In his short story “The Tell-Tale Heart,” Edgar Allan Poe repeatedly uses the second-person pronoun “you.” He does so in a variety of ways and with a variety of effects, including the following:
- He creates mystery and suspense, making us wonder right from the opening sentence who the “you” may be whom the first-person narrator addresses.
- He implicates the reader, since, no matter whom the narrator may have in mind when he uses the word “you,” we, as readers, naturally feel as if we are being addressed as well.
- He creates a sense of intimacy, since we feel as if we are almost over-hearing a private monologue addressed to someone in particular rather than simply reading an objective, impersonal narration addressed to no one specifically.
- He creates a sense of drama, intrigue, and even conflict, as when the narrator sounds as if he is defending himself from accusations he considers inappropriate or unfair, as when he asks, “but why will you say that I am mad?” The mere fact that the narrator feels the need to defend himself against charges of madness instantly raises the real possibility that he may indeed be mad, thus further contributing to the mystery and suspense of the piece.
- He creates a sense of audience, as if he is performing now (when he tells the tale) and also when he wishes that the unnamed “you” had been present to witness his performance of the events themselves:
But you should have seen me. You should have seen how wisely I proceeded -- with what caution -- with what foresight, with what dissimulation, I went to work!
- He makes us curious about the unnamed “you” he addresses, as when he says (about his habit of sticking his head into an old man’s room), “Oh, you would have laughed to see how cunningly I thrust it in!” Would the “you” really have laughed? Would the “you” really have admired and sympathized with the narrator’s behavior? Or is this assumption merely part of the narrator’s possibly crazed imagination?
In all these different ways, then (and many more) Poe effectively exploits his fundamental decision to have the mysterious first-person narrator directly address an equally mysterious second-person “you.”