illustration of a human heart lying on black floorboards

The Tell-Tale Heart

by Edgar Allan Poe

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What is Edgar Allan Poe's writing style in "The Tell-Tale Heart"?

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Poe's writing style also contains elements of the Gothic, a sort of subgenre of Romanticism. Gothic fiction is often characterized by fear, horror, and death. It is often very suspenseful and both showcases and produces intense emotion. The Romantics felt that strong emotions were a truer expression of the human experience than intellect or reason because we are born with the ability to feel deeply—it isn't something we have to be taught. Therefore, they reasoned, intense emotion is more fundamental to our existence than anything we have to learn. Few, if any, emotions are more intense than horror and fear, and so Gothic fiction developed, in part, as a way to produce these emotions in the reader.

Poe's stories, including "The Tell-Tale Heart," often showcase intense emotion in their characters and produce intense emotion in the reader. This story is particularly terror-inducing as a result of the narrator's lack of reasonable motive for his murder of the old man. He doesn't kill the man because he wants his money, because the old man was mean and awful to him, or any other reason that we might easily understand (if not condone, obviously). Instead, he kills, dismembers, and buries the man under the floorboards in his home because he hates the appearance of the old man's eye. Further, the narrator insists on his own sanity throughout, constantly seeking to justify his actions and failing to realize that it was the adrenaline-fueled pounding of his own heart that prompted him to kill in the first place.

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Poe used a specific term for the writing style he used; he called it Arabesque, which in literary terms means a prose style intended to cause feelings of unease and discomfort in the reader. Poe's writing style thus uses powerful descriptive words and phrases, and in this case, is couched in the frame story of a man confessing his crime to police. For example, when the narrator is explaining his plan, he states:

You should have seen how wisely I proceeded -- with what caution -- with what foresight -- with what dissimulation I went to work! I was never kinder to the old man than during the whole week before I killed him.
(Poe, "The Tell-Tale Heart,"

Poe's descriptions here are meant, by the narrator, to reassure: see, he is not mad, simply thorough and cunning! However, in the telling and in the narrator's protestations that he is sane, he comes across as far more insane than he would had he simply confessed. The prose is almost, but not quite, "purple," using unnecessary words and synonyms, but instead each word is chosen carefully and specifically to add discomfort to the story. Poe uses this style in other works, most notably "The Cask of Amontillado" and "The Premature Burial." Poe's writing also contains influences of gothic, melodramatic, and tragic styles.


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What is the style of "The Tell-Tale Heart"?

Poe wants us to get inside the tortured mind of a murderer, the better to understand him. The style in which he writes "The Tell-Tale Heart" constantly pushes us to an emotional response in the hope that we will feel greater empathy. This illustrates how Poe tries to make us complicit in the foul deed that has been committed.

The style of "The Tell-Tale Heart" accurately matches up with the protagonist's character. The protagonist is not simply the story's narrator; he is an unreliable narrator. Further, he is an emotionally unstable narrator. The use of this literary device heightens tension and makes us more engaged with the story as we try to get the bottom of what's really going on. As the narrator is chronically unreliable, we have no alternative but to keep our wits about us as we attempt to get at the truth.

Although the narrator constantly tries to assure us that he is perfectly sane, Poe's stylistic approach to the story suggests otherwise. The narrator often speaks in short, sharp sentences. We, as readers, are frustrated. Such sentences tell us nothing about the narrator except perhaps that he is far from being the paragon of sanity which he'd have us believe he is. But the failure to reveal much in the way of information also encourages us to read on, as we are anxious to find out just what the narrator is hiding.

The narrator, in his increasingly fevered state, also addresses us directly. Again, it is as if Poe is somehow implicating us in the murderous actions of the killer/narrator. We've been chosen to be privy to the innermost secrets of his tell-tale heart and in the process opened up our own hearts to a dark, disturbing drive buried deep within the human psyche.

The use of syntax and punctuation is very important in this regard. Poe uses exclamation marks, dashes, repetition, and countless protestations of sanity as part of an attempt to make us see what the narrator sees and hear what he hears. As the contents of the narrator's tell-tale heart are revealed, so are those of our own, and at long last truth through empathy can finally emerge.


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