Response to “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe

“Was it possible they heard not? Almighty God! --no, no! They heard! --they suspected! --they knew! --they were making a mockery of my horror!” (Poe 125). These are the words of the main character in the short story “The Tell-Tale Heart,” written by Edgar Allan Poe in 1843. If you have ever done something wrong and the guilt of your actions is weighing on your mind, then you know the feeling of paranoia this man is experiencing. “The Tell-Tale Heart” is a monologue in which a man explains the events that led him to murder an acquaintance and later confess his guilt. After reading “The Tell-Tale Heart,” I felt that I knew the personality of the main character, and understood his way of thinking. Poe's unique tone, effective use of repetition, and his mastery of writing allegorical tales are the reasons for this work's lasting popularity.

Another effective aspect of Poe's style of writing is his use of repetition. For one, the narrator often repeats what he says, which gives the reader further insight to the possibility that he is indeed insane. Poe doubles words constantly throughout the story, beginning with the first sentence, which was quoted earlier. Other examples include such phrases as “slowly—very, very slowly,” “cautiously—oh, so cautiously—cautiously,” “steadily, steadily,” and “stealthily, stealthily” (Peeples 96). After the murder, the narrator relaxes and the reader does not see as many repetitions of single words, but when the narrator hears the heartbeat in the presence of the policemen, his nervousness increases and so does the repetition of his words. “It grew louder—louder—louder!,no!...this I thought, and this I think…louder! louder! louder! louder!, here!—it is the beating of his hideous heart!” (Poe 126). The repetition in the climax of the story helps the reader understand the narrator's nervous state and it adds suspense, as well. Poe's use of repetition also reinforces the theme of obsession, and the understanding of the narrator that his life and death will be a repetition of the old man's (Peeples 96).

Poe also uses symbolism in “The Tell-Tale Heart” in order to hold the reader's attention and to put emphasis on certain morals, themes, and ideas that he feels are critical in understanding and appreciating the story. Poe is known for his ability to create allegorical tales. In “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the narrator spends seven nights quietly spying on the old man as he sleeps. On the eighth night, the old man is awakened and can feel the presence of a being. The old man lies in his bed in fear that someone or something is coming for him. The symbolism in this scene is one related to death. E. Arthur Robinson finds symbolism in the man's vain attempt to let his fear lessen because it was actually “'Death' whose shadow is approaching him, and it was the mournful influence of that shadow that caused him to feel his destroyer within the room” (Robinson 167). The old man's murderer symbolizes death, which has come to take his life. Another usage of symbolism in “The Tell-Tale Heart” is the description of the beating heart coming from the deceased and dismembered body of the old man, who was buried under the floorboards of his bedroom. While speaking to the police about the screams heard by neighbors and the whereabouts of his old friend, the narrator can hear the beating heart above everything. The man describes the noise in this quotation as such, “[y]et the sound increased --and what could I do? It was a low, dull, quick sound --much such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton” (Poe 122). Poe has the narrator hear the beating heart in order to show that the fears inside him are still present, and that he murdered the old man in an attempt to kill part of himself. The narrator's “demons could not be exorcised through murder, for he himself is their destined victim” (Robinson 167). In the story, the narrator is obsessed with timekeeping. He gives detailed descriptions of the times he secretly stared at the old man, watching him sleep. The continual references to time and watching are symbolic of the man's fear of death (Peeples 95). The narrator is quoted referring to the old man as he sits up in bed “listening; just as I have done, night after night, hearkening to the death watches in the wall” (Poe 122). The “death-watch” is an insect that rhythmically beats its head against the wood that it has attached itself to. Symbolically, the term death-watch in the story connects the passage of time with the point in which time ends, also known as death. The man repeatedly makes reference to the time when watching the old man because of his grave fear of death (Peeples 95).

Edgar Allan Poe developed his own unique style of writing. His short stories, as well as his other works, are full of individualistic style. In “The Tell-Tale Heart,” Poe's ability to utilize such aspects of writing as tone, repetition, and symbolism is just a sample of his capability. His style of writing quickly grabs the reader's attention, keeps the reader in suspense throughout the story, and finally surprises them with an ending that was not foreshadowed at any time. “The Tell-Tale Heart” possesses each of these qualities, along with many others. Edgar Allan Poe has gained a place in the history books of American literature for all of time.

Works Cited

Peeples, Scott. "Double Vision and Single Effect." Edgar Allan Poe Revisited. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1998. 94-96; 147.

Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Tales of Edgar Allan Poe. Coburn, Simpson, ed. New York and London: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1902. 118-126.

Robinson, Arthur E. “The Psychology of  'The Tell-Tale Heart.'” Readings on Edgar Allan Poe. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1998. 160-168.


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