What words does Poe choose to contribute to the atmosphere?

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bullgatortail | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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Edgar Allan Poe creates an atmosphere of creepiness and foreboding in his classic tale of murder, "The Tell-Tale Heart." Some of the words he chooses to implement this feeling include

  • nervous - We know from the start that the narrator is highly agitated.
  • hell - The narrator claims to hear "many things in hell."
  • haunted - Always a good word for instilling fear.
  • mad and madmen - The narrator claims that he is not mad or a madman. This is a clue that he is unstable.
  • cunningly - The narrator's cunning actions signal that he is not being entirely truthful.
  • vulture - A great description of the Evil Eye.
  • creaked - A good word for adding to the creepiness of the tale.
  • Evil Eye - This is what drove him to kill the old man.
  • vexed - We know the narrator is under a spell.
  • dissimulation - The narrator admits his deceitful behavior.
  • sagacity - Shrewdness
  • mortal terror - Extreme fear
  • dismembered - One of my favorite mental images is of the narrator cutting the body into pieces.
  • violent gesticulations - Grotesque movements.
  • dissemble - Admitted false actions.
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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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From the onset of his short story, "The Tell-Tale Heart," Poe puts his reader on edge with his description and rationalization of his nature:

True! Nervous-very nervous, dreadfully nervous I had been and am.  Wht why will you say that I am mad?  The disease had sharpened my senses--not destroyed, and dulled them.  I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth.  I heard many things in hell.  How then am I mad?

As this highly unreliable narrator describes what has occurred, he ironically suggests that he has no passion when the first paragraph contains ravings.  The description of the "eye of a vulture, a pale blue eye, with a film over it," certainly sets the reader a bit on edge.  Again, irony creates a tension in the narrator's declaration,

I went to work!  I was never kinder to the old man than during whole week before I killed him.

The methodical description of the narrator's process of ridding himself of the "Evil Eye," is, indeed, eerie, as he remarks upon his own "terrors that distracted [him]," as well as how the old man "feels" the presence of the narrator's head in his room.

Poe's technique, which he termed arabesque also refreshes the disturbing and macabre atmosphere of the story.  For, the narrator returns repeatedly to his opening declaration: 

And have I not told you that what you mistake for madness is but overacuteness of the senses?

Repeatedly, too, the narrator speaks of the "hellish tattoo of the heart that grows louder, and louder until he fears that others will hear it.  Of course this "anxiety" is what brings the narrator to his final act of madness:  the tearing up of the floorboards in order to bring surcease to the beating sounds that disturb him to revealing "the beating of his hideous heart!"

 

Sources:

http://www.enotes.com/tell-tale-heart

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