Style and Technique
Poe had definite ideas about the style and composition of the short story. To begin with, despite his wonderfully realistic descriptions in this and other tales, he advocated art over reality and believed that the artificial contrivances of the writer’s imagination could reveal more truth about the human condition than faithful adherence to observed reality. As Poe saw it, the short story was the ideal medium for conveying artistic insight because the reader was likely to give it his or her concentrated attention for the brief time it took to read it. Above all else, he insisted that the writer should make every part of the short story contribute to its total effect. “If his very initial sentence tend not to the outbringing of this effect,” wrote Poe, “then he has failed in his first step.” His devotion to that injunction is clearly demonstrated in “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Indeed, he excels in creating and developing that fascinating mood of mystery and madness that makes the story so irresistible.
Poe had the ability to portray his protagonists, mad though they might be, in sympathetic terms. The reader comes to understand the demented narrator, or at least to pity him, because his obsession is so overpowering.
Poe was a master of the first-person narrator, and that technique, so treacherous in the hands of a lesser artist, makes for unusual intimacy between the reader and the storyteller. Indeed, one is drawn into the tormented mind of the madman. The mind is especially Poe’s domain, with its interplay of emotions, its mixture of reality and fantasy, and its ultimate mystery. To convey the impressions and feeling that he wanted, Poe relied on a variety of rhetorical tools, and he carefully crafted every sentence. However, “The Tell-Tale Heart” is convincingly spontaneous and filled with those little details that heighten the realism. Devoted to art for art’s sake, Poe probed the limits of human reality in stories shaped by both intuitive genius and literary craftsmanship.
The Tell-Tale Heart
A nameless, first-person narrator tells, in initially cool but increasingly desperate tones, the story of his calculating murder of an old man for whose care he was responsible. His reason for telling the tale is to prove to the reader, whom he addresses directly, that he is not insane. In the telling, however, he demonstrates a perversity that not only reveals his mental imbalance, but also confronts the reader with the possibility of evil at the core of every human being.
“THE TELL-TALE HEART” exemplifies perfectly Poe’s notion of “unity of effect,” the conviction that every line of a story should contribute to a single, unrelieved effect on the reader. This is illustrated, as Poe insisted it should be, in the very first line: “True!--nervous--very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?”
Poe precedes Dostoevsky and modern writers in exploring motiveless evil. The narrator quickly informs us that he killed the old man for none of the usual reasons but only because he could not stand the look of the man’s blinded eye.
Poe’s primary interest, however, is not evil in the theological sense but as a species of psychological obsession. His fascination is with the working of the human mind, with the relation between hyperrationality and madness, and with a bent in human nature that all our reason cannot explain away. All of these are connected in the story with the incessant beating of the old man’s heart that even death cannot still.
Literature in the 19th Century
Poe wrote at a time when the United States was experiencing rapid economical and geographical expansion. During the mid-nineteenth century, the most popular authors in the growing United States were those who wrote adventure fiction . American nautical explorations (particularly of the Pacific region) and westward expansion captured the imagination of the public. Such Poe stories as ‘‘A Descent into the Maelstrom’’ and...
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