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The Tell-Tale Heart - Suspense and Tension Essay

The Tell-Tale Heart - Suspense and Tension Essay

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Published by: Thomas David Luke Wheeler on Sep 28, 2009
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07/03/2013

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 Thomas Wheeler 11A1/11AR
How Does Edgar Allan Poe Create Suspense and Tension in “The Tell-Tale Heart”.
This essay focuses on Edgar Allan Poe’s (1809-1849) short story, called, “The Tell-Tale Heart”, written in 1843 for theBoston-based magazine, The Pioneer. We mustdiscover, where, how, and why Poe creates suspense and tension in the story. Wecan accomplish this by looking and examining the many techniques used by Poe inthe story, and what effects they create in our minds.Edgar Allan Poe was a famous author of horror novels, short stories, poems, essaysand plays, and today, many of his works have been adapted for screen, radio andstage, including “The Tell-Tale Heart”.The story is told from the point of view of the murderer (1
st
person), who is a lodger at the home of a kind, elderly man. However, the narrator soon believes that one of the man’s eyes is evil, and resembles an eye of a vulture. Due to this belief, thenarrator decides to kill the old man, although the man had never wronged thenarrator. The man tries to convince us that he is not mad because he planned themurder so thoroughly and carefully, but he only succeeds in further proving hisinsanity. For a week before the murder, the narrator is the kindest he’s ever been tothe old man, and, each night, around midnight, the narrator would very slowly pokehis head into the old man’s room and shine a tiny ray of light onto the man’s evil eye.He could not bring himself to murder the old man, however, as the eye was alwaysclosed.But on the eighth night, while entering the room, the narrator accidently wakes up theold man. Still edging slowly into the room, not giving up, the narrator finally kills theold man, who lets out a single cry. The narrator leaves no trace of the crime,dismembering the body from its head, arms and legs, and hides the old man’s bodyunderneath the floorboards of the bedroom, which proves a wise precaution as threepolicemen were sent to investigate a scream heard from the house. The narrator invites them to search all over the house, telling them that the old man was out of thetown at the moment and that the scream heard was his own, when waking up from anightmare.The narrator, after successfully lifting any suspicion off him, as all seems in order and the narrator has a pleasant and calm nature, not one of a typical murderer,invites the policemen to stay a while and to have a rest, and they all talk in the oldman’s room, with the narrator sitting above the body. They accept and all seems tobe going well, however, the narrator soon starts to hear a repeating sound comingfrom somewhere close to him, although the policemen seem to not hear it. The
 
 Thomas Wheeler 11A1/11AR
narrator starts becoming edgy and worried, also extremely paranoid that thepolicemen have in fact heard the repeating noise and are just playing with him,mocking his insanity. This shows us that the narrator is extremely paranoid andinsecure, as well as once more adding to the argument that he really is insane. As aresult, after not being able to take the pressure anymore, the narrator leaps up andconfesses to the murder, tearing away at the floorboards, showing them where thebody was hidden, also confirming to the reader that it was, it seems, the beatingheart of the dead old man that the narrator could hear.We can tell from this that the narrator was definitely becoming stressed, impatientand nervous the longer the policemen stayed. However, the exact cause for hearingthe beating heart of a dead old man and confessing to the murder have never beenrevealed, although it has been debated that the noise heard was actually thepreviously mentioned Death Watch Beetles in the walls, as they make a similar noiseto a beating heart. Although it is widely assumed and acknowledged/ agreed on thatthe narrator was insane and that was the reason he heard the beating heart of adead man and confessed to the murder, it has been theorised that there might havebeen another cause for it. One of these possible causes is that the narrator felt guilty,pity, or remorse for the old man, and so confessed to the murder in order to beginrepenting for the murder, and possibly clear his conscience ever so slightly.However, if that was the case, it is still entirely possible that the narrator is insane asit is not normally considered sane to hear the beating heart of the old dead man thatyou’ve worked so hard, precisely and dedicatedly to murder for the past eight days.The use of first person is very important in “The Tell-Tale Heart”. Poe uses thistechnique in order to make us feel closer and more involved in the story and to helpus get inside the head of the narrator, as we can see how, when he talks directly tothe reader, he mostly just states how, contrary to our own belief, he is not insane, but just that he pays a lot of attention to details and is a very calculating person.Three examples of where the narrator directly speaks to the reader are, “but why willyou say that I am mad?”, “You fancy me mad”, and, “if still you think me mad”.Time is a very important part of Poe’s stories, and “The Tell-Tale Heart” is of noexception. Poe once said that, for a successful, well-written, short story, as “The Tell-Tale Heart” is, the story’s timeline must not extend over two days.Watches are referenced a few times during the story, usually to give us a sense of how much time has passed, although it can also be symbolised, as each tick of thewatch symbolizes a movement closer to the inevitable death that all humans face,although in this case, the old man’s death. This is suggested through the line, “Awatch's minute hand moves more quickly than did mine”. As you can see, he
 
 Thomas Wheeler 11A1/11AR
compares himself to a watch, suggesting it is he himself who is counting down untilthe old man’s death, as he is the one in control.The reason time is used so frequently in the story is mostly due to the need of showing just how precise, obsessed and calculated the narrator is, as it shows usthat, at the same time each night, for eight days, the narrator would very slowly movehis head into the old man’s bedroom, then slowly direct a tiny ray of light from thelantern into the old man’s eye. Then, the pace of the story changes as the narrator murders the old man, but slows down as the old man’s heart stops beating,continuing throughout the policemen’s search of the house. However, the pacequickens once again when the policemen start relaxing in the home and they and thenarrator are sitting and talking in the old man’s bedroom, as the narrator startshearing the old man’s beating heart once more, this time steadily rising, growingstronger, louder and faster.Time is shown moving slowly when the sentences are longer and they include morecommas, however, when the pace of the story increases and time appears to movefaster, the sentences are much shorter, normally including two or three words.Here are some examples of time moving slowly, “It took me an hour to place mywhole head within the opening”, “A watch’s minute hand moves more quickly thandid mine”, and, “For a whole hour, I did not move a muscle”. On the other hand, hereare two quotations about time picking up speed, “I threw open the lantern and leapedinto the room”, and, “They heard. They suspected. They knew”.Edgar Allan Poe uses repetition many times in the story, and the technique is usedas each use of repetition helps contribute to adding more atmosphere to the story,adding to the suspense and fear that we already feel. When they are used, the storyslows down slightly, which makes our anticipation for finding out what happens nextgrow, and this pulls us further into the story, making us read on. As the story is a 1
st
person account of the event, thinking solely about its use in the plot, it helpsunderline how detailed the narrator is in his details and how much he obsessed over the murder.Three examples of repetition in the story are “With what caution -- With whatforesight -- With what dissimulation”, “How stealthily, stealthily”, and, “Louder!Louder! Louder! Louder!”, although there are many more that can be easily spotted.The language used in “The Tell-Tale Heart” is very important in keeping theatmosphere alive while also making sure the reader stays interested in the story. Asa horror story, that focuses on the subject on insanity, murder, and obsession, it onlymakes sense for Poe to use certain words and phrases that give off the sense of being evil, dark, or even just full-on horrific.

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Daria Maria Koukoleva added this note
Thanks so much, this is really useful - opened up new ideas and helped me realise where I went wrong and how I can improve on my future essays (since I've already done this essay).
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