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How is tension created in 'The tell tale hearts' and 'The black cat'?

In this essay I am going to study the narratives ‘the black cat’ and ‘the tell tale heart’ composed by famous writer Edgar Allen Poe and see how stress is created in the two tales.

Both tales are written in a gothic horror category and Poe’s intent for this was to chill and agitate the reader, to make them anticipate what was going to take place next, as if it was actually taking place. Poe prospers in doing this by the content of the tales, partly being the supernatural and the stress he develops, which plays a significant function in both.

He creates this stress by utilizing numerous different strategies consisting of plot, characterisation and many stylistic devices.

One method that Poe produces stress is the plot of the story and where is it set. ‘The inform tale heart’ is embeded in the middle of nowhere and late during the night, when it is dark outside. This instantly makes the reader anxious, as nighttime and darkness is symbolic of dark and bad deeds.

Poe discusses more than when that it is set ‘about midnight’ and that it is dark, ‘black as pitch’, he keeps advising the reader of this, as he knows it is symbolic and the reader will watch out for this.

Crooks will typically act on this time, as they are more likely to get away with the criminal activity, as they can not be viewed as quickly. Individuals are most cautious of little things, noises and sights like shadows in the dark and will be on edge.

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Darkness and nighttime are notoriously frightening and unsafe, depicted in novels and films as when everything bad occurs and now is the stereotyped view. The darkness appears like an impairment, vision is not completely available, and the brain begins so wander as to if anything might be round the corner, lurking, waiting due to the fact that practically definitely people will feel that something bad is going to take place.

The stories are written in first person narrative, which makes the reader feel as though they are in the story, involved personally, and is made to feel what the narrator feels. From the very beginning of the tales the reader gets an idea of what kind of stories they are going to be and may feel uneasy as Poe makes it clear that the narrator is mad. The narrator speaks informally and repeatedly says things that make it obvious he is not sane. Firstly, they start by telling you that they are not mad, no matter what we may think. In ‘The tell tale heart’ Poe writes ‘You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing’ and in ‘The black cat’, ‘Mad indeed would I be to expect it…’ ‘Yet mad I am not’ this is affective, as it seems as though the narrator doesn’t quite believe it himself, and is trying to convince himself that he is not mad, and will put the reader on edge as they don’t know what to expect from this kind of character.

Also, in ‘The black cat’ it says ‘yes, even in this felon’s cell’ which means that he is in jail, awaiting trial and prosecution. This will reinforce the reader’s doubts about the man as it informs them once again that he has done wrong.

‘The black cat’ is the story of the murder of a defenceless animal, which was killed by the person who once loved it more than anything. The cat was the narrators ‘favourite pet and playmate’ he says and he loved having pets, ‘never was so happy as when feeding and caressing them’. So it comes as a shock to the reader when he starts to mis-treat them, ‘not only neglected, but ill-used them’ spurred on by his irrational behaviour and mood swings, caused by his addiction to alcohol ‘for what disease is like Alcohol!’. ‘deliberately cut one of its eyes from the socket!’ shows the extent of how the alcohol has affected him, and the reader will feel as though they cannot trust his actions because of this which causes tension and they will be on edge as they don’t know what to expect next.

Just before he kills his cat he says ‘And then came, as if to my final and irrevocable overthrow, the spirit of PERVERSENESS.’ This shows that he is aware that he is not himself, which adds more tension to the story, as he did nothing to stop it. Poe wrote the word perverseness in bold, capital letters on purpose, to show the reader that it is important in the story, he is doing all these bad things because he isn’t completely sane, so the reader will anticipate the mans every move.

‘The tell tale heart’ is the story of how a man murders another, and the only motive we are given for this is the old mans eye. The narrator describes this eye as ‘the eye of a vulture’, which is not normal and projects an image into the readers mind.

He keeps referring to the eye, ‘Evil Eye’ so the reader is aware how much it troubles him, like he is obsessed with it, which is not the sign of a sane man. The narrator then continues to say how he carefully planned the man’s murder, all the precision involved, ‘I opened it- you cannot imagine how stealthily, stealthily- until, at length a simple dim ray’, yet again this shows the reader that he is not normal, and will cause the reader to feel not trust his actions and to see that he is unpredictable.

Most tension is built towards the end of the tale, when the police arrive and the man seems surprisingly calm. ‘I smiled, – for what had I to fear?’ shows us that he is mad, any normal person would be very nervous and on edge when the police came. Tension is built here, as the reader doesn’t know what is going to happen, whether he will continue his act and get away with the murder, or he will trip up somehow and all will be revealed, whatever happens the reader will anxiously await.

Once again we are reminded that the narrator is mad when he starts hearing a noise, ‘a low, dull, quick sound’ which only he could hear. Clearly he was imagining it, perhaps spurred on by a secret guilty conscience, the reader knows that he is struggling with mental instability and may feel tense as they don’t know what his next actions will be, he is unpredictable, but also the reader may feel sorry for him.

In both tales tension is built because of the killing of the vulnerable, ‘The black cat’ looks at the killing of a cat and ‘The tell tale heart’ is the murder of a man. Neither of them did anything wrong to deserve what they got so it seems inhumane and unfair for the narrator to have done it. It shows that the killer is not a nice person, as no normal person would kill innocent animals/people so the reader doesn’t have many expectations of the man and would wonder what else could possibly happen in the two tales.

I think however, that Poe’s stylistic devices add the most tension to the tales, the combination of punctuation and sentence length. He uses dashes in the middle of sentences in his work to add tension, to make them moment’s stand out from the rest of the text. ‘There was noting to wash out- no stain of any kind -no blood spot whatever’ is an example of this in ‘The tell tale heart’, where Poe is trying to emphasise the point, so the reader will take more notice of it. ‘It was a black cat -a very large one -fully as large as Pluto’ is an example of this from ‘The black cat’; yet again it shows that Poe is trying to get the reader to notice the point he is making.

Poe also uses explanation marks to describe the tone and when the narrator in ‘The black cat’ says, ‘so much of insufferable wo! Alas!’ it shows clearly that he is hysterical and is in growing discomfort.

The pace of the tales change. Poe uses short sentences to speed up the pace, which adds a considerable amount of tension. ‘There was no pulsation, he was stone dead his eye would trouble me no more.’ Poe writes in ‘The tell tale hearts’ which is very affective to the reader. They stand out from the long descriptive ones and therefore make more of a mark on the reader.

They are also easier to take in as they are very short, and more then two short sentences in a row makes the pace increase which, yet again builds more tension. Poe’s use of dashes and commas also break up the long sentences, which makes it easier to digest what is written and readers await what is going to happen, as it is building up a picture gradually. ‘In the black cat’ Poe writes ‘from within the tomb!- by a cry, at first muffled and broken, like the sobbing of a child, and then quickly…’ which is very effective. When reading, the reader will have read it faster and faster rushing to get to the end of the sentence, to reach its climax.

In conclusion, Poe succeeds in his aim, to chill and unsettle the reader, by building tension in different aspects.

He does this by writing the tales in first person narrative, where the man is obviously mad, therefore untrustworthy, although the reader is inclined to feel what he feels. Also the content of the stories creates tension, the killing of defenceless and vulnerable mammals is clearly a bad thing to do so the reader know the narrator isn’t very nice. It is also discomforting to the reader to know that a human is capable of doing such things. Setting ‘The tell tale hearts’ in the nighttimes is stereotypical for bad things happening so the reader will automatically be aware that something bad is going to happen and introducing witchcraft in ‘The black cat’ adds to the tension as witchcraft is very mysterious and un natural.

Poe’s use of short sentences, commas and dashes also build up tension as they break up the story, make it easier to take in and build up the pace in which the story is read.

I think that Poe’s unique writing style make both the stories very affective and compliment the genre he writes to. I think that if his work were ever transferred onto screen then it wouldn’t be as effective, as stories leave more to the imagination and I don’t think that anyone would be able to create the same tense atmosphere as Poe does in his stories, which would discredit his name.

Both the stories were written more than 100 years ago, in 1843. They are so old that when they were written no other genre of story like it was around at the time. They were original for the time they were written and set the standard for future writers. Poe invented this new genre and his writing skills and techniques form scratch and were the first chilling, gothic horror stories ever written, which adds to the reason of why they are so effective. Because no one had ever read anything like it before, and in a scense the stories were ahead of the time because of the effect they had.

Poe’s work is popular worldwide and still his stories of this genre appear chilling as they are written in a old style that is not used as much today, but this is effective and one knows that they would have had even more impact at the time they were written.

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How is tension created in 'The tell tale hearts' and 'The black cat'?. (2017, Oct 15). Retrieved from

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