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Professor Regina Buccola of Roosevelt University explains the historical and cultural context of Edgar Allan Poe's short story The Tell-Tale Heart.

The Tell-Tale Heart | Context


Gothic Literature

Gothic literature emerged in the late 18th century with the publication of the 1764 novel Castle of Otranto, written by the English novelist Horace Walpole. It is part of a larger Gothic movement that included architecture and art. The Castle of Otranto features many of the characteristics that would come to characterize the entire genre: a focus on the past, intense emotion, and irrationality. Gothic literature quickly became a trend, one that was so common by the time Poe was writing that people were parodying it.

Gothic works often featured old buildings such as medieval castles as their settings. These locales held hidden passageways, considerable history, and secrets—often family secrets. Gothic literature accented mystery and the supernatural. Though he did set some of his stories in alien and exotic locations, as in "The Cask of Amontillado," Poe also modernized the Gothic story by setting a number of his stories in urban settings and by focusing on psychological states. Gothic literature carried in it the seeds of later popular genres: science fiction, horror, and detective fiction. Poe was instrumental in initiating each of these genres.

The American Short Story

In English the novel became a distinct literary form in the 18th century; the short story followed about a century later when there was a large enough pool of readers with disposable income, printing had become sufficiently cheap that stories could shift from oral to written form, and magazines had emerged as a marketplace for story writers.

People began to publish magazines in the United States as early as the 1740s, but these were local and short lived. In the 1780s magazines became more regular, and in the 19th century they exploded into a diverse and competitive medium. Poe played an active role in this market by publishing many stories of his own, publishing others' works as editor of the Southern Literary Messenger, and writing essays that laid out the "rules" of the short story: readers should be able to finish a story in one sitting; writers should strive for unity of effect—a cohesive mood or ambience—beginning with the story's first line, and nothing should detract from the story's design; and stories should be imaginative, creative, and original, but they should always tell the truth about human nature.

Poe's Life and Psychology

Some elements of Poe's life and psychology provide useful perspectives on his work. For example, while all Gothic fiction and most horror fiction focuses on death and suffering, Poe suffered more losses than many writers working in these genres. Both of Poe's birth parents died in December 1811, when he was not yet three years old. The day his mother died Poe was left alone in the house overnight with her corpse and his baby sister until an adult found them the next day. When Poe was taken in and raised by John and Frances Allan, he was separated from his older brother and younger sister. Nevertheless, Poe's brother, Henry, became a role model for him. Poe imitated his writing style, named characters after him, and even incorporated his name into one of his pen names (Henri Le Rennet). Poe's foster mother, Frances Allen, also died when Poe was still young, and his wife, Virginia, died when she was just 25.

Scholars have attempted to diagnose Poe across time, reading the state of his psyche based on his writing, his actions, and the reports of those who knew him. His ongoing depression and heavy drinking may have been due in part to his lifelong financial problems as well as his unstable family history. However, as the Edgar Allen Poe Society in Baltimore, Maryland, points out, analyses of Poe's mental state are a matter of pure speculation, and although Poe has been the subject of numerous biographies, many details about both his outer and inner life remain vague. Various biographers have characterized him as everything from angelic (for example, John Henry Ingram's glowing Edgar Allan Poe: His Life, Letter and Opinions, first published in 1880) to downright devilish (Rufus Griswold's obituary of Poe, which the Edgar Allen Poe Society characterizes as "surprisingly vituperative"). Perhaps fittingly, the truth remains largely a mystery.

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