illustration of a human heart lying on black floorboards

The Tell-Tale Heart

by Edgar Allan Poe

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Style and Technique

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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.

Literary Style

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Point of View

A notable aspect of ‘‘The Tell-Tale Heart’’ is that the story is told from the first-person point of view. The story is a monologue of a nervous narrator telling the reader how he murdered someone. He is eventually driven to confess to the police. The entire straightforward narrative is told from his point of view in a nervous tone. Through Poe’s masterful and inventive writing, the narrator’s twisted logic increasingly reveals that he is insane. By using a first-person narrative, Poe heightens the tension and fear running through the mind of the narrator. There is a clear connection between the language used by the narrator and his psychological state. The narrator switches between calm, logical statements and quick, irrational outbursts. His use of frequent exclamations reveals his extreme nervousness. The first-person point of view draws the reader into the mind of the insane narrator, enabling one to ironically sympathize with his wretched state of mind. Some critics suggest that the entire narrative represents a kind of confession, as at a trial or police station. Others consider the first-person point of view as a logical way to present a parable of self-betrayal by the criminal’s conscience—a remarkable record of the voice of a guilty mind.

Denouement

The denouement, or the resolution, of the narrative occurs in ‘‘The Tell-Tale Heart’’ when the narrator, prompted by the incessant sound of a beating heart, can no longer contain his ever-increasing sense of guilt. Poe is regarded by literary critics as having helped define the architecture of the modern short story, in which its brevity requires an economical use of...

(This entire section contains 861 words.)

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sentences and paragraphs and the climactic ending often occurs in the last paragraph. The abrupt ending in this story is calculated to concentrate an effect on the reader. In ‘‘The Tell-Tale Heart’’ the crisis of conscience is resolved when the murderer shrieks the last lines of the story: ‘‘I admit the deed!—tear up the planks!—here, here!—it is the beating of his hideous heart!’’ This abrupt outburst is a shock to the reader, a sudden bursting of the tension that has filled the story, and it provides the dramatic, emotional conclusion to the story.

Aestheticism and Arabesque

Poe was a writer concerned more with style and mood than his American contemporaries were, like James Fenimore Cooper whose fiction was often morally didactic. Poe believed that a story should create a mood in a reader, or evoke emotions in order to be successful, and that it should not try to teach the reader a lesson. He called his style ‘‘arabesque,’’ and it was notable for its ornate, intricate prose that sought to create a feeling of unsettlement in the reader. This arabesque prose became a primary component of the ‘‘art for art’s sake’’ movement, known as Aestheticism, that began in France in the nineteenth century. Poe’s works were highly esteemed by French writers, like the poet Charles Baudelaire, and their emulation of his style eventually influenced the Symbolists and helped bring an end to the Victorian age in literature. In ‘‘The Tell-Tale Heart,’’ an example of arabesque prose is when the narrator describes sneaking into the old man’s room in the middle of the night: ‘‘I heard a slight groan, and I knew it was the groan of mortal terror. It was not a groan of pain or of grief—oh no!—it was the low stifled sound that arises from the bottom of the soul when overcharged with awe.’’ Instead of simply stating that he had heard a groan, the narrator describes the sound in detail, creating in the reader a sense of suspense and foreboding.

Doppelgänger

In literature, a doppelgänger is a character that functions as the main character’s double in order to highlight the main character’s personality or act as a foil to it. Some critics have maintained that in ‘‘The Tell-Tale Heart,’’ the old man functions as a doppelgänger to the narrator. Thus, the narrator is truly mad, and he kills the old man because he cannot stand himself, perhaps fearing becoming old or disfigured like him. The narrator recounts evidence to support this idea: he does not hate the man, in fact, he professes to love him; on the eighth night when the narrator sneaks into his room, the old man awakens, sits bolt upright in bed and listens in silence for an hour in the darkness, as does the narrator. Most notably, when the old man begins to moan, the narrator admits that the same sound had ‘‘welled up from my own bosom’’ many nights. When he hears the man’s heart quicken with terror, he admits that he is nervous, too. Other critics have maintained that the old man does not exist. After all, the narrator tells police that it was he who screamed, and it is not stated that the police actually found a body. According to this viewpoint, the old man’s cloudy eye is nothing more than a twisted fixation of the narrator’s own mind, and the relentless heartbeat is not the old man’s, but the narrator’s.

Literary Qualities

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"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 crazy murderer who kills without motivation. However, this would underestimate both Poe's idea of artistic control and his concern with the deepest urges of the human heart. To read "The Tell-Tale Heart" meaningfully, one must take Poe's fictional theory seriously and attempt to understand the relevance of all the details of the story. This transforms the temporal narrative flow of the story into a meaningful pattern which makes sense of what at first seems to make no sense.

Reading "The Tell-Tale Heart" is like trying to solve a mystery story; in this case, the mystery is the motivation of the killer. The key to motivation in a Poe story is his use of a central idea or effect to hold the story together. As a result, everything coheres around this effect and radiates from it. The core of the story is like an obsession that can be identified by the principle of repetition, since those obsessed return again and again to the core of their obsession. Thus, the reader must be alert to repetitions in the story, references to single-minded motifs or themes. These repeated details are the "clues" to the mystery; repetition is the principle by which the reader makes a distinction between relevant and irrelevant details. "The Tell-Tale Heart" is a classic example of Poe's method.

Setting

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As is usually the case with first-person narratives, there are multiple settings to the story. The action of the recounted tale takes place in the house the narrator shares with the old man. At the same time, the narrator is telling the story from either a prison or an insane asylum where he has been incarcerated. But even more importantly, the setting is actually inside the obsessed mind of the narrator himself, for the crucial climactic event of the story—his hearing the beating of the dead man's heart—take place solely within his own tortured imagination.

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