illustration of a human heart lying on black floorboards

The Tell-Tale Heart

by Edgar Allan Poe

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Language techniques and sensory language in "The Tell-Tale Heart"


In "The Tell-Tale Heart," Edgar Allan Poe employs various language techniques, including repetition, to build tension and emphasize the narrator's obsession. Sensory language vividly describes sounds, such as the heartbeat, to heighten the sense of paranoia and madness. These techniques immerse the reader in the narrator's disturbed mind and intensify the story's suspense.

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What sensory language does the author use in "The Tell-Tale Heart"?

The first thing to notice is what the reader sees/hears. Consider the similarity of the words heart, hear, hearken, heartbeat, and hearing. The repetition of such words adds to the increasing tension. It is the narrator's warped senses of hearing and sight that lead to him to murder and to admit the deed. In the first paragraph, the narrator comes right out with it: hearing is all important. 

Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? 

The narrator is certainly a madman. In the second paragraph, the narrator describes the old man with whom he has no conflict except for his "pale blue eye" which reminded him of a vulture. Note that the narrator can not bear to look at the old man's eye; as if he can not bear for the old man to look at him. In other words, he can not bear to look at the old man looking at him because it throws the gaze back on himself: the eye mirrors the "I" (narrator). 

He intends to kill the old man to rid himself of having to look at the old man's eye. The insane narrator prides himself on the power of his senses. "Never before that night had I felt the extent of my own powers--of my sagacity." He early says that he's heard all things in heaven, earth, and hell. He adds that he believes the old man has begun to feel his (narrator's) presence in the room, like an increasing terror. Adding to this "sense" of growing terror are the sounds in the room which seem like a countdown to that terror, "hearkening to the death watches in the wall." As the narrator's senses become more acute, his madness increases: like a ticking time bomb. Note the combination of sight and sound in the phrase "death watches" which are heard but also indicating a sense of being "watched." 

Poe, through the mad narrator, is careful to describe the impending terror gradually, first by using sight. The narrator has crept into the room for the eighth night in a row. He decides to open the lantern a bit and as he does, the light shines on the old man's open eye; thus, gradually and slowly revealing the source of the narrator's own fury. Poe uses the sights and sounds to gradually increase the tension. 

The narrator is convinced that he is not mad; rather, his senses are so acute, that he can not help himself. Just as he was fixed upon the old man's eye, he becomes fixated upon the sound of the old man's heartbeat and this increased his fury. As the tension increases, so does the sound of the old man's heartbeat (as heard by the narrator). It becomes so loud to the narrator that he fears a neighbor will hear it. It is as if Poe has provided a soundtrack for this horror story. The sound gets louder as the tension and the madman's fury increase. The madman's senses overwhelm him. The heartbeat gets louder and louder, a crescendo, until he can bear it no longer and then kills the old man. Finally, the narrator's madness is truly revealed. His madness in this story was based upon his belief that his senses were overtly acute. After dismembering the body and hiding the parts under the planks, he continues to hear the beating heart. This is impossible and the officers of course hear nothing. Once again, the volume of the beating increases until the narrator can take it no more and he admits the murder. 

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What language technique is used in "The Tell-Tale Heart"?

Poe wrote that he composed his stories primarily to evoke a sense of mood. The mood he is trying to evoke in "The Tell-Tale Heart" is one of claustrophobic horror.

As others have noted, he does this through using literary (language) devices such as imagery. The imagery is relentlessly dark. Most of the story takes place at night in a lonesome house where the narrator stalks and surveils an older man who fills him with horror. An example of imagery that evokes reader distaste is the narrator's description of the old man's vulture-like eye, upon which he is fixated

a dull blue, with a hideous veil over it....

Because Poe uses the literary technique of point of view, the language of the story comes out of the deeply disturbed mind of the narrator. Since this language reflects the narrator's troubled consciousness, it is filled with ugliness and foreboding. The narrator is constantly using adjectives such as "dreadful," "nervous," and "terror" that reveal his mindset and undercut his assertion that he is a stable personality. He also uses repetition to build suspense, such as when he says he creeps up on the old man "stealthily, stealthily."

Poe keeps us inside of the mind of his narrator, which adds to the growing sense of horror. For example, the narrator interprets the old man's groan by projecting onto it his own sense of terror, stating,

Presently 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. I knew the sound well. Many a night, just at midnight, when all the world slept, it has welled up from my own bosom, deepening, with its dreadful echo, the terrors that distracted me ...

Is this what the narrator really hears? We don't know, but we know the narrator lives in the grip of fear.

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What language technique is used in "The Tell-Tale Heart"?

One language technique Poe uses is exclamations. The narrator is quite insistent on convincing his audience —perhaps the reader, or perhaps someone else to whom he's speaking—that he is calm and healthy and definitely not mad. And yet, he uses so many exclamations that they betray his complete lack of self-awareness. In fact, the very first thing the narrator says is such an exclamation: "True!" Later in the first paragraph, it tells us to "Hearken!" to him and see how "calmly" and how "healthily" he can tell us his story.

When he explains his reasoning for wanting to kill the old man, he says, "I think it was his eye! yes, it was this!" He goes on to brag about the dissimulation with which he "went to work!" to plan the murder and how "cunningly [he would] thrust [his head] in [the old man's bedroom]!" It becomes clear that he is very nervous and excitable, even though he believes that he is not.

In addition to exclamations, the speaker poses many interrogatives, or asks many questions, which makes him seem quite defensive as well. In the very first sentence, the speaker asks, "but why will you say that I am mad?" Later, he asks, "How, then, am I mad?" When he explains his actions and how measured they are, he says, "Ha!—would a madman have been so wise as this?" actually combining both an exclamation with a question. These show us that the narrator does not have an accurate sense of his own mental state.

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What language technique is used in "The Tell-Tale Heart"?

In "The Tell-Tale Heart," the language reflects that of a dramatic monologue. The narrator speaks directly to the audience and his diction is confessional. It reflects the mind of the narrator, since he speaks in a continuous flow without any dialogue with others and offers his uninterrupted thoughts and feelings about the events in the story.

The narrator is delusional; though he commits a murder and dismembers a corpse for irrational reasons, he assures the reader of "how healthy" his mind is. His language veers from sober recognition of his crime ("There was no reason for what I did") to distraught paranoia at the story's end when he is convinced he hears the old man's heart continuing to beat under the floorboards ("Why does it not stop!?”).

Embedded in the narrator's consciousness are many rhetorical questions; it is as if the narrator wants the reader to help him make sense of his actions. He also uses imperatives to command the reader to give him a full hearing, such as when he exclaims, "hearken!"

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What language technique is used in "The Tell-Tale Heart"?

Language technique are a category of literary device. When one is examining language technique, he or she is examining and identifying the use of literary techniques like metaphors, similes, personification and other such techniques. The second category of literary device is literary elements, like chronology, mood, tone and point of view.

Edgar Allan Poe's story, "The Tell-Tale Heart," contains many different language techniques. First, he uses discourse. Discourse is the way one communicates. IN this story, the narrator is the only one who communicates. While he poses questions to the readers/audience, answers are not able to be given. Essentially, the narrator is simply restating an event from the past for the reader.

Imagery is also used in the text. The description of the old man's eye is image-ridden. " He had the eye of a vulture --a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold." Readers can see the filmed eye easily. Not only that, the words used can force the reader to feel the same coldness the narrator feels.

A simile is found in the following line: "a simple dim ray, like the thread of the spider." A simile is a comparison between two things which would not normally be compared (the comparison uses the words "like" or "as"). Here, the light of the lantern is compared to the thread of a spider. Again, because a simile, the image readers are left with is exact.

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What language technique is used in "The Tell-Tale Heart"?

The unreliable narrator is the primary literary device of "The Tell-Tale Heart." From the opening, the narrator urges the reader that he is not mad. However, this assertion is made debatable by the narrator's irrational and violent behavior towards the old man in his home. Even the narrator's claim that he can tell the story of the murder "calmly" is shown to be false because the narrator's voice is marked by flashes of erratic panic. At the end of the story, any pretense of stoic calm evaporates as the narrator descends into shrieking paranoia.

Repetition is the work's other major literary device, one that works in tandem with the story's unreliable narrator. The narrator often repeats words when he speaks:

When I had waited a long time, very patiently, without hearing him lie down, I resolved to open a little—a very, very little crevice in the lantern. So I opened it—you cannot imagine how stealthily, stealthily—until, at length a single dim ray, like the thread of the spider, shot from out the crevice and fell full upon the vulture eye.

When the police appear in the narrator's home, he asks himself twice why he should be afraid. Ironically, this only makes the reader question his claims to being calm. This use of repetition emphasizes the narrator's obsessive personality as well as his nervous, hypersensitive state.

Finally, "The Tell-Tale Heart" uses symbols. The heartbeat sound represents the narrator's conscience, which will not be denied in the face of his crime. The old man's eye is also heavily symbolic, though there is no one way of interpreting it. Some have taken the eye to represent the narrator's terror of death or inversely a desire for self-destruction, since he calls it a "vulture eye" and vultures are known to feast upon carrion. Others claim the eye represents the narrator's insanity, since he projects evil onto it to justify killing the old man despite his claims of loving him.

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