The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe

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What are some good strategies and lessons for teaching about suspense in "The Tell-Tale Heart"?

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Lawrence Rodman eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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On the subject of suspense, twentieth-century cinematic master Alfred Hitchcock provides an example to illustrate narrative technique. For one thing, a great deal of Hitchcock’s work was directly based on literary sources: the flourishing mid-century horror or thriller short story, which storytelling media in itself was influenced, if not outright created—structurally and tonally—by Poe.

The filmmaker was forthcoming in sharing his narrative theories. The one I’m primarily thinking of in this context is that a suspense tale engages the audience in a puzzle; the Mystery genre is about the articulation of puzzles and riddles, with the macro intent of exposing the odder secrets of human nature and experience. At no time, until the conclusion, does one truly realize the import of what’s happened.

The point here, though, is that Hitchcock said that (paraphrase):

Suspense occurs when the audience knows more about what’s happening than the characters themselves.

In “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the narrator knows more than his listener, true. We, the readers, also know more than the narrator in his obliviousness; his delusion and state of shock. He’s an unreliable narrator in that he doesn’t seem to understand the import of his own actions, conceiving unspeakable deeds as somehow justified and functionally deliberate. And we, the ultimate observers, see, incrementally, where it’s all going, and are drawn into the narrator’s perverse world-view.

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