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How does Edgar Allan Poe keep the reader in suspense in “The Tell–Tale Heart”? Free essay! Download now

Home > GCSE > English literature > How does Edgar Allan Poe keep the reader in suspense in “The Tell–Tale Heart”?

How does Edgar Allan Poe keep the reader in suspense in “The Tell–Tale Heart”?

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This essay contains a summary of Poe's short story, with comments on the setting and characterisation, followed by a discussion of the literary devices which the author employs, namely first person narration, time, repetition, noises, descriptive language and imagery, and the author's themes.


The narrator’s obsession is such that he or she becomes convinced that the old man actually has the “Evil Eye” itself – the notion that a person can inflict harm on another simply by looking at them – and consequently meticulously plots, and carries out, the cold-blooded murder of the old man, with his own bed, to, as the narrator says, “rid myself of the eye for ever”.
The narrator then conscientiously hides the old man’s remains beneath the floorboards of his chamber, and, at this point, is visited by three policemen, summoned by a neighbour, on “suspicion of foul play”.
For a time, the narrator delights in the execution of the “perfect” crime, greeting the officers in a cordial and carefree manner, delivering a plausible explanation for the “shriek” heard by the neighbour and the whereabouts of the old man, allowing the officers to search the premises at will, and even fetching chairs so that they might rest. The narrator’s performance is so convincing that the police officers suspect no wrong-doing.
However, the longer the policemen remain, the more uncomfortable the narrator becomes. He or she perceives a repetitive sound, a ringing, or a beating – whether this is real or imaginary we are not told – growing gradually louder and louder, and as the sound grows louder, so the diction and actions of the narrator become more frenetic and agitated.
Finally comes the, perhaps misguided, realisation that the policemen themselves must be able to hear the noise, and in failing to acknowledge it, are, as the narrator exclaims, “making a mockery of my horror!” The narrator’s apparently calm demeanour now long-gone, he or she confesses to the crime, and the narrative ends abruptly.
It is interesting that Poe provides his narrator with no name, and, particularly, with no gender. Poe, as a male author, writing in the first person, may have assumed that the reader would expect the narrator to be male, but it could also be that he aims to provide the reader with a further jolt, by having the vile act perpetrated by a member of the fairer sex. There is a clue as to the gender of the narrator in the very act of murder itself – “In an instant I dragged him to the floor, and pulled the heavy bed over him.” – suggesting that the murderer is physically robust. At first glance, this appears to indicate masculinity, but it is equally possible that the act, against, an, after all, frail, old man, was carried out by a stout, matronly woman. There is also an earlier reference to a “madman”, as opposed to a “madwoman” or a “mad person”. The evidence is, however, inconclusive, and only adds further intrigue to the tale.
Similarly, the name of the victim is not revealed, although it is known to the narrator, – “calling him by name” – and neither is the relationship between the murderer and victim fully explained. Certain facts are presented, however, – the narrator knows the old man by name, apparently lives on the same premises, and has legitimate access to the old man’s chamber – so it is probably safe to assume that the narrator is performing a caretaking role, either in the janitorial sense, or more literally, as one who is simply taking care of the old man.
Furthermore, the setting of the story is limited to the four walls of the building in which the action takes place, although this, perhaps surprisingly, detracts nothing from the admirably chilling “sense of place” which Poe creates.
Characterisation, too, is limited to only what is revealed by the monologue of the narrator.
“The Tell-Tale Heart” is a masterpiece of the storyteller’s art, inasmuch as Poe only reveals to the reader sufficient information to make the plot, the intrigue and the suspense work – all other superfluous details are dispensed with.
Poe employs a number of literary devices to create a mood of tension and suspense throughout the story.

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