illustration of a human heart lying on black floorboards

The Tell-Tale Heart

by Edgar Allan Poe

Start Free Trial

In "The Tell-Tale Heart," what are some examples of diction that sets the mood for the story?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The main character in "The Tell-Tale Heart" speaks to the reader as a friend, desperately trying to convince them that the murder he committed made sense and was deserved. This allows the reader to understand and even sympathize with him for a short time. Later, though, as his actions become stranger and more detached from logic, his speech becomes faster, as though mimicking his breakdown.

In each section of the story, the diction matches his mental state. The mood is set by the clash of the action and the slow breakdown of the main character. The diction is the reader's window into this breakdown.

In the last scene, when he confesses, his speech reaches a fever pitch. He speaks fast and pays little attention to what exactly he is saying. He is losing his grasp on reality, and his disjointed words tell the reader just how insane he is.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Diction is the author's choice of words or the style of speaking that a writer uses throughout their narrative. In Poe's classic short story "The Tell-Tale Heart," his diction gives the audience a feeling that they are listening to a hysterical narrator who is not in touch with reality and is indeed insane. In the opening paragraph, Poe uses the words "nervous" and "mad" to create an unsettling atmosphere. Poe also uses the words "dreadfully" and "destroyed" to add to the ominous mood cultivated in the first paragraph as the narrator insists to the reader that he is completely sane (which ironically emphasizes his mental instability). Poe's diction also includes the words "Evil," "haunted," "blood," and "fear." These ominous, foreboding words build suspense and create a threatening atmosphere, which mirrors the narrator's bloody murder and gruesome act of dismembering the old man's body. Poe's diction also underscores the narrator's dark mind and contributes to his unreliable, unstable characterization. Overall, Poe's diction creates an unsettling, threatening atmosphere where the reader fears for the old man's life and gains insight into the mind of a madman.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

I want to focus on the first paragraph of this story in which Edgar Allen Poe sets the tone. In this opening paragraph, the first-person narrator repeatedly uses words like "nervous" and "mad." In addition, the narrator's self-described mental state, including his repeated discussion of his hearing-related words, gives entire story a feeling of lunacy.

In the first paragraph, the narrator constantly describes things he hears. He discusses his "acute" sense of hearing and how his "disease had sharpened his senses." In addition, the narrator describes how he has "heard all things in the heaven and in the earth" and has heard "many things in hell." In addition, the narrator consistently describes himself as not "mad." He claims that he can tell the story of his murder "healthily."

All these word choices add to the idea that this man is, in fact, crazy. These words create a tone in which the reader knows he will dive into this man's mad mind.


Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Examine the first paragraph and how you feel when you read it. Do you know of someone who got in trouble and yammers endless denials, ultimately proving his or her guilt? Poe sets the mood for the story in the first paragraph and continues it until the resolution . The narrator starts with an incomplete thought and then advances to the idea of madness. He admits he has a disease, but claims it has heightened his awareness. It is a classic case of the lunatic claiming he is not mad.  His references to hearing things in heaven and hell suggest his mind is unbalanced. Through careful choice of words and out-of-the-ordinary sentence structure, Poe sets a dark, troubling mood.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Posted on