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The Tell-Tale Heart | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


How does Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" demonstrate a reverence for the aesthetic?

The notion of art for art's sake was as central to Poe's work as it was to the Aesthetic Movement. This movement promoted the idea that the beauty of a work of art is more important than its meaning; indeed, Poe believed that a work of literature ought not aim to teach a lesson but rather create an experience for the reader. Though themes such as mental health and guilt are threaded through "The Tell-Tale Heart," the work does not have a didactic purpose as did some works of other American Gothic writers, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne. One way Poe creates his aesthetic, which he called arabesque, is with language that appeals to the senses, making the reader feel as if he or she were present in the story.

In "The Tell-Tale Heart" why might Poe have made the choice to have the narrator break at times from the first-person point of view to the second person?

This break in point of view is yet another decision that Poe made to serve the overall impression of the story. The reader knows that the narrator is mad, despite his constant arguments to the contrary. The shifting in narrative point of view gives the impression that the narrator is unstable and thus unreliable. Specifically his address to the reader in the second person signifies his desperation; he feels the need to justify his actions to the reader because he is so desperate to have them believe that he is not mad. His appeal to an imaginary or unidentified audience also signals his need to confess and alleviate his guilt.

How might the narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart" exhibit some of the symptoms of a rabies infection that Poe himself might have experienced?

Recently surfaced information suggests that Poe might have met his early death due to a rabies infection. Advanced stages of a rabies infection can cause psychological issues, including anxiety, agitation, and even delusions and hallucinations. Certainly the narrator in "The Tell-Tale Heart" experiences heightened anxiety and agitation over the look of the old man's eye as well as the sound of the deathwatch beetles in the walls. He also demonstrates anxious behavior when he believes that a neighbor might hear the man's heart beating and that the police hear it. Most importantly it is the narrator's delusions about the intention of the old man's eye that lead him to commit murder.

How might "The Tell-Tale Heart" have served as inspiration for Edgar Allan Poe's 1849 poem "A Dream within a Dream"?

In 1849 Poe published a poem titled "A Dream within a Dream." In this poem the speaker asks the question if "All that we see or seem/But a dream within a dream?" In addition to a general dreamlike quality throughout the short story, there are two specific references to dreaming. The first is when the narrator goes to the old man's door on the eighth night and claims that the old man could not "even to dream of my secret deeds or thoughts." Only in a dream, or an alternate reality, could the narrator know what the old man was dreaming about. This suggests that the story has the potential to be a departure from reality. Perhaps this decision opened a line of thinking for Poe, who later asked if reality is indeed itself a dream. The second mention of dreaming is when the narrator tells the police that the scream they heard "was my own in a dream." This line again offers the suggestion that what the narrator is experiencing is indeed his own dream, not an objective reality—a notion that Poe would explore again in his 1849 poem.

In the closing paragraphs of "The Tell-Tale Heart," how does Edgar Allan Poe use punctuation to reveal the narrator's undoing?

Edgar Allan Poe uses punctuation to create the effect of an increasingly erratic thought process in the narrator. As the narrator's suspicion that the police can hear the heart beating grows, Poe uses dashes, exclamation points, and question marks to signal that the narrator is about to break. For example, the narrator says "—but the noise steadily increased. Oh God! What could I do? I foamed—I raved—I swore!" By stringing together each of these kinds of punctuation, Poe signals the narrator's desperation and his need to alleviate his guilt. Additionally the narrator's questioning and exclaiming build tension in the mind of the reader as he or she wonders if the narrator will break under the pressure.

In "The Tell-Tale Heart," why might Edgar Allan Poe have made the decision to create an unreliable narrator?

Poe's work often features unreliable narrators, including stories such as "The Fall of the House of Usher" and "The Cask of Amontillado." The unreliable narrator is central to "The Tell-Tale Heart" for two reasons. First, Poe uses the tension between the narrator's announced intentions and the real motivation for his actions. Second, this tension is amplified by the fact that the narrator seems not only desperate to convince his audience that he is sane and had good motive for killing the old man but also he seems to be trying to convince himself as well that he is not mad. The reader is left with the impression that over time, the narrator buckles under the tension between how he wants to perceive himself and how others perceive him.

In "The Tell-Tale Heart" what is the purpose of having the narrator visit the old man's room seven nights in a row before finally killing him on the eighth night?

The decision to have the narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart" visit the old man's room for seven nights before he finally murders the old man on the eighth night is an example of how Poe is a master of building suspense and tension. The narrator announces very early on in the story that he has killed the old man. Given that the reader already knows what happens, Poe has an even more difficult task of building suspense up to the point where the man is killed in the narrator's recounting of the events. He succeeds in building this tension by showing the narrator making seven separate trips to the door in preparation for the final and fatal trip on the eighth night. Poe also uses these seven visits to illustrate the narrator's obsession with the eye. While at the door the narrator's only concern each night is the eye. Another benefit of this element of the story is that the narrator reveals himself to be a very meticulous planner, a point of pride that he highlights to claim that he is not insane.

How does Edgar Allan Poe use time in "The Tell-Tale Heart"?

There is a great deal of attention given to the measuring of time in "The Tell-Tale Heart." The narrator declares to his reader that "the old man's hour had come" to be killed. This is uttered right before he rushes into the old man's room to murder him. He makes it a point to tell the reader that he goes to the old man's room for seven nights in a row "every night, about midnight," demonstrating that he is a man who marks things by time, including his own movements as illustrated by the line "a watch's minute hand moves more quickly than did mine." The next mention of a clock is when the narrator claims that he hears a "low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton ... it was the beating of the old man's heart." This simile demonstrates that the narrator is confounding rational, reliable elements of his environment with irrational or supernatural elements.

In "The Tell-Tale Heart" what evidence is there to suggest that the narrator had a motive to kill other than the distress caused by the old man's eye?

In the second paragraph of "The Tell-Tale Heart" the narrator says of the murder, "object there was none." He then lists a number of motives one might assume he had—revenge, greed—and then seems to happen upon the notion of the eye by chance: "I think it was his eye! Yes, it was this!" Given that the first paragraph makes clear that the narrator is desperate to convince the reader of his sanity and in doing so reveals himself to be insane, this passage might suggest an alternative motive. In saying that he did not seek revenge or the old man's gold, he might indeed be revealing his true motives.

How does Edgar Allan Poe engender sympathy for the old man and the narrator in "The Tell-Tale Heart"?

In addition to the narrator's assertion that the old man had never harmed him in any way, Poe builds sympathy for the old man in a few other ways. First, he is perceived as frail and in need of help; there is the suggestion that the narrator lives with the old man to take care of him, though there is no clear explanation for why the two men live together. Second, the narrator himself actually sympathizes with the old man. The narrator stands at the old man's door on the night of the murder and hears his "groan of mortal terror." He tells the reader that he "knew the sound well. Many a night ... it has welled up from my own bosom." Here the reader might sympathize not only with the old man but also perhaps even with the narrator who has also been struck with this terror. The narrator goes on to guess what the old man might be telling himself to ease the terror: "It is merely a cricket which has made a single chirp." This statement suggests the narrator himself has attempted these same rationalizations to keep the terror at bay.

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