by Brandy Long
Many people believe they have a particular style by which they are characterized. For instance, we will have a certain way we clothe ourselves, a way of speaking to others, music we enjoy, and an artistic style to which we relate. Writers are artists of the human language. They usually have a way in which they write that is easily associated with their works. Edgar Allan Poe is one example because of the dark, grotesque style in which he writes. Poe is credited as a very influential figure in short fiction because "he insisted that the writer should make every part of the short story contribute to its total effect" (Howard 4053). Elements such as darkness, murder, suspense, and irony are all associated with this artist’s name, for he is often referred to as "the father of horror." Poe’s "The Tell-Tale Heart" is centered on the narrator, who, most likely, is a caretaker for an older man who resides in the house with him. However, the narrator is driven to madness because of the old man’s filmy pale blue eye. The story progresses over a period of eight nights. Just around midnight on the eighth night, the narrator murders the old man and buries the body beneath three planks he pulls up from the floor. Later on, the police question him about a disturbance complaint they receive from his neighbor. Soon after, the narrator begins to notice a faint noise in the distance that he later realizes is the still pulsating heart of the old man. The narrator becomes agitated and frantically starts confessing his actions to the police. Poe’s unique attention to detail seems to capture and sustain the readers’ attention throughout the story. Through the style of "The Tell-Tale Heart," Poe demonstrates that what consumes a person’s mind, consumes that person entirely.
One of the elements Poe uses in his style of writing is darkness. The main body of the story takes place in the middle of the night when it is pitch black. The narrator illustrates the darkness of the night best when he says, "His room was black as pitch with thick darkness" (Poe). Midnight is synonymous with fear of the unknown. It is easier to get away with malicious acts at nighttime because they often go unnoticed until the next day. How many times do we wake up to hear on the news about a family murdered in their sleep? Poe is aware that the fear of the dark is universal and thus appeals to his readers by weaving this theme into his work. By using what he knows we fear, he is able to get into our minds and pull at our souls. "The mind is especially Poe’s domain, with its interplay of emotions, its mixture of reality and fantasy, and its ultimate mystery" (Howard 4053). He makes us feel the intensity of the moment when the old man realizes he is not alone in the dark room by having the narrator say,
my thumb slipped and upon the tin fastening and the old man sprang up in bed crying out "Who’s there?" . . . For a whole hour I did not move a muscle, and in the mean time I did not hear him lie down. . . . (Poe)
The element of darkness may also be symbolic of the man himself because of his inner depravity. The man is a very evil, neurotic, and calculating person. However, the narrator did not always feel this way, for he himself states, "I loved the man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult" (Poe). The problem begins when the narrator lets his fear of the eye take precedence over his feelings for the old man. He explains his rationale by saying, "Whenever it fell upon me my blood ran cold, and by so many degrees, very gradually I made up my mind to take the life of the old man and rid myself of the eye forever" (Poe). His "obsession or monomania" (Grubbs 1615) is so consuming that every thought is centered on his belief that he must get rid of the eye, and readers start "to pity him because his obsession is so overpowering" (Howard 4053). Why is the eye so maddening? Poe plays on the old legend of "the evil eye." According to legend, anyone who looks upon the eye will have misfortune. Maybe subconsciously the man feels threatened by the eye and knows no good will come from his being exposed to it? Some believe that the narrator has a point because in the end it is the eye that causes the man’s demise. However, we can see how the narrator’s life rapidly worsens when he lets himself become overtaken by his obsession. What we think about, we bring about.
Murder is also a common element Poe uses in his works. A common fear shared by everyone is of being murdered. Murder is the most violent crime we can commit against another human being. People often wonder how they will die and pray they will go in peace. However, not everyone is that fortunate. There are those, like so many hostages in Iraq, who know the agony and torture of the moment when they realize they are about to be murdered. It is so horrific that we cannot begin to imagine what that must be like. Just the images we can conjure in our minds are enough to make murder our number one fear. When reading the events of the murder scene, the readers’ personal fear of murder is engaged by Poe "to arouse terror in his readers and to make them partake of the sensations he evokes as though they had lived them" (Grubbs 1615). The narrator draws us into the murder scene by a step-by-step recounting of the action:
With a loud yell I threw open the lantern and leaped into the room. He shrieked once–only once. In an instant I dragged him to the floor, and pulled the heavy bed over him. I then smiled gailey, to find the deed so far done. But for many minutes the heart beat on with a muffled sound. This however, did not vex me; it would not be heard through the wall. At length it ceased. The old man was dead. . . . His eye would trouble me no more." (Poe)
Poe’s style in creating the murder makes the readers feel as if they are in the room too, wheels turning in their heads, hearts pounding in their chests, and waiting for that fateful moment. Murder is what the narrator’s intentions turn to after he becomes too consumed with thoughts of the old man’s eye. It is then because of the murder that the narrator has his downfall. If he had control of his thoughts regarding the eye, there would have been no murder to confess. By using the element of murder, Poe reiterates that the mind is a powerful tool that can be used for both good and evil. Our preoccupations will dictate the decisions we make and actions we take.
Everyday suspense is implemented by the world at large. In television, the news uses suspenseful headlines to attract an audience. Soap operas use suspenseful situations and end their shows for the day with the part everyone has been waiting to see. This strategy guarantees that the audience will return the next day to find out what happens in the conclusion. Poe uses suspense in such way that he "brings readers under his spell" (Grubbs 1615), always having to know what happens next. Suspense is what sustains the readers’ attention, keeps them guessing, and on the edge of their seats. Turning from page to page, suspense is a fluent, never-ending element in "The Tell-Tale Heart." From the beginning where the narrator opens the story saying, "True! Nervous, very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am, buy why you say that I am mad" (Poe), to the end when he confesses, "Villians! Dissemble no more, I admit the deed–tear up the planks–here it is the beating of his hideous heart" (Poe), the readers are "drawn into the tormented mind of the madman" (Howard 4053). The suspense progresses as the narrator explains in explicit detail how he waits outside the door every night:
And every night about midnight I turned the latch of his door and opened it oh, so gently! And then, when I had made an opening sufficient for my head, I put in a dark lantern all closed. . . . [A]nd then I thrust my head in. . . . I moved it slowly, very, very slowly, so that I might not disturb the old man’s sleep. It took me a whole hour to place my head within the opening so far that I could see him as he lay upon his bed. . . . (Poe)
Many readers feel as if their hearts will beat out of their chests when reading how meticulously he acts with every action. At this point in the story, there is no turning back and no putting the book down, for the suspense is too strong to allow for such an action. The suspense lingers on to increase heart rates as the sounds gets louder and louder and as the narrator becomes more nervous by the second. The suspense rises to a crescendo when the narrator finally confesses his actions. Suspense adds to the story by captivating the reader, making the story seem more lifelike, therefore, adding to the story’s overall meaning.
There are two types of irony used in "The Tell-Tale Heart." The first type of irony utilized is dramatic irony. The narrator claims and tries to prove to the readers, mainly himself, that he is not insane. Poe has the narrator say, "mad men know nothing" (Poe). This statement introduces the belief that the truly insane have no sense of right and wrong and often do not remember their actions. The narrator believes that since he can recall every last detail and "how wisely" (Poe), and "with what caution" (Poe) he proceeded that he must not be insane. It seems his attempts at proving his sanity "only [serve] to intensify the idea of madness" (Gargano 393). Many people believe he has a sense of his own mental regression but is in denial and most likely trying to convince himself more than the audience. Therefore, the narrator is stating one belief, but knows the truth to be the complete opposite. Another type of irony Poe uses is situational irony. It is ironic that the very fear he tries to demolish is the exact fear that is responsible for his downfall. The narrator expects that that his troubles will go away and that the old man will never be discovered. However, that is not the fulfillment of the story, for the ending is the opposite of what the narrator expects. Irony aids in Poe’s demonstration of what takes over a person’s thoughts will consequently take over that person’s life.
Poe is a very unique and talented writer who "advocates art over reality" (Howard 4053) and who was far beyond his time. Poe has a keen awareness of the human psyche and "presides with precision of perception of psychological drama he describes" (Gargano 393). Poe makes his readers feel every emotion related to his style of writing. He is a very avant gard artist who "explores the neuroses of his characters" (Gargano 394) and the darker side of humanity. Poe constantly pushes forward to achieve the ultimate thrill for his readers. Through elements such as darkness, murder, suspense, and irony Poe "excels in creating and developing that fascinating mood of mystery and madness that makes the story so irresistible" (Howard 4053). "The Tell-Tale Heart" uses all the elements in the story in which there is an important theme. What consumes a person’s mind, consumes that person entirely. The story does not end happily, nor does life always. However, if we can change what is consuming our thoughts, we can mold our future into whatever we want it to be. Every person’s life is a story, but it is left up to us to determine our own ending. Will it be a happy or tragic ending?
Gargano, James W. "The Question of Poe’s Narrators." 1963. Short
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Harris. Vol. 1. Michigan: Gale, 1988. 393-94.
Grubbs, Morris A. "Edgar Allan Poe." Cyclopedia of World Authors.
3rd ed. Ed. McCrea Adams,
N. Magill. Vol. 4. Salem, 1997. 1614-15.
Howard, Ronald W. "The Tell-Tale Heart: Style and Technique."
Master Plots II Short Stories Series.
Poe, Edgar A. "The Tell-Tale Heart." Online Literature Library.
29, June 1999. Knowledge Matters
Brandy Long, at the time of this writing a junior in Early Childhood Education, wrote "Darkness Falls" for Dr. Barbara Murray’s EGNL 1102 class during fall 2004 semester.