What is the cultural significance of "The Tell-Tale Heart" by Edgar Allan Poe?

The cultural significance of "The Tell-Tale Heart" is that it is an important work of the American Gothic literary movement popular at the time and which was characterized by dark and sometimes supernatural themes. In addition, the narrator's fear of being labeled "mad" also reflects the horrible treatment the mentally ill received at the time. Also, the police arriving to investigate parallels other Poe stories that establish him as a pioneer of the modern detective story.

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There are at least three elements of cultural significance in Edgar Allan Poe’s "The Tell-Tale Heart ." Among other things, it represents an important work of the American Gothic literary movement that Poe helped pioneer. This form of literature is characterized by the same dark Gothic and often...

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There are at least three elements of cultural significance in Edgar Allan Poe’s "The Tell-Tale Heart." Among other things, it represents an important work of the American Gothic literary movement that Poe helped pioneer. This form of literature is characterized by the same dark Gothic and often macabre themes that were hallmarks of Poe’s work overall and can certainly be seen in "The Tell-Tale Heart."

By comparison to the growing Romantic artistic movement that was popular in European literature that focused on the role of reason, as well as lauding nature and its beauty, American Gothic literature focused on horror and often included elements of the supernatural and mental instability. The latter is one of the primary revelations in "The Tell-Tale Heart," in which the unnamed narrator continuously tries to convince the reader that he is sane.

Even before he actually kills the old man, the narrator’s mental illness mingles with the supernatural. He “hears” the beating of the old man’s heart grow louder and louder from outside the closed door to the old man’s room. Is this only the narrator’s insanity, or is it an illustration of the supernatural as well? It would seem that it reflects both the narrator’s own madness and some possible element of the supernatural that characterized many American Gothic literary works.

Also, by delving into the narrator’s madness, Poe sheds a light on the deplorable treatment of the mentally ill at the time. The narrator fears that the reader will think him mad, in part reflecting his horror at the fate that befell people who were considered mentally unstable in the nineteenth century. Asylums for the mentally ill were notorious in their abusive treatment of the patients under their care.

Finally, the story also shows how Poe would ultimately come to be regarded as the father of the modern detective short story. While there is no mystery in this story—after all, the narrator describes how he murdered the old man—it employs the same literary device to arrive at the denouement as would one of the author's detective stories.

When the neighbors sense something amiss, the police are called and dispatched to investigate. They find nothing. It is the narrator’s growing guilt and fear that ultimately lead him to uncover where he buried the old man’s body. However, this formula also forms the basis for other Poe stories that do fall squarely into the detective category, including "Murder in the Rue Morgue," which Poe had already written, and "The Purloined Letter," which he would publish one year later.

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Edgar Allan Poe's reputation as a pioneer of American short fiction is based on critics's assessment of the stories themselves, including their cultural and social context and on his own published views on effective writing. Several of the characteristics that make his work distinct are evident in "The Tell-Tale Heart."

In his 1846 essay "The Philosophy of Composition," Poe lays out some recommended features for prose and poetry. Central among these is "unity of effect." He endorses a tightly plotted story in which all the elements work together to advance the overall aesthetic effect the author intends. His approach is in accord with aestheticism, valuing art for art's sake. In this he fits well with an overall 19th-century Romantic impulse. In "The Tell-Tale Heart," the plot moves inexorably to the conclusion, as the narrator crafts his own demise.

Poe's focus on psychology, especially the dark recesses of human consciousness, also align him more with some European Romantics than with his own American contemporaries. The positive spirit of westward expansion finds no home in Poe's gloomy, tortured protagonists. The limits of scientific rationalism also are pointed up even among those who espouse belief in a methodical, systematic approach. In both regards, as the demented narrator explains his careful homicidal plan and reveals how his obsession became his undoing, his character offers a counterpoint to the healthy, rugged frontiersmen who dominated the fiction of Poe's day.

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"The Tell-Tale Heart" by Edgar Allan Poe is not a story of cultural critique. Instead, it is primarily a story of psychological suspense, showing its unreliable narrator's descent into madness. There are a few cultural phenomena we can deduce from the story, but they are not central elements of the narrative.

First, the story is set in a rooming house, which tells us something of the way that unmarried people of moderate incomes lived in this period. Both the narrator and the old man are relatively isolated and living alone, suggesting we are seeing a phase in the modern breakdown of the extended family; in antiquity or the middle ages, these men would have lived in a more communal environment, either on an estate where they worked or with their families.

Next, we can see this is a society that stigmatizes mental illness and has little in the way of public support for mental health. The narrator's insistence that he is not mad conveys a sense that he considers it almost worse to be thought insane than to be thought a murderer.

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