.
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What Do I Read Next?
- ‘‘Young Goodman Brown’’ (1835) by Nathaniel Hawthorne concerns a newly married man who must leave home on a short journey. While walking through the woods, he encounters the townspeople engaged in a satanic ritual. This vision destroys Goodman Brown, though it is never clear whether he actually saw the things he claimed, or just imagined them.
- ‘‘The Monkey’s Paw’’ (1902) by W. W. Jacobs is the story about a Sergeant-Major who brings a monkey’s paw back from his travels in India. He presents it to the White family, who joke about its supposed power to grant the owner three wishes. The Whites’s careless wishes lead to tragedy and horror.
- ‘‘The Secret Sharer’’ (1909) by Joseph Conrad is the story of a young sea captain who knowingly harbors a stowaway on his ship. The man, who has been accused of murder, serves as a doppelganger for the young captain, and gives him the courage to stand up to his crew, even though the stowaway’s life and character remain shrouded in mystery.
- Poe’s short story ‘‘The Fall of the House of Usher’’ (1839) also explores the impulses of a deranged protagonist who entombs his sister only to find that she returns to destroy him.
- Poe’s ‘‘William Wilson’’ also deals with the lifelong confrontation of a protagonist...
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For Further Reference
Buranelli, Vincent. Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Twayne, 1961. This is a basic introduction to Poe's works, focusing primarily on his usual themes in both his fiction and poetry.
Carlson, Eric W., ed. The Recognition of Edgar Allan Poe. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1966. This is an invaluable collection of the best known and most influential essays on Poe and his work.
Davidson, Edward H. Poe: A Critical Study. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1957. One of the most intellectually powerful and thus one of the most influential studies of Poe, Davidson's book created a new respect for his work.
Hoffmann, Daniel. PoePoePoePoePoePoePoe. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1972. Although this is a highly personal and idiosyncratic consideration of Poe, it is worth reading as a psychological study of his tales.
Quinn, Arthur Hobson. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. New York: Appleton-Century Crofts, 1941. This is the most authoritative and most trustworthy biography of Poe.
Thompson, G. R: Poe's Fiction: Romantic Irony in the Gothic Tales. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1973. An important study of Poe's use of romantic irony in his tales to create hoaxes, this work represents a new approach to Poe's fiction.
Thomas, Dwight, and David Jackson, eds. The Poe Log. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987. This is the most comprehensive biographical...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Gargano, James W. ‘‘The Theme of Time in ‘The Tell-Tale Heart.’’’ In Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. V, no. 1 (Fall 1967): 378-82.
Gargano, James W. ‘‘The Question of Poe’s Narrators.’’ In College English, Vol. 25, no. 3 (December 1963): 177-81.
Robinson, E. Arthur. ‘‘Poe’s ‘The Tell-Tale Heart.’’’ In Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 19, no. 4 (March 1965): 369-78.
Ward, Alfred C. ‘‘Edgar Allan Poe: ‘Tales of Mystery and Imagination.’’’ In Aspects of the Modern Short Story: English and American. University of London Press, 1924, pp. 32-44.
Lewis, R. W. B. Edgar Allan Poe. Chelsea House, 1997. A critical study of Poe’s works.
Quinn, Arthur Hobsons, and Shawn J. Rosenheim. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997. Outlines Poe’s life with special emphasis on his works.
Rosenheim, Shawn, and Stephen Rachman. The American Face of Edgar Allan Poe. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995. Essays on Poe that compare his work to that of Jorge Borges and contemporaries Harriet Beecher Stowe and William Wordsworth. Other essays discuss themes such as psychoanalysis, literary nationalism, and authorial identity as it relates to...
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Burluck, Michael L. Grim Phantasms: Fear in Poe’s Short Fiction. New York: Garland, 1993.
Hoffman, Daniel. Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1998.
Hutchisson, James M. Poe. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005.
Irwin, John T. The Mystery to a Solution: Poe, Borges, and the Analytical Detective Story. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.
Kennedy, J. Gerald. A Historical Guide to Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
May, Charles E. Edgar Allan Poe: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1991.
Peeples, Scott. Edgar Allan Poe Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1998.
Quinn, Arthur Hobson. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.
Silverman, Kenneth. Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-Ending Remembrance. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.
Sova, Dawn B. Edgar Allan Poe, A to Z. New York: Facts On File, 2001.
Whalen, Terence. Edgar Allan Poe and the Masses: The Political Economy of Literature in Antebellum America. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University...
(The entire section is 158 words.)