How does the setting affect the characterization, theme, and the mood of the story of "The Tell-Tale Heart" by Edgar Allan Poe?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The setting of "The Tell-Tale Heart" by Edgar Allan Poe contributes to the other elements of the short story. Certainly, the darkness, the cloistered house with latched doors, fastened shutters, and creaking hinges and floorboards all contribute to the eerie Gothic mood, the fears of the old man, the imaginings of the narrator, and the dark theme of man's inner turmoil.

From the beginning of the narrative, the motif of darkness and mystery is present. Clearly, the darkness of the unreliable narrator's mind is evident as he discusses his intentions of holding his "dark lantern" that is at first "closed, closed," so that no light can be perceived while he holds it in the room of the old man whose "vulture eye" torments him until he decides to rid himself of the "Evil Eye."

While the narrator stealthily conducts this ritual of the lantern, the old man senses something, but his windows, shuttered and latched from fear of thieves, prevent even the slightest light from entering his room so that he is unable to perceive anyone or anything. Therefore, the narrator is encouraged to pursue the evil intent that he believes exist the house itself:

His room was as black as pitch with the thick darkness...and I kept pushing it on steadily,...hearkening to the death watches in the wall. 

In addition to perceiving "the death watches in the wall," that underline the Gothic mood of dark and bizarre occurrences, the narrator, who denies that he is mad, states that he has an "over-acuteness of the sense of hearing." As a result, he hears "a low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton." And, he recognizes this sound as the beating of the old man's heart as he stands in the dark chamber with his lantern, preparing to commit murder. After he kills the old man and dismembers him, the narrator hides the body parts "between the scantlings." Further, he replaces the boards so cleverly that no one can detect anything different about them.

In the final part of the narrative, the bizarre narrator answers the knock of the police at the door, who have responded to a neighbor's call that a terrifying shriek was heard in the old man's house. Confident that his dark deed is undetectable, he exhibits a bravado as he shows the men all around the house; however, his boasting leads to his sense of hearing becoming acute again as he "hears" the tattoo of the old man's heart beneath the floorboards. This beating becomes louder and louder in the dark mind of the narrator until the setting of the burial of the old man turns against this narrator in his imagination, and he confesses in order to end his agony.