illustrated portrait of American author of gothic fiction Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe

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Poe's techniques for creating atmosphere, tension, and mood in his works

Summary:

Poe creates atmosphere, tension, and mood through detailed descriptions, gothic settings, and psychological depth. He uses dark, eerie imagery and a first-person narrative to draw readers into the protagonist's mind. His use of suspenseful pacing and supernatural elements also enhances the tension, making his stories compelling and immersive.

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How does Poe create atmosphere and tension in his short stories?

Poe's stories are suspenseful in part because they are written in the voice of the narrator, who seems strange and unreliable. For example, "The Tell-Tale Heart" begins, "True!—nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?" This is a captivating beginning, as the narrator states that he has been troubled with anxiety, and then he asks the reader whether he or she might consider him to be mad. The narrator becomes even more wildly eccentric when he addresses the reader, saying, "Oh, you would have laughed to see how cunningly I thrust it in!" (he is referring to the light he uses to illuminate the old man's bed chamber). The use of a first-person narrator who is arrestingly strange, along with the narrator's direct address of the reader (using the word "you"), makes the tale suspenseful.

In addition, the tales proceed quickly. They are generally short, and the action in such tales as "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Cask of Amontillado" proceed inexorably—and swiftly—as the narrators become more and more deranged. The reader witnesses the very rapid dissolutions of the narrators' minds and the narrators' fast descents into madness and violence. 

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How does Poe create atmosphere and tension in his short stories?

First things first: Poe creates atmosphere by setting a tone and mood from the outset of all his short stories. We as readers are led into dark and foreboding places, and the stories themselves build from that darkness.

Tension is created by Poe's use of language. Whether it's the constant heartbeat in "The Tell-Tale Heart," or the finger-tapping suspense in "Fall of the House of Usher," we as readers are kept waiting in suspense for the next plot event.

Overall, Poe's characters and settings contributed to the gothic feel of each of his works. We can picture the stony, shadowed places that he leads us, and as a result, we become more involved with each piece.

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How does Poe create atmosphere and tension in his short stories?

In Poe’s Gothic short stories like “The Fall of the House of Usher” and his portraits of madmen and grotesques such as “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Cask of Amontillado,” he is a master at building suspense and horror through his settings.  Many of the stories take place in dark damp dungeons, or prisons and crypts.  The mood is heavy and the dark setting and the tone of the author creates the weird feeling many get when they read today's Gothic novels like Steven Kings novels.  Poe's short stories like "Fall of The House of Usher" contain “everything needed; a Gothic house, a terrified narrator, live burial, madness, and horrific catastrophe.”

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How does Edgar Allan Poe typically create mood in his works?

The mood in a story is the atmosphere that pervades the work with the intention of evoking a certain emotion or feeling from the reader. Edgar Allan Poe evokes specific moods in his short stories in several ways.  Most of his stories are gloomy, horrific, and eerie.  Poe was a master at producing a particular mood, usually within the first paragraph of the story. 

Poe wrote an explanation of the short story.  He listed several important ways to establish atmosphere.

Poe believed that a story should create a single effect on the audience.  In Poe’s writing, this effect was usually terror or horror. 

Poe believed that the first sentence in the story should begin to set the mood of the story.  Look at the story “The Fall of the House of Usher.”

During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher....

This is not a story that is going to be humorous or sentimental.  The words that set the ambience of the story include "dull," "dark," "oppressively dreary," and "melancholy."  The atmosphere begins to weave its way into the reader’s mind.

Another rule that Poe used in his writing was that everything in the story had to speak to the desired effect.  No extraneous side stories or words were needed.

Poe believed that the character had to behave in a believable manner based on his intellectual, emotional, and physical makeup.  Truth was a necessity for effective writing. 

Utilizing the same kind of elements to set the mood, Poe created main characters who were often irrational, eccentric, and bizarre. The protagonist spends much of the story trying to convince the reader that he is not insane and that something else forced him to behave or do what he has been accused of in the story. 

  • The Black Cat”—alcohol
  • “The Tell-Tale Heart”—the eye
  • “The Fall of the House of Usher”—Roderick’s illness

Another element which impacts the atmosphere comes from the setting.  Usually the story’s main setting is dark, oppressive, and unconventional.  The house or place of the action in the story almost serves as a character.  It brings its own peculiar weirdness to the mood of the story. The palace, the catacombs, the dungeon, the coffin, the mansion—all add to the singular effect desired by Poe.

The narration of the story also supports Poe’s overall effect.  He uses monologues, dialogues, and descriptions to keep the reader waiting and wanting more. Often the story is narrated in the first person, from the point of view of the main character.  Think of these narrators and their bearing on the mood:

  • Montresor (who has been "insulted" by Fortunato)
  • The man who hates the “vulture eye”
  • The man who cuts out the eye of the cat he loves

These men are not only “mad” but shocking in their desire for vengeance or violence.

Poe developed the modern short story and inspired the mystery and horror story.  His impact on American literature is unsurpassed in his genre.  Establishing the mood and atmosphere was his area of expertise.

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