The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe

The Tell-Tale Heart book cover
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Explain why "The Tell-Tale Heart" is a Gothic story.

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Laurine Herzog eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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In Gothic fiction, madness is often a central theme, and the narrator in "The Tell-Tale Heart" is certainly mad, despite his claims to the contrary. Indeed, he offers no reason for the murder of the old man other than: "I think it was his eye! Yes, it was this!" The second part of this quotation ("Yes, it was this!") suggests that the speaker has, just at this moment, stumbled upon a possible reason for killing the old man, and given that the story is told retrospectively, the implication is that there really was no particular motive at all.

Horror and terror are also key features of Gothic fiction. Horror is usually taken to denote the feeling of disgust that follows a frightening experience, whereas terror usually denotes the sense of anticipation and dread that precedes the frightening event. Both horror and terror run throughout "The Tell-Tale Heart." For example, the narrator creates a sense of dread, and thus terror, when he describes how he approached the old man in his bed, "very, very slowly, so that (he) might not disturb the old man's sleep." The old man himself emits what the narrator describes as "the groan of mortal terror" when he realizes that somebody is in his room.

After the murder of the old man, the reader may well experience feelings of disgust, or horror, as the narrator dismembers the corpse, cutting off "the head and the arms and the legs." The narrator also may feel this sense of disgust himself, as suggested by the incessant beating of the heart beneath the floorboards. The heart grows "louder—louder—louder" until the narrator can bear it no more and tears up the floorboards to expose his crime to the police officers. The heart here symbolizes the narrator's conscience, which, like the heart, cannot be silenced. Indeed, the narrator is, subconsciously at least, so horrified by his own deed that his conscience drives him to, or further into, madness.

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D. Reynolds eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The Gothic genre explores the irrational, the supernatural, and the darker, often unconscious, impulses that drive people's behavior. It examines the "unheimlich" or unhomelike: that which is eery, creepy, or unnatural.

"The Tell-Tale Heart" fits the Gothic genre perfectly. The narrator is a madman who murders the aged man he lives with for irrational reasons. He believes the man has a "vulture eye" or an "evil eye" that stares at him in a disturbing way. The narrator also claims he has heightened senses and, right before he kills the man, says he can hear the maddening sound of his beating heart.

Much of the story takes place at night, a hallmark of the Gothic. It is unheimlich in that rather than care for the elderly man who lives with him, the narrator kills him. This is made even more strange and terrifying due to the fact that the narrator claims he "loves" the man. We usually don't murder people we love.

The ending has a supernatural quality as, when the police come, the narrator believes he hears the loud sound of the beating heart of the man he has murdered.

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