Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

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.

Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

Literature in the 19th Century
Poe wrote at a time when the United States was experiencing rapid economical and...

(The entire section is 737 words.)


(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

As is usually the case with first-person narratives, there are multiple settings to the story. The action of the recounted tale takes place...

(The entire section is 97 words.)

Literary Style

(Short Stories for Students)

Point of View
A notable aspect of ‘‘The Tell-Tale Heart’’ is that the story is told from the first-person...

(The entire section is 858 words.)

Literary Qualities

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

"The Tell-Tale Heart," like many of Poe's stories, is deceptively simple at first reading. One might easily dismiss it as a story about a...

(The entire section is 242 words.)

Social Sensitivity

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Poe is unconcerned with the broad social issues of his time. His protagonists are, by and large, not social figures. Instead, they seem to...

(The entire section is 120 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Short Stories for Students)

  • 1840s: Mental illness is thought to be related to immoral behavior or the physical degeneration of the...

(The entire section is 176 words.)

Topics for Discussion

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. The narrator insists from the very beginning of the story that he is not insane. What characteristics does he say prove his sanity? What...

(The entire section is 215 words.)

Ideas for Reports and Papers

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. Although this is a story of madness, for Poe there is no such thing as "meaningless madness." Write a discussion of the nature of madness...

(The entire section is 148 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Short Stories for Students)

  • Research the illnesses of schizophrenia and paranoia. Do you think the protagonist suffers from either of these conditions? Why or why...

(The entire section is 86 words.)

Related Titles / Adaptations

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

"The Tell-Tale Heart" is one of a group of Poe stories that deal with obsession and madness. The central and most explicit of these stories...

(The entire section is 264 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Short Stories for Students)

  • Listen & Read Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘‘The Tell-Tale Heart’’ and Other Stories is an audio-cassette recording...

(The entire section is 185 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Short Stories for Students)

  • ‘‘Young Goodman Brown’’ (1835) by Nathaniel Hawthorne concerns a newly married man who...

(The entire section is 258 words.)

For Further Reference

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Buranelli, Vincent. Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Twayne, 1961. This is a basic introduction to Poe's works, focusing primarily on his...

(The entire section is 230 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Short Stories for Students)

Gargano, James W. ‘‘The Theme of Time in ‘The Tell-Tale Heart.’’’ In Studies in Short...

(The entire section is 179 words.)


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Burluck, Michael L. Grim Phantasms: Fear in Poe’s Short Fiction. New York: Garland, 1993.

Hoffman, Daniel. Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1998.

Hutchisson, James M. Poe. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005.

Irwin, John T. The Mystery to a Solution: Poe, Borges, and the Analytical Detective Story. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

Kennedy, J. Gerald. A Historical Guide to Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

May, Charles E. Edgar Allan Poe: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1991.

Peeples, Scott. Edgar Allan Poe Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1998.

Quinn, Arthur Hobson. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.

Silverman, Kenneth. Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-Ending Remembrance. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.

Sova, Dawn B. Edgar Allan Poe, A to Z. New York: Facts On File, 2001.

Whalen, Terence. Edgar Allan Poe and the Masses: The Political Economy of Literature in Antebellum America. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999.