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The Tell-Tale Hear

Updated on October 28, 2008

A person’s heart is one of the most vital organs in his or her body. Without a heart, life would not be possible for any living creature. Due to its significance, the heart is often incorporated by authors into their works of fiction as a powerful symbol. For example, in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”, Poe uses the heart of one of his characters and its beating to symbolically represent an array of concepts, such as the narrator’s fear, conscience subconsciously speaking out to him, and as a true sign of insanity.

Edgar Allan Poe: The Tell-Tale Hear

In our modern world, stories affect our life every day, but how do the authors of these wonders keep the reader exited and focused? This is when the type of writing called suspense comes along. Suspense is the type of writing skill authors use to give readers uncertainty about the conclusion of the story.

In some stories, the reader may guess the conclusion before they even finish reading the introduction, but when authors add suspense in to their master pieces, the stories become far more interesting and keeps the reader wondering whether if the conclusion of the story would end like they thought it would, and therefore keeps the reader wanting to read more.

Poe generally wrote in the male perspective, and in the story it shows all male characteristics. In this story the narrator is never identified as neither male nor female. Yet the narrator is described as a male. Also in this story, Poe shows similarity between hate and love. This seem to love their rival, yet hate them at the same time. The hatred causes them to kill their rivals in the end. (Wilbur Stewart Scott, 2003)

The famous writer Edgar Allan Poe is an expert in writing suspense related stories and professionally uses this particular writing style. “The Tell Tale Heart” is just one of Poe’s many masterpieces that possess the ability to keep the reader of the story reading from the beginning of the story to the end. But what exactly is suspense and how does Edgar Allan Poe use it to manipulate his readers?

He used three very powerful tools, foreshadowing, hampering information, and character development. And this is exactly how he applied the three skills in to his story. The author first led suspense in to his story right at the beginning. He practically started the story by using foreshadowing. Foreshadowing is a very interesting type of literary device.

It gives out clues to the reader about the conclusion of the story. Usually it is the character of the story that gives out the clues but from time to time it may vary. Because foreshadowing usually comes in at the very beginning, you may not believe what the character tells you because you do not exactly know what kind of person he is, and if the character is some psychopath, obviously you are not going to believe him. Putting foreshadowing in the beginning of a story is an excellent way to start a story because that way it keeps the reader’s attention at the beginning of the story. (Vincent Price,, 1965)

During the story, Edgar Allan Poe gave the reader much information and description, but you could tell that he also held back much information. For example, at the beginning of the story, the man told the reader that he loved the old man but hates the eye and believes the eye is evil.

In the story, first of all, the “low, dull, quick sound” that the narrator classifies as “the beating of the old man’s heart” symbolizes the fear that is found within the narrator. This fear is noted when the narrator says, “And now a new anxiety seized me-the sound would be heard by a neighbor!”

The fear caused by the beating of the heart acts an internal motivator for the narrator to finally follow through with his plan to kill the old man and to confess to the murder when the police officers come to investigate the old man’s home after the crime has taken place.

If the narrator had not heard the beating of the heart, he may not have acted so immediately, thus allowing the old man to avoid death for the eight consecutive nights and saving himself from the confrontation with the police officers. The thought of the old man’s heart causes the narrator to become overcome with fear.

Secondly, the sound that the narrator hears could be the beating of his own heart instead of the old man’s, representing his own conscience trying to subconsciously speak out to the narrator. In life, when a person is in the process of committing a bad deed, most of the times his or her conscience will make him or her become nervous and filled with anxiety. (Richard Corben, Rich Margopoulos, 2006)

The narrator exemplifies this idea by stating, “I have told you that I am nervous: so I am,” during the moment precisely before the murder. By becoming nervous, the narrator proves that he possesses an internal aspect that is trying to keep him from perpetrating the crime.

Close to the end of the story, the narrator’s conscience speaks out again when the beating sound of the heart returns, but this time it struggles to be heard in the form of subconscious guilt.

Although he never admits to having a guilty conscience, it is obvious that the narrator does feel guilty for murdering the old man through the way he acts when the beating of the heart returns while he is being interegated by the police officers.

The narrator provides detailed proof of this concept by saying, “I now grew very pale:-but I talked more fluently, and with a heightened voice. Yet the sound increased.” The narrator tries to muffle the sound of the beating heart with his actions, but one’s own conscience is incapable of being silenced.

Thirdly, the heart and its beating are a symbol of the narrator’s true sign of insanity. The beating sound that the narrator claims to hear could be his sanity “beating” against the chambers of his own heart as it fights to be unleashed.

Although the narrator claims that he is not a “madman”, it is evident all throughout the story that he is insane, starting with his quote, “I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell.” It is this “sense of hearing acute” that gives him logical reasoning to believe that it is the old man’s heart he hears beating instead of his own heart.

Throughout the course of the story, the narrator’s insanity level progressively esculates until it finally erupts during his confession to the police officers due to the constant “louder and louder” beating of the heart the narrator endlessly fails to silence. (

Normally the reader would think that all he want to do is to take out the old man’s eye, but who would have ever knew that he was going to kill the old man, for the man never wronged him or given him an insult. Yet he would kill the old man just so he would not get stared by a fake eye.

Also towards the end of the story of the “Tell Tale Heart”, Edgar Allan Poe wrote, “The officers were satisfied. My MANNER had convinced them.” Yet at the very end of the story, he wrote the complete opposite of what he wrote earlier, “They heard! - They suspected! -They Knew!” As you can see, the author created suspense from another perspective.

In the story “The Tell Tale Heart”, Edgar Allan Poe used character development to enforce the suspense in his story. As the story unfolds, the main character turns out to be a psychopath who doesn’t know what he is talking about. Any reader would know that he is not normal and think he would snap out of it any second. (Edgar, Allan Poe, Andrew Barger, 2006)

The first time one read the story one would think that he would stop mid way trying to kill the old man and reason with his conscious and eventually get a hold of him. Because of the crazy character, readers may not exactly believe what the he say, and eventually questions his/her self about the foreshadowing.

By now you should have a pretty good idea of how Edgar Allan Poe uses suspense so well in “The Tell Tale Heart”, and should be able to realize just how well he hid it among all the details. This is how Poe `magically’ drew the reader’s attention without even letting them know. He started out by foreshadowing his story to the readers and let them guess the ending, then slowly plays around with the reader by taking out some details from his story to let the reader guess even more.

And finally let them wonder all over again about every thing by letting the reader know the story revolves around an untrustworthy psychopath. As you can see, “The Tell Tale Heart” truly is a work of wonder, but the real question is how exactly does Poe come up with such an excellent writing style? Well, it is still a mystery to many and shall always be.


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