illustration of a human heart lying on black floorboards

The Tell-Tale Heart

by Edgar Allan Poe

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Historical Context

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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 ‘‘The Gold Bug’’ reflect the public’s fascination with adventures at home and abroad. Poe’s America was a vibrant and self-assured young nation with a firm belief in its manifest destiny. James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, which outlined the moral struggles of an expanding country, was a moral tale that pitted the white man against Native Americans. Herman Melville was a favorite with readers, with his novels of sea-faring life, which often paled in comparison to the adventures of his own youth. Long, action-oriented novels such as these were a primary form of entertainment for many people. Washington Irving who lived and wrote in the emerging metropolis of New York City, began to catalogue some of the arising American folklore in his tales and stories, although he frequently traveled in Europe to gather material for his writing and followed a traditional British format in his prose. Novels in this era typically imitated British literature until new themes arose from authors who were distinctly American. Poe was one of the first to create a distinctly American literature. In his short stories, particularly, he sought to fashion tales of terror based on mood and language. He also helped popularize the short story form, and soon many magazines were being published that provided their audiences with new stories every month. The magazines became an important part of popular life, and Poe published many stories in them, though few brought him solid popularity. Through his short stories, especially ‘‘Murders in the Rue Morgue’’ Poe became one of the first practitioners of the detective story, in which a mystery is presented that must be solved by an observant inspector, whose viewpoint is also that of the reader’s.

Psychological Elements of Poe’s Fiction

Historians note that Poe’s writings emphasizing the dark side of humanity and nature challenged the optimistic and confident spirit of the American people during the nineteenth century. Scientific progress and rational thought were revolutionizing industry and agriculture. For example, such nineteenth-century creations as steamships expanded commerce, while steel plows and the McCormick reapers increased agricultural production manyfold. Poe, like other writers of his time, was influenced by the exaggerated emotions and sombre moods of Romanticism but he differs from his contemporaries in a number of ways. While Poe does not reject rational science (his ‘‘tales of ratiocination’’ herald the triumph of the superior rational mind), he undermines the faith in rationality in some of his stories. ‘‘The Tell-Tale Heart’’ tells of a man who ironically (and perhaps also paradoxically) strongly believes in the need for making methodical and calculated decisions but is eventually overcome by inexplicable psychological forces that stem from his irrational, unstable nature. Thus, while Poe’s works display a strong interest in rational science, his writings also explore the psychologically unfathomable aspects of the human condition and the inexplicable elements of the universe.

Poe differs from writers of his time in one other significant way. ‘‘The Tell-Tale Heart’’ is an example of how his writing produces a psychological effect. While his contemporaries generally regarded a story’s moral or ideological position as paramount, Poe believed that the aim of literature is to reveal truth or elicit an emotional or psychological reaction. Poe also rejected the emphasis by his contemporaries on the utilitarian value of literature. He considered their ideological view a ‘‘heresy of the Didactic.’’ Instead, Poe proposed an ideology of ‘‘art for art’s sake,’’ with style and aesthetics playing prominent roles. Literary critics and historians now consider Poe as one of the architects of the modern short story. Indeed, Poe proposes that a short literary work can use its brevity to concentrate a unified effect on the reader. Poe’s precise and controlled language works to produce a particular effect on the reader. Writers of poetry and short fiction since Poe have generally acknowledged his maxim as fundamental. Poe’s works have influenced many writers, including Baudelaire and Ambrose Bierce, and such literary movements as the French Symbolists and Surrealists.

Social Sensitivity

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Poe is unconcerned with the broad social issues of his time. His protagonists are, by and large, not social figures. Instead, they seem to live cut off from society, detached from the large world around them and either content to, or doomed to, live alone. It may be that the short story form itself, which Poe is most credited with creating in America, is a form that is less suited to dealing with social issues than it is with solitary people. The novel, which is able to place characters within a realistic external world, is more open to the depiction of social issues than the short story, which usually focuses on one or two characters confronting psychological and metaphysical issues.

Compare and Contrast

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  • 1840s: Mental illness is thought to be related to immoral behavior or the physical degeneration of the central nervous system. Insanity is thought to be the result of such diseases as syphilis.

    1990s: After years of institutionalizing mentally ill patients and subjecting them to electroshock therapy, modern treatment of mental illness such as depression, bi-polar disorder, and schizophrenia include counseling and drug therapy.

  • 1840s: ‘‘The Tell-Tale Heart’’ is published in 1843. The story is a psychological thriller that invites the reader into the world of the narrator’s insanity. Other examples of Poe’s eerie, macabre style include ‘‘The Pit and the Pendulum,’’ written in 1842, which explores the dark side of human nature and features both cruelty and torture.

    1990s: People continue to be fascinated by the dark side of humanity. The popular film Silence of the Lambs examines the psychological motivations of a serial killer. Best-selling author Stephen King along with other horror writers, explores the supernatural, the paranormal, and the way in which seemingly ordinary events can suddenly turn into terrifying encounters with psychotic killers.

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Style, Form, and Literary Elements

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