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The Tell-Tale Heart

by Edgar Allan Poe

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Techniques Edgar Allan Poe uses to build tension in "The Tell-Tale Heart."

Summary:

Edgar Allan Poe builds tension in "The Tell-Tale Heart" through the use of first-person narration, detailed descriptions of the protagonist’s obsessive thoughts, and a rhythmic, repetitive language that mirrors the narrator's increasing anxiety and paranoia. The story's pacing and the narrator's fixation on the old man's eye also contribute to the mounting suspense.

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How does the setting in "The Tell-Tale Heart" influence characterization?

Setting is created by the author’s decisions on where and when the action happens in a story. Poe creates a relationship between his characterization of the mad narrator and his location of the events.

We are told that the narrator begins his torture of the old man in the dead of night-

 And every night about midnight I turned the latch of his door and opened it oh, so gently!

This gives a very sinister edge to his actions. Also, he remains in the same position for excessive periods of time whilst observing the old man-

 For a whole hour I did not move a muscle, and in the meantime I did not hear him lie down. He was still sitting up in the bed, listening; just as I have done night after night hearkening to the death watches in the wall.

The fact that the narrator chooses to talk to the inspectors whilst sitting over the dismembered corpse intensifies our feeling of revulsion at the narrator’s actions and bizarre state of mind-

 in the wild audacity of my perfect triumph, placed my own seat upon the very spot beneath which reposed the corpse of the victim.

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How does character description in "The Tell-Tale Heart" create tension?

The first such characterization intended to create tension is that of our murder victim. We are told that he has a great glaring eye, and that his personality is, at best, disagreeable. From the start, we are aware that people's feelings toward the victim are less than charitable.

The officers who arrive to investigate in the story take their dear sweet time doing their jobs, and seem so casual and lax that the reader is biting their nails waiting for the inevitable discovery to take place. All the while, our protagonist remains oppressed by his conscience, and his inner struggle with the act he committed makes the story near-palpable. The student would be amiss if he/she did not at least mention the narrator in response to this question.

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How does the first-person narrative create tension in "The Tell-Tale Heart"?

This question has already been addressed.  See the link below.

In my previous response are qutoes and ways in which you could go about analyzing them.

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In "The Tell-Tale Heart," how does repeated imagery create tension and eeriness?

With imagery being language appealing to the senses, Poe initially evokes sound imagery as his narrator, much like Roderick Usher of "The Fall of the House of Usher," declares his sensitivity to any sound:  "Above all was the sense of hearing acute."  This sound image suggests (foreshadows) to the reader that the narrator's overly sensitive hearing may be intrinsic to the plot and resolution and the 

The narrator's self-declared lack of passion is also unnerving.  He does not desire the man's gold.  Instead, the reason given for the premeditated murder is the man's eye, "the eye of a vulture, a pale blue eye, with a film over it."  Like the "passionless" narrator, the eye's pale blue color suggests a coldness, a coldness that creates a tension in the plot as an element of horror.  Added to this cold atmosphere is the light/dark imagery created by the night and the man's room which "was as black as pitch with the thick darkness (for the shutters were close fastened, through fear of robbers)" so that the narrator must employ the lantern whose brutal laser-like beam hones in on the dreaded eye.

Another image of sound is the old man's groan.  This groan of fear, horrific, is uttered by helpless man: "He was still sitting up in the bed listening [he knows]--just as I have done, night after night, hearkening to the death watches..."

In the end it is sound that unravels the narrator.

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In "The Tell-Tale Heart," how does repeated imagery create tension and eeriness?

There are a couple great images-and sounds-that increase the tension of the text.  The first is the descriptions of the old man's eye, which is the catlyst for the murder:  "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." and then later, "all a dull blue, with a hideous veil over it that chilled the very marrow in my bones."  It is a great description; the reader can certainly feel the creepiness of the eye, and the accompanying horror in the blood.  Then, in the first half, you have repeated descriptions of the narrator's cautious, steady, silent stalking and waiting.  That alone is tense; we keep waiting for him to slip, to make a noise, to be discovered.  The most effective repeated imagery (5 senses, not just sight) is that of the heartbeat, which starts off as "a low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton," increases to a "hellish tattoo", and keeps getting "louder, louder!".  The sound of the heartbeat increases the tension just as a movie soundtrack would, and leads to the murder and confession.

Poe uses images and imagery to help the reader feel like they are actually there, experiencing the situations and emotions, and it makes for a really great story.

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In "The Tell-Tale Heart," how does the author create suspense?

Poe chooses to employ first-person narration in his short story "The Tell-Tale Heart," and this decision contributes greatly to the feeling of suspense that dominates the writing.

The narrator tells the story from his own point of view, which allows the reader to get inside his head; this glimpse into the inner workings of the narrator's unbalanced psychology allows the reader to feel what the narrator feels. As the narrator becomes more and more unsteady and disoriented in his descriptions, the reader can't help but feel unsteady and disoriented as well, wondering what will happen next.

The word choice and the pacing of the narrator combine with the first-person point of view to enhance the reader's appreciation of the narrator's instability, an experience that makes the reading of the story suspenseful. From the start of the story, the narrator employs words such as "nervous," "mad," and "disease" to describe his state of mind. The use of exclamation points speed up the pacing, lending the narration a sense of panic. As the narrator becomes overwhelmed by his experience, his sentences become alternately choppy and lengthy, as if he is unable to temper his own speech. This erratic style of narration also heightens the suspenseful emotion of the story.

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In "The Tell-Tale Heart," how does the author create suspense?

Poe was a master at creating suspense. He is able to create suspense by introducing us to an unstable narrator (what we can an unreliable narrator) who clearly is mentally ill. Because of this, the reader does not know what to expect from him. This definitely builds suspense when the reader can bet on the unexpected from a narrator.

One of the main events that builds suspense is when the narrator watches the boarding house owner at night, staying still for the entire night. The reader is there with him while he does this and while he plots to kill the boarding house owner.

Also, Poe uses stream of consciousness in this story and as the narrator lets the police into the boarding house, the narrator's thoughts become more and more fragmented until the narrator screams his admission of guilt.

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How does sound create atmosphere and suspense in "The Tell-Tale Heart"?

In the very first paragraph, sound sets a rather ominous tone:  "I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell."  Mentioning hell right off the bat makes it suspenseful, and hooks the reader.  Then, as he stalks the old man, he opened his lantern" cautiously—oh, so cautiously—cautiously (for the hinges creaked)".  The reader can get a sense of the utter and complete silence, and how loud that creaking would be; this mention of sound here just intensifies the tension.   Then, during the murder, it is pitch black, so sound is the only clue we have to what is going on.  In paragraph 10, the narrator describes the old man's heart beating faster and faster, which, like a soundtrack for a movie, sets the pace and mood for the horrific murder. 

And then, of course, it is the narrator hearing the old man's heart beating beneath the floorboards that leads to his confession.  The sound drives the man insane-he rants, raves, makes noise to cover it up, but to no avail: "I felt that I must scream or die! and now—again!—hark! louder! louder! louder! louder!"  In that super intense last paragraph, the heartbeat IS what causes the suspense, the tension, and the narrator's confession.  Poe's story is a great example of using sound-almost as a separate character-to create the suspense.

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How does sound create atmosphere and suspense in "The Tell-Tale Heart"?

The sound of the beating heart is used to create an atmosphere of terror, guilt, and questionable sanity. The heart makes ‘‘a low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton,’' and continues even after the old man is dead: ‘‘many minutes, the heart beat on.’’ The beating heart is compared to the ticking of a watch, repetitively beating, driving the narrator to the brink of insanity. There is a strong theme of time, as seen in the watch references, and the sense of running out of time. The old man's life ran out of time, and the beating heart that the narrator hears counts down his time as a free man.

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How does sound create atmosphere and suspense in "The Tell-Tale Heart"?

The narrator opens the old man's door "cautiously--oh so cautiously..." to keep it from creaking, an unnerving sound of itself.  But, the eerieest of sounds is the old man's "groan of mortal terror"; he knows in advance that the narrator plans to kill him.  Describing this groan as not of grief or pain, the narrator says,  I

It was the low stifled sound that arises from the bottom of the soul when overcharged with awe. I knew the sound well...It has welled up from my own bosom, deepening with its dreadful echo, the terrors that distracted me.

His echoings of this terror create suspense; How can the narrator feel a similar terror?  Is he horrorified by what is in his own mind?

Later, in the narrator's increased sensitivity,much like that of Roderick Usher in "The House of Usher,"the narrator hears "a low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton."  This is the sound of the old man's heart, the narrator explains. As this sound "grows louder" to the narrator, he expresses that he is excited to "uncontrollable terror."  In a bizarre state of mind, the narrator fears that a neighbor will hear this sound,so, shrieking in madness, he rushes into the room and kills the old man.

After the police officers arrive, he fancies "a ringing in my ears," the sound of a watch again.  This must be his conscience. Now he cannot silence it with murder,so he confesses.

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In "The Tell-Tale Heart," how does the character's inaction create tension?

Poe creates tension and builds suspense by having the narrator prolong his crime and wait until the opportune time to kill the old man. For seven consecutive nights, the narrator quietly opens the old man's door and peeks his head inside the room. The narrator's slow movements are deliberate as he cautiously moves without waking the defenseless old man. The narrator writes that it would take him an hour to stick his head completely into the room before opening the lantern to view the old man's eye.

This repetitive act of spying heightens the tension as the reader wonders how the narrator will commit the murder. The inaction also creates tension as the reader begins to sympathize with the vulnerable old man. The reader can imagine what it is like to be spied on night after night, which is both disturbing and unsettling.

On the eighth night, the narrator's inaction is lengthened when the old man awakens. The narrator is forced to remain completely still for a whole hour as the old man listens closely to his surroundings. This inaction builds suspense as the reader anticipates the murder. When the narrator initially opens a crevice in the lantern, he continues to remain still as he hears the old man's heart begin to beat furiously. This inaction captivates the reader's imagination as they feel they are standing in the room, anxiously waiting for the murderer to strike.

The tension rises as the narrator refrains from taking action and the reader anticipates his next move. The narrator continues to build suspense by fragmenting the narrative and repeating stimulating words. When he finally opens the lantern, the light shines directly onto the old man's eye, which prompts the narrator to pounce on the old man and suffocate him to death.

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In "The Tell-Tale Heart," how does the character's inaction create tension?

The lack of action brings suspense to the story. As the narrator stands there night after night, looking at the old man whom he wishes to murder, the reader wonders what he will do next, or when he will murder the old man. The tension only builds as he describes how slowly he moves, how little he does in order to avoid waking the old man. The reader continuously wonders when the murder of the old man will actually take place. When he finally reaches the eighth night, when the reader knows the murder will take place, he lengthens his inaction when the old man wakes, so all he does is stand there for an hour, waiting for the old man to fall asleep again, which only adds more suspense, more tension to the event.

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What details does Poe use to build suspense in "The Tell-Tale Heart"?

The first lines of Edgar Allan Poe's classic short story "The Tell-Tale Heart" help to establish the overall suspense of the story. The narrator immediately establishes that he is both nervous and mad and can further hear many things in hell. Poe introduces the evil "vulture eye" in the second paragraph, and in the third paragraph he unveils his plan to sneak into the darkened room. The fact that the story takes place almost entirely during the hours of darkness contributes to the overall effect of impending evil.

Other details include the "groan of mortal terror," and the initial reference to the "hellish tattoo of the heart." After the murder, the narrator dismembers the body and buries it beneath the floor, creating an even more gruesome act of concealment. The recurring beating of the heart followed by the arrival of the police take the story to its climax.

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What details does Poe use to build suspense in "The Tell-Tale Heart"?

Poe’s use of the first-person perspective in his narration enables him to build a deeper connection to the reader: it feels as if the narrator is actually telling you the story. However, a feeling of suspense results from the confusion and mental instability this narrator experiences, which makes him unreliable and causes the reader to become curious about what the narrator may be choosing not to reveal. The narrator’s voice and choice of words dictate the tone of the story and create tension as the reader wonders what is actually happening.

Suspense also results from Poe’s sentence structure, which contributes to the pacing and overall flow of the story. His sentence structure reflects the narrator’s increasingly unstable state of mind; shorter sentences create faster pacing as the narrator’s thoughts become more and more disjointed. This also serves to build tension towards the ending of the story, where the narrator is finally overwhelmed by guilt and confesses his crime.

Overall, the suspense and the elements of horror that are present in this story are the direct result of Poe’s choices about point of view (first person), pacing, and sentence structure. These elements serve to keep the reader interested and curious throughout the tale.

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How does the setting of "The Tell-Tale Heart" create tension?

Firstly, the story takes place at night. During the night, it is dark and usually quiet outside, since most people are inside sleeping (of course, this is not the case in a city, usually). So, we are already unnerved because it is so dark and limits what we can see. The only light in the first half of the story comes from the narrator's lantern, and he describes what is and is not illuminated by it.

Secondly, the house itself feels creepy and closed off from the world outside. We don't get a super detailed description of the house at any point. We can assume it isn't a grand mansion, but otherwise, the narrator only describes the existence of certain rooms, like the bed-chamber or the front doorway. However, in describing how he placed the remains of his victim beneath the floorboards, we see how the narrator hides his own madness/evil and for the most part, can appear to be a normal guy around other people.

The lack of detail about the house also relates to the narrator's personality, which alone could set the reader on edge with tension. Like the lantern he holds, he hides things from us the audience and shows us only what he wants us to see. The more he keeps us in the dark (literally and metaphorically), the more control he has over us psychologically.

So, the setting contributes a great deal to the suspense. Its remoteness and lack of light make it seem treacherous. The narrator's sparse detail in describing it makes it seem more mysterious. And it makes us all the more reliant on this madman for getting the details of the story.

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How does the setting of "The Tell-Tale Heart" create tension?

You may wish to look at responses in this Question and Answer Group, especially two other questions on the topic of tension.  See the sites below.

Certainly, the night setting adds to the eeriness of the setting, especially as the beam of the lantern, much like a laser light, focuses upon the old man's eye, just as the singularly obsessive mind of the narrator perceives the blue-filmed "vulture eye" as the object of evil.  In the morning, however, the narrator acts as though he cares for the old man--he does insist that he loves him--by inquiring "how he had spent the night...."

After the murder the narrator buries the dismembered corpse under the floor:  "When I had made an end of these labors, it was four o'clock--still dark as midnight.  The persistent darkness suggests the evil of the narrator's deed and creates to the tension/horror of the story.

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How does the setting of "The Tell-Tale Heart" create tension?

The narrator keeps peeking his head in the old man's door "every night just at midnight".  That is eerie; imagine, while you are sleeping, at your most defenseless, a kooky stalker just staring at you.  Then because it is night, "His room was as black as pitch with the thick darkness".  This darkness makes for a very intense scene when the old man thinks he hears a noise-he peers into the darkness, but can't see anything.  He just sits there in pure terror, trying to see, but can't.  What awful suspense!  They both sit, still, "amid the dreadful silence of that old house". 

The setting is perfect for suspense: an old, creepy house, the dead of the night, in pitch black. 

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