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The Tell-Tale Heart | Discussion Questions 1 - 10

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What is revealed about the narrator in the opening lines of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell Tale Heart"?

The opening paragraph of "The Tell-Tale Heart" reveals a great deal about the narrator of the story. First the reader learns that the narrator has been ill, presumably meaning he has been physically sick. The reader also learns that someone who the narrator imagines to be the audience for this story says that he has lost control of his mind and gone mad. The narrator protests this assessment of his mental health, declaring that "the disease had sharpened my senses—not destroyed—not dulled them." Here he announces his intention to convince his audience that he is indeed perfectly sane.

How does "The Tell-Tale Heart" demonstrate the element of irrationality common to the American Gothic genre?

Throughout the short story "The Tell-Tale Heart," the narrator reveals himself as an increasingly irrational character. In the beginning the reader might be swayed to believe him when he says that he is not mad, but as the story unfolds the reader comes to the clear understanding that the narrator is irrational. His assessment of the "Evil Eye" represents an irrational interpretation of what is most probably a case of glaucoma or a cataract. His belief that he can hear the beating of the old man's heart is irrational, and even more so is his suspicion that the neighbors can hear the heartbeat. The pinnacle of the narrator's irrationality is his belief that the police can hear the beating of the old man's heart from beneath the floorboards.

How does "The Tell-Tale Heart" exhibit the element of intense emotion in characters common to the American Gothic genre?

One way that an author can create a sense of heightened emotion is through punctuation. In "The Tell-Tale Heart" the very first sentence is punctuated with an exclamation point. In fact Poe uses more than 40 exclamation points throughout the short story, and nearly half of them come in the closing paragraphs. Though the tale begins with a certain level of heightened emotion, by the final paragraph it clearly progresses to the point that the narrator is made hysterical by guilt. The narrator himself also makes claims to experiencing (or not) extreme emotions. For example, the narrator says that he did not hate but "loved the old man." It is the transformation from fear of the eye into anger at the eye that drives the narrator to commit murder. These extreme human emotions that govern the narrator's behavior are a characteristic of the American Gothic tradition.

How does Edgar Allan Poe use zoomorphism to convey the narrator's feeling about the old man's eye in "The Tell-Tale Heart"?

When the narrator first discloses his motive for killing the old man, he says, "I think it was his eye!" The description of the eye that follows this statement uses zoomorphism to describe his eye as like that of a vulture, an animal typically associated with death. The narrator says the old man's eye, "whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold." The narrator's mental instability causes him to believe that this vulture eye is watching and waiting for him to die.

How does Edgar Allan Poe use an allusion to Shakespeare's Macbeth in "The Tell-Tale Heart"?

When the narrator is standing at the old man's door, he says, "I could see nothing else of the old man's face or person: for I had directed the ray as if by instinct, precisely upon the damned spot." This "damned spot" is an allusion to a monologue given by Lady Macbeth. After the murder of King Duncan, Lady Macbeth imagines a "damned spot" of blood on her hands that she cannot wash off. This spot is the manifestation of her guilt, and it will ultimately be her undoing. By invoking this allusion Poe foreshadows the narrator's guilt and his undoing.

In "The Tell-Tale Heart" how does Edgar Allan Poe engage the sense of hearing, and to what effect?

While all good writers engage the senses through descriptive language, Edgar Allan Poe gives special attention to the sense of hearing in "The Tell-Tale Heart." Besides language that engages sight—specifically the sight of the eye—there is not much attention given to senses beyond hearing. This focus on what the narrator hears is important in two ways. First, the narrator claims that he has heightened power of the senses, and that "above all was the sense of hearing acute." Poe spends a lot of time detailing what the narrator hears. Second, this creates a parallel between the reader's experience and the narrator's. In the absence of sensory language that engages other senses such as touch, taste, and smell, the reader's experience is grounded in the sounds the narrator professes to hear.

What tone does Edgar Allan Poe establish in the opening paragraph of the short story "The Tell-Tale Heart"?

In the first paragraph of "The Tell-Tale Heart" Edgar Allan Poe uses the narrator's first-person point of view to establish a tone of desperation and hysteria. While the narrator believes himself to be presenting himself "healthily ... [and] calmly," he appears to the reader as the madman he insists he is not. When the narrator claims that he "heard all things in the heaven and in the earth ... [and] in hell," the reader knows he is indeed mad to make these claims, and his tone registers as desperate to convince the reader otherwise. The broken speech patterns used by the narrator, signaled through a series of dashes and exclamation points, creates a sense of hysteria. The disparity between what the narrator says about himself and what he reveals establish tension that moves the story forward.

What is Edgar Allan Poe's purpose in writing "The Tell-Tale Heart"?

In his essay "Philosophy of Composition" Edgar Allan Poe wrote that each decision an author makes when writing a story must "tend to the development of the intention." Given the themes of mental health, guilt, confinement, and tension and time woven throughout "The Tell-Tale Heart," it is reasonable to assume that the intention of the short story is to show how the emotion of guilt can, over time and under confined circumstances, overpower the logic of a madman to reveal his evil deeds. If Poe followed his own advice, then he would have held this intention in mind as he wrote the story so that he could be sure each element of the tale tended to this overall intention.

In Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" how does the encounter with the old man on the eighth night create a tone of sadness?

Though the overall tone of the story "The Tell-Tale Heart" might not be described as a sad tone, readers should always look for a tone of sadness in a Poe story. In his "Philosophy of Composition" Poe names sadness as the "highest manifestation" of tone, because it "invariably excites the sensitive soul to tears." On the eighth night when the narrator sticks his head in the old man's door for the final time, the old man cries out "Who's there?" These two words from what has been described as a frail, kind, old man is enough to make the reader sad about the old man's fate.

How does setting contribute to the intention of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart"?

According to Poe's essay "Philosophy of Composition" each element of a composition should contribute to its overall intention or effect. The setting of "The Tell-Tale Heart" is designed to support the overall intention of the story. While the story is set in a small house where the narrator and old man live, the majority of the story occurs in the thoughts of the narrator rather than in action that plays out in the physical setting of the house. Indeed, very few details are given about the house, suggesting that the mental landscape of the narrator is the true setting; nonetheless, the descriptions that are given of the house—the door, the clocks, the floorboards, the deathwatchers in the walls—all give rise to a feeling of confinement. The way Poe treats these elements of setting contributes to the overall intention of the story to reveal a mad man's evil deeds through his own mental instability and guilt.

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