illustration of a human heart lying on black floorboards

The Tell-Tale Heart

by Edgar Allan Poe

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What is the contrast between Poe's "Tell-Tale Heart" and Woolf's "A Haunted House"?

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The short stories "The Tell-Tale Heart" by Edgar Allan Poe and "A Haunted House" by Virginia Woolf are both ghost stories. They both take place within the confines of a residence, and they both have a revelation or discovery at the end. However, there are several differences between these fantastic tales.

One of the most obvious differences is in the plots. "The Tell-Tale Heart" is a description of a murder and is told in first person by the murderer. He details how he prepares to kill the old man with the vulture's eye that he lives with, the gruesome murder itself, the dismemberment of the body, the cover-up of the corpse, and the visit by police. At first the narrator is triumphant, supposing that he has escaped justice through his cleverness; then he hears the dead man's heart beating from beneath the floor, and he confesses to the crime. In "A Haunted House," there is no crime. In fact, there is very little action at all. A couple living in an old house hears the quiet whispers of a ghostly couple as they search for something. In the end, it seems that what they are searching for is identified by the narrator not as something ghastly, but rather as "the light in the heart."

There is significant contrast between the characters in the two stories. The narrator in "The Tell-Tale Heart" continually makes a point of expressing to his readers that he is not mad, but his planning and execution of the horrific murder demonstrate the opposite. We don't really see the old man or the policemen as individual characters, but only as they exist in the demented mind of the narrator. The narrator and her partner in "A Haunted House," though, do very little other than observe. The characters of the ghosts are as important as the characters of the observers. There is no blatant conflict, such as a murder, in this story. Instead, there is a subtle interplay between the physical world and the spirit world that the deceased people inhabit. They seem to have been lovers and have reunited in death. The "light in the heart" that they crave is their everlasting love for one another.

The style of the two stories is different. Poe writes from the point of view of a deranged madman, and he leads readers step by step through the madman's observations to the story's horrifying conclusion. Woolf uses a much more ethereal and poetic style to describe the visits of the ghostly couple, the house and its furnishings, and the exterior garden, as if the world of the spirit intrudes upon the physical world and leaves it more striking and vibrant.

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In Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart," an isolated and mentally unstable man murders the older man he is supposed to be caring for and buries the body under the floorboards. The tell-tale heart is the murderer's guilty conscience, beating in his ears, haunting him, and forcing him to confess his crime. In Woolf's very short tale, the pulsing of the house is its reawakening after many years to love.

Both stories take place in a house, but the tone of Poe's story is one of growing horror, and is accentuated by the narrator's irrational insistence that he is sane. In Woolf's story, the tone is one of gentle reassurance. The house has been empty of a loving couple for many years, but now a new husband and wife feel the presence of the husband and wife ghosts from long ago who are searching the house for something. While the isolated narrator of Poe's tale is in a heightened state of nervous anxiety, hate, fear, and horror, the narrator here senses that "the ghostly couple seek their joy." These are not fearful phantoms. Finally, the ghosts find what they are looking for, a "buried treasure. The light in the heart."

One story is frightening, with a focus on hate, fear, and isolation, while the other is domestic and comforting in its gentle description of love and relationship filling a home.


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In comparing Edgar Allan Poe's story, "The Tell-Tale Heart," and Virginia Woolf's "A Haunted House," the mood of the stories is strikingly different.

In Poe's tale of horror, "The Tell-Tale Heart," the narrator is insane, though he insists repeatedly that he is not. His insanity drives him to murder the old man with the "Evil Eye" who lives with him, simply because he feels the man's eye is a curse on him. The narrator then conceals the body beneath the floor boards in the house. As his psychosis increases, he imagines he hears the beating of the old man's heart. His madness finally takes over as the murderer reveals to investigating police what he has done, as he cannot bear to listen to what he imagines to be the beating of the dead man's heart.

By comparison, Virginia Woolf's "A Haunted House" is a very different kind of tale. It is a ghost story, but there is no horror here. In fact, if anything, the mood of the story revolves around love. The house is haunted by a husband and wife who very much loved each other in life. Now as they haunt the house where they lived, they open and close doors and move things, but never harm the couple that lives there now. The ghosts are looking for something, and as is the case with Poe's story, there is a "pulse," but this is the house that is like a living thing, and the pulse quickens as they draw closer to discovering what they seek.

By the end of the story, the treasure they seek is the love they shared in life: to find it in someone else. As the ghosts visit the narrator and her husband as they sleep, the narrator awakens, and in a moment's time, she realizes that the treasure the dead couple seeks is what resides in the hearts of the narrator and her husband: it is "the light in the heart."

Whereas Poe's story is based on the insanity of a murderer, Woolf's story is based upon loving ghosts who wish to find the love they had shared, with others who have found that same treasure themselves.

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