How does Edgar Allan Poe create atmosphere in "The Tell Tale Heart"?

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This essay is about how Edgar Allan Poe created tension and atmosphere in his short story "the tell tale heart". The Tell Tale Heart was written in the year 1843 by Edgar Allan Poe. Edgar Allan Poe was born to a Scots-Irish family in Boston, Massachusetts, on January 19, 1809, the son of actress Elizabeth Arnold Hopkins Poe and actor David Poe. His later life was over-shadowed by financial and mental problems and periodic drunkenness, and he was temporarily disinherited by his foster father, but this could have influenced many of his short stories and poems, some of the short stories and poems he is most famous for are: "The Tell-Tale Heart," "The Pit and the Pendulum," "The Fall of the House of Usher," "The Gold Bug," "The Black Cat," "The Raven" and "Annabel Lee.


On October 3, 1849, Poe was found on the streets of Baltimore, delirious and "in great distress, and... in need of immediate assistance," according to the man who found him. He was taken to the Washington College Hospital, where he died early on the morning of October 7.

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This was most distressing for people who were a fan of his work, but they knew that his work would still be read over a long time past his death. There was never a certain cause for his death but some of the suggestions to why he died were: alcohol, drugs, and other agents.

Poe's Tell Tale Heart is of the gothic and horror fiction genre; this means it is a story that is wrote to induce a pleasing terror on the reader.

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Gothic is a genre that many people enjoy to read, because people like the suspense and shock that is involved in a gothic story, it gives the reader a sense of insecurity, making sure that they think about what could happen. Its stories like this that class as a gothic genre. The Tell Tale Heart is most definitely of this genre because the suspense in the story is immense and there is much tension, in this essay I will try my very best to describe how Edgar Allan Poe does this.

Tension plays a pivotal role in the short story, so Poe used all the techniques available to create this tension. These techniques are stylistic. He uses things like characterisation, setting and plot. In the following paragraphs I will explain all of these techniques.

Poe's "Tell Tale Heart" is set at night time in a house that sounds like an old gothic manor. At night the house is sealed off from light. This creates a dark, eerie feel to the story. Night time sybolises danger and evil; it sybolises this because vicious things like dangerous animals (e.g. wolves) strike at night and kill their prey, also mythical creatures such as vampires are more active at night, this creates a scary atmosphere to night time. A descriptions in "The Tell Tale Heart" that show its night time is:

"His room was as black as pitch with the thick darkness." This shows how dark it really was. It's also as if the narrator can feel the dark, and has to push through it. This description of the dark paints a picture in your mind and it gives the effect of being in a silent room with no light and no escape. The effect of no escape is important because it's as if the old man cannot escape.

The main thing that triggers the narrators murderous tendency is the old mans eye. The old mans eye is described as the "Vulture Eye". We do not know the relationship of the narrator to the old man; this adds tension because we do not know how the narrator knows this man and why he would want to kill him. There are some ideas of what the relationship is; my view on the relationship is that the narrator is a person who cares for the old man, due to poor vision. I get this impression because it says:

"with a film over it".

It's difficult to see through a film, so this denotes an impression of poor vision. He may have gone not expecting this "vulture eye" to begin haunting him. This eye is basically sending the narrator insane. The narrator's obsession with the old man's eye culminates in his own undoing as he is engulfed with internal conflict and his own transformation from confidence to guilt.

The fixation on the old man's vulture-like eye forces the narrator to concoct a plan to eliminate the old man. The narrator confesses the sole reason for killing the old man is his eye:

"Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees - very gradually - I made up my mind to rid myself of the eye for ever". The narrator begins his tale of betrayal by trying to convince us (the reader) he is not insane, but we quickly surmise the narrator indeed is out of control. The fact that the old man's eye is the only motivation to murder proves the narrator is so mentally unstable that he must search for justification to kill. In his mind, he rationalises murder with his own unreasonable fear of the eye.

Another reason this adds tension is because the narrator wrestles with conflicting feelings of responsibility to the old man and feelings of ridding his life of the man's "Evil Eye". Although afflicted with overriding fear and derangement, the narrator still acts with quasi-allegiance toward the old man; however, his kindness may stem more from protecting himself from suspicion of watching the old man every night than from genuine compassion for the old man. The narrator shows his contrariety when he confesses he loves the old man, but he is still too overwhelmed by the pale blue eye to restrain himself from the all-consuming desire to eliminate the eye. His struggle is evident as he waits to kill the old man in his sleep so that he won't have to face the old man when he kills him; but on the other hand, the narrator can't justify the killing unless the vulture eye was open. The narrator is finally able to kill the man because

"I saw it with perfect distinctness - all a dull blue, with a hideous veil over it that chilled the very marrow in my bones; but I could see nothing else of the old man's face or person: for I had directed the ray as if by instinct, precisely upon the damned spot". This creates tension because all of the conflicting emotions make us think "will he do it". It really keeps us in suspense and we are desperate to find out what he does. The story hooks us in and makes us read the whole thing. We know that the man is insane but we do not know if he regains his mental stability until he actually kills the man nearing the end of the story. But still then we cannot be certain he is insane until the very end, I will explain this further in the next paragraph.

It is said that a neighbour had heard a shriek and that "suspicion of foul play had been aroused". The narrator is very confident and does not seem to be vexed by the murder he had just acted out. The narrator's language show his confidence and audacity, even pride, in his kill: "Never before that night had I felt the extent of my own powers - of my sagacity. I could scarcely contain my feelings of triumph". The narrator's assurance in his dark deed continued even when the police came to check on the old man and investigate the loud noises neighbours heard the night; "I smiled,-for what had I to fear? I bade the gentlemen welcome". He is very polite and confident.

He is also very persuading, it's almost as if he is sound of mind. He manages to persuade the men that the old man is somewhere else in the country. He invited them around and even showed them his treasures to show that nothing had been disturbed. He even had the audacity to get some chairs and tell the men to rest in the old mans chamber whilst the whole time the old man was dismembered beneath the floor boards. However, the narrator's mind is quickly consumed with guilt, which creates his delusion of hearing the old man's heartbeat taunting him from under the flooring.

His paranoia makes the heart beat "louder - louder - louder!" and in his state of delirium he confesses to killing the old man in hopes of ridding his life of the menacing heartbeat: "I felt that I must scream or die!". His guilt reached his imagination which then went on to make him hear things that wasn't real, his conscience was putting an image into his head that this old man who he had no quarrel with was going to haunt him because he killed the man for no justifiable reason. He ends up driving himself even more insane and confesses. The story ends with his shrieking "I admit the deed! - tear up the planks! - hear, hear - it is the beating of the hideous heart"

The most dramatic way of which tension is created is through plot and character. As shown already the plot is very sinister. But the characterisation is very good. The plot evolves around the killing of someone who is obviously vulnerable. With the poor vision, old age and treasures he is obviously a very vulnerable man, he has no safety apart from the narrator who is going to kill him, so he has no safety. This adds tension to the story because we want to know if the narrator will show this compassion he has for the old man, or murder him regardless. We know the narrator loves the old man because he says:

"I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult."

The narrator loved the old man, the narrator even admitted it, but he still had plans to kill him. The fact that the narrator chuckled at the fact that the old man was oblivious to his plans also showed the old mans vulnerability. The narrator also said that he did not have any problem with the old man, who he saw himself as vulnerable. But it was the eye that vexed him:

"it was not the old man who vexed me but his evil eye".

It is the characterisation that leads to the biggest tension in the story. This is because the story is a confession, told in a first person narrative. The reader feels what the narrator feels. The punctuation and tone that Poe used in the story shows us that the narrator is hysterical and mad. But the schizophrenic tendency he shows at the end confirms his insanity. This adds a lot of tension because we see how evil he can be but how calm and friendly he can be a short time later. It makes us wonder what he will do next, his actions are very unpredictable, which also tells us he is insane. With this conflict within himself it really makes us wonder, this also makes the story exciting.

In this section I will focus on the stylistic devices used by Edgar Allan Poe. Poe creates tension with the use of short, choppy sentences with active verbs signal tension. In a way mirroring the narrators racing heart. Long, meandering sentences filled with adjectives and adverbs imply a relaxed pace, so Poe rarely used long sentences in "The Tell Tale Heart". Short sentences are vital whist writing a story with tension. An example of short sentences in "The Tell Tale Heart":

"There was no pulsation. He was stone dead."

This shows an urgency to make sure he was dead He could not risk the old man to be alive It adds tension because we do not know what he will do. Will he stab him more to make sure he is dead or will he just finish the deed and hide the body It leave us open to guessing.

Poe also adds tension through the use of his punctuation. Poe heavily relies on the exclamation mark to show the narrators growing discomfort. The use of this exclamation mark shows us the tone that the narrator must be using. For example:

"But the beating grew louder! I thought the heart must have burst. And now a new anxiety seized me - the sound would be heard by a neighbour! The old mans hour had come!" This shows how panicked he was becoming. You could practically hear the panic. As of he is saying it in a high voice. It has a sense of upset to it, the panic was upsetting him and he was worried that other people could hear it. It is clear that the narrator is becoming hysterical. As he does so, tension is added because his actions become even more unpredictable, will he panic and leave or will he dismiss it and kill the man anyway.

Edgar Allan Poe uses a lot of repetition in this piece "Louder - louder - louder". He does this a lot in this story; it adds tension, because it can add a variety of things. It can mean sinister planning

"I proceeded - with what caution - with what foresight - with what dissimulation"

There is a sinister planning I this, how should he proceed with his plan, with what caution, with what foresight etc.

Repetition can also show panic "Louder - louder - louder" he is beginning to panic about the beating of the "hideous heart" He can hear it and he is worried that the police can also hear it so he begins to panic, this leads to his confession.

In the last paragraph it was probably noticed that I used dashes (-) in the repetition. This is because Edgar Allan Poe used them at two very important scenes. The first time he consistently used them was when he was stalking the old man:

"I proceeded - with what caution - with what foresight - with what dissimulation" He is stalking the old man and is planning how to kill him, he is trying to figure out how he should follow the old man as he is doing it, the dashes indicate a pause as he plans his next step. The second time he uses them is just before he confesses the murder, and can hear the heart beating "Louder - louder - louder". The man is obviously panicked. This adds tension because we don't know what he will do because he is so unpredictable. It adds a lot of tension, because we want to know what happens and we are waiting to fid out.

Finally I will conclude with if I think the story was effective or not. I have described in the essay numerous techniques to why it is effective. I must say that I agree with all of them. I think the plot is engrossing and it really hooks you and you want to know what happens. The characterisation is excellent and the mystery of the sex of the narrator (who I have referred to as a he) adds tension because it's hard to think of a woman committing such an act, but it is possible because the narrator confessed to loving the old man. The old mans eye, it is possible to picture it and I find it chilling to think about, but I find it even more chilling to think that someone would kill over it.

The setting is marvellous, an old house, sealed off from all light, its chilling and scary making me feel lucky to live where I do, in the light. I also think that all the punctuation that Edgar Allen Poe used was used at an appropriate time and was an asset to the piece as a whole. The punctuation shows how clever the killer is and how cunning and sinister he is. But it also shows how panicked he can get. The start of the piece was also very good, because it began in the end, when he is where I can only assume, a mental institution. Where he is telling his story. In all it is a very good and very effective piece of writing.


Updated: Dec 12, 2023
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How does Edgar Allan Poe create atmosphere in "The Tell Tale Heart"?. (2017, Oct 16). Retrieved from

How does Edgar Allan Poe create atmosphere in "The Tell Tale Heart"? essay
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