What are the main gothic elements in Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart"?

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Jamie Wheeler eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Gothic literature is characterized by a fascination with death, decay, and gloominess.  In Poe's story, death as obsession is evident.  The insane narrator can think of nothing else but killing the old man with whom he lives.  And, as with many gothic tales, there is a focal point for the death-obsession.  In this story, it is the old man's eye:

One of his eyes resembled that of a vulture—a pale blue eye with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me my blood ran cold, and so by degrees, very gradually, I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye for ever.

Decay is evident not only in the descriptions of the old man's failing body, but also in the house itself.  The physical manifestations of inanimate objects, like houses, is also a component of gothic literature.  In this case, the dim lighting, the creaking door hinges, and the loose floorboards are evidence of decay.

Gloominess, too, is ever-present in Poe's gruesome, gothic tale:

Presently I heard a slight groan, and I knew it was the groan of mortal terror. It was not a groan of pain or of grief—oh, no! it was the low stifled sound that arises from the bottom of the soul when overcharged with awe. I knew the sound well. Many a night, just at midnight, when all the world slept, it has welled up from my own bosom, deepening, with its dreadful echo, the terrors that distracted me.

favoritethings eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Gothic literature is a sort of subgenre of Romantic literature.  It is characterized by death and gloom, and it often aims to produce fear and horror in the reader.  Although it can include elements of romance, such as a focus on the sublimity of nature and importance of the individual, "The Tell-Tale Heart" is a story comprised of many more of the former elements than the latter: there is no sublime nature here, only horror.

Perhaps the most horror-inducing elements of this story are the narrator's insistence, both on his mental stability, when it is clear that he is utterly unstable, and on the completely mad reason he has to commit murder.  We might be able to feel somewhat secure, imagining that we are safe from being murdered if we keep on the windy side of care, fail to offend others, be nice, and so forth.  However, this narrator produces fear in us as a result of his lack of any real motive: he says he doesn't hate the old man he kills, nor does he desire the old man's money or have some grudge to repay.  

kmj23 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

There are lots of Gothic elements in "The Tell-Tale Heart." Firstly, one of the characteristics of a Gothic story is the threat of some terrifying event which is used by the writer to add tension and create suspense. In this case, the terrifying event is the murder of the old man.

Secondly, Gothic stories often contain some supernatural elements. In "The Tell-Tale Heart," this is shown through the "Evil eye" which the narrator believes is deliberately taunting him. The desire to rid himself of this "Evil eye" becomes the narrator's motive for the old man's murder. In addition, the sound of the beating heart is another supernatural element in the story.

Finally, the setting of the story has Gothic characteristics. The old man's bedroom, for instance, is described as being "black as pitch" when the narrator visits it. The darkness of this room creates an eerie atmosphere which is characteristic of a Gothic story.

For more Gothic elements, see the first reference link provided.


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The Tell-Tale Heart

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