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The Tell-Tale Heart | Discussion Questions 31 - 40


In Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" what leads the narrator to confess?

In Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" the narrator finds himself in a tense situation when the police come to the door in response to a call about the old man's scream. At first the narrator passes the scream off as his own and makes excuses about the old man's absence, and he believes that "the officers were satisfied." Yet the officers stay on, discussing ordinary matters, according to the narrator. This extended period during which the narrator has to hold his guilt at bay proves too much. His acute senses lead him astray once again, as he began to hear a ringing in his ears. His attempt to relieve the ringing through chatter with the police is useless; under this duress the narrator comes to believe that the ringing is not in his head after all. In fact it is not ringing but rather the beating of the old man's heart. His guilt causes him to misperceive reality, and the only real relief will come with the confession he finally gives.

How does Edgar Allan Poe's diction in "The Tell-Tale Heart" impact the story?

One common characteristic in American Gothic writing is the use of elevated diction. This elevation is often characterized by obscure and archaic word choices that recreate the sense of the medieval Romantic works. This word choice is used in the first paragraph of "The Tell-Tale Heart" when the narrator calls his audience to "Hearken" rather than to "listen." Other instances of Poe's use of elevated diction in the story include the narrator's statement that the police had been "deputed" and his insistence that the police "dissemble no more!"

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

Edgar Allan Poe is revered for his ability to craft precise and evocative sentences, and in "The Tell-Tale Heart" he uses simile expertly. He invokes familiar comparisons such as "dark as midnight" to create mood and atmosphere, but his skill with simile is best expressed elsewhere. He says that the old man's "room was as black as pitch with the thick darkness." Pitch is a thick, sticky, black residue that comes from the distillation of coal, tar, or petroleum. This simile extends the darkness from something ordinary like midnight to something that can entrap the old man. Another instance where Poe uses simile is when he describes the old man's heartbeat as "a low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton." This description gives a nuance to the sounds the narrator professes to hear that transports the reader into the narrator's demented mind. Likewise, the narrator's description of the beating heart as a sound that "increased my fury, as the beating of a drum stimulates the soldier into courage" reveals the narrator's level of insanity. He interprets the beating of a heart as a call to kill. These striking and suggestive uses of simile contribute to the story's richness.

How does Edgar Allan Poe subtly introduce the Gothic double trope in "The Tell-Tale Heart"?

The Gothic double is a trope common to the Gothic tradition. Robert Lewis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a clear example of how a Gothic writer splits a single person into two parts, so that each may represent a singular quality of man, in this instance self-control and passion. The duality encourages the reader to consider the relationship between two competing human impulses. In "The Tell-Tale Heart" the Gothic double is not created in such a literal way as having two characters represent a single man. There is, however, the suggestion that the old man, whose eye represents truth, knowledge, the intellect, and perhaps even the self, is a Gothic double for the narrator, who is motivated by extreme emotion to commit a crime of passion. Given that the narrator is preoccupied with his own sanity, it is possible that the narrator's murder of the old man is in fact representative of the death of his own rational mind.

How does Edgar Allan Poe establish the motif of darkness in "The Tell-Tale Heart"?

In Gothic literature writers often use the motif of darkness. Darkness can be associated with evil, the unknown, and danger, among other things. There is darkness all around in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart." The narrator creeps to the old man's door "every night, about midnight," a time when the sky is extremely dark. There is never any mention of the moon or stars, which suggests a total absence of light. Similarly the old man's "room was as black as pitch with the thick darkness." This darkness throughout the story gives rise to a sense of fear of what is hidden. The reader becomes like the old man sitting up in the dark, trying to figure out what is under its veil. Additionally the dark house confines the reader, who is at the mercy of the narrator.

Why might the old man only sit up in bed and not get out of bed to investigate the sounds in the night in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart"?

When the old man wakes on the eighth night while the narrator stands at his door, he doesn't get out of bed to investigate but rather sits upright and still, wondering at the sounds in the night. His stationary position has important implications for the plot; the narrator could not pounce on the old man and kill him had the old man gotten up out of bed. The fact that the old man sits rather than getting out of bed also underscores that he is old and frail, helpless even, and that the narrator is preying on the weak. His inability to move also creates a kind of tension; the reader wants the narrator to get up, turn on a lantern, and see what the noise is and scare off the narrator. Finally the old man's stationary condition gives the reader a sense of confinement. He is immobile in a dark room of a dark house, unable to escape the murderous intentions of the narrator.

In "The Tell-Tale Heart" how does Edgar Allan Poe manage to create a sense of mystery even when the narrator discloses the murder in the beginning of the story?

An extremely common element of Gothic fiction is mystery. Characters and events are often shrouded in it, and the reader is carried through the story on the tension created by the unknown. In "The Tell-Tale Heart" the narrator reveals that he killed the old man right at the start of his narrative; however, the reader carries on not only to find out how and why the murder occurred but also to figure out why the narrator insists on telling his audience this story. Of course the narrator is attempting to exonerate himself by proving his sanity, the suggestion being that any sane person with acute senses like his would have killed the man, too. The mystery is the narrator's account of the murder rather than the murder itself. The narrator's plea to the audience and reader to believe him creates a tension: Will the reader believe his account or arrive at a different conclusion?

How does Poe use techniques of the dramatic monologue in "The Tell-Tale Heart"?

In "The Tell-Tale Heart" Edgar Allan Poe creates a narrator who delivers a dramatic monologue. Originally used in poetry, most famously by Robert Browning, the dramatic monologue has two defining characteristics: first, the story is told in the first person to an anonymous or unknown audience; second, the limited perspective creates an element of unreliability, as all accounts of other characters' behaviors or speech are filtered through the narrator. By invoking these two characteristics of the dramatic monologue—as did other Gothic writers such as Mary Shelley—Poe allows the narrator to reveal himself through his interpretations of events, creating tension, suspense, and doubt for the reader along the way.

How does Edgar Allan Poe engage the grotesque in "The Tell-Tale Heart"?

Central to the American Gothic style is the grotesque. A broad definition of grotesque is a distortion of something ugly or sinister. A grotesque character, however, is more complex; he is one who elicits both disgust and empathy in the reader. Edgar Allan Poe's narrator in "The Tell-Tale Heart" is a grotesque character. His actions are grotesque—not only does he kill the old, frail man but also he dismembers him and describes the deed as a rational one that ought to be admired. Yet the reader can also feel empathy for the narrator who has gone mad and is unable to right his thinking.

What elements of Edgar Allan Poe's arabesque style are present in "The Tell-Tale Heart"?

Though the words arabesque and grotesque are often conflated and even used interchangeably at times, there are distinctions between the two styles in literature. Sir Walter Scott is said to have defined the arabesque as that which is "vividly accessible to the influence of imagination." Another element he articulated is that the arabesque story need not be bound by reason. As an aesthete Edgar Allan Poe's works aimed always to appeal to the imagination rather than to morality; thus his works are designed to influence and engage the reader's imagination. As seen in "The Tell-Tale Heart" and his other works, reason is often abandoned, and his characters and the narratives themselves are given over to insanity.

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