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Telling All on “The Tell-Tale Heart”

Tyson Yow

In Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”, the horrifying story of a man’s brutal murder by a trusted servant is told. Using characteristics common in many American Gothic Fiction, Poe illustrates a very dark setting within the old man’s home in an unspecified town. All four of the characteristics of an American Gothic Fictional story were used in Poe’s heart-racing tale. The general characteristics include a dark, scary setting (as previously mentioned), purposes to frighten the reader, very violent, and usually focuses on a supernatural force.

In “The Tell-Tale Heart”, Poe chooses a very dark and creepy setting, as is the first characteristic of American Gothic. One online source notes, “The narrators nervousness is a frequently used device of Poe to establish tone and plausibility through heightened states of consciousness.” (Womack) He places the entire story in the old man’s house, more specifically the common room and his bedroom. It is set back in probably the mid-1800s in what appears to be a town, although never clearly addressed. The house is described as both dark and secure. Poe mentions that the old man’s room was “black as pitch with the thick darkness.” (Poe 57) He also illustrates the windows as “close fastened, through fear of robbers.” (Poe 57) The old man’s suspicious nature and want for security provides great irony and adds to the suspense of his well-kept home, especially since he was murdered in what was supposed to be his safe haven from the world.

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Secondly, Poe’s tale tries to frighten the reader. He uses the element of suspense to prepare the reader. He describes, in detail, the stalking, hiding, and brutal murder of the victim. The man waited for seven days, entering the room and “cautiously” undoing the lantern so that a “single thin ray fell upon the vulture eye.” (Poe 57) The madman’s continuous reassurance that “what you mistake for madness is but over-acuteness of the senses.” (Poe 57) Poe tells, too, of the source of madness, the “evil eye,” allowing such a vivid picture to enter the minds eye and relate to the crazed man’s awkward behavior. (57) The belief in the evil eye dates back to ancient times, and even today. The belief “centers around the idea that those who possess the evil eye have the power to harm people or their possessions by merely looking at them.” (Womack) In the end, as the “beating” of the old man’s “hideous heart” grew “louder�louder�louder, “ the reader’s own heart begins to race. Such an element of suspense, that we, too, feel as if we “must scream or die.” (Poe 58)

The third characteristic is the extreme violence carried throughout the story. The madman does much more than just kill the old man, he also “dismembered the corpse” and caught all the blood and mess in a tub, leaving “nothing to wash.” (58) And, afterwards, he is left with no remorse or guilt. Had it not been for the sound of the beating heart heard in the back of his head, the man actually would have gotten away with it. He, himself, said, “I smiled�for what did I have to fear?” (Poe 58) A remark that sends chills down the spine, for it indicates a lack of remorse and a cold heart. His quick and precise cover-up of the murder was also masterfully violent. He “took up three planks…and deposited all between the scantlings.” (Poe 58) He spitefully even sat his “seat upon the very spot beneath which reposed the corpse of the victim.” (Poe 58)

Lastly, the fourth characteristic is the focus on the supernatural. Poe carefully unleashes the evil eye as nothing more than the man’s eye, yet as the story progresses, one realizes that the eye is like a vultures eye, actually driving the servant man mad. He is so mad, in fact, that he kills the man he has love for and believe that it is done in the name of justice. Once dead, he believed that the man’s “eye would bother him no more.” (Poe 58) Instead, the “low, dull, quick” beat of his heart drove him to admit his wrong. (Poe 58) He “foam…raved …swore” as the noise increased. (Poe 58) The supernatural beating could not be stopped, not even once he admitted to the crime.

In conclusion, Poe’s classic tale of “The Tell-Tale Heart” is a psychotic thriller of man driven to kill all at the whim of a supposed evil eye. Poe graphically illustrates and carries the genre of American Gothic Fiction right down to the end, without ever losing focus. The explicit detail and frightening suspense further increase the thrill for the reader throughout the wonderfully mastered tale.

Poe, Edgar Allen. “The Tell-Tale Heart.” The Bedford Introduction to Literature. Ed. Michael Meyer. New York St. Martin’s Press. 187. 57-8.

Womack, Martha. “Edgar Allen Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart.” Martha Womack. The Poe Decoder. 1 July 00. http//www.

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