Edgar Allan Poe's short story 'The Tell-Tale Heart' - an analysis

Pre-University Paper 2012 26 Pages

Didactics - English - Literature, Works



I. Introduction

II. Historical background
1. Edgar Allan Poe - biographical information
2. Romantic Movement in the United States
3. Dark Romanticism and Gothic fiction
4. Publication of 'The Tell-Tale Heart'

III. Analysis of the short story 'The Tell-Tale Heart'
1. Content
2. Literary devices
2.1 Symbols
2.2 The setting
2.3 Point of view: 1st person limited narrator
3. Analysis regarding linguistic means and content

IV. Further aspects
1. Short story - history and characteristics
2. The narrator and his psychological disorders

V. Conclusion
1. Summary
2. Personal opinion on the piece and its impact

VI. Bibliography

VII. List of figures

VIII. Appendix

I. Introduction

Oslo - July 22nd 2011 - 03.25 p.m. CEST. An explosion jars the people in the government quarter of Norway. Two hours later, the small island Utoya becomes the venue of a brutal massacre against young activists of the Labor Party which takes about 90 minutes1. Altogether, 77 people lose their lives.

Both of these attacks were planned and executed by a 32-year old man named Anders Behring Breivik. Interestingly, in his opinion, his actions were completely legitimate and necessary and he rejects any form of guilt2. Shortly before the attacks, he had sent around a pamphlet consisting of 1500 pages in which he summarizes his beliefs and why he feels the necessity of eradicating the supporters of Marxism and Multiculturalism3.

Unlike most murderers who are aware of their guilt and might even regret their crimes, Breivik believes to have done the world a favor he need not stand trial for. His attorney and also the media assume that Breivik suffers from several psychological diseases which are the reason for his actions and especially the lack of guilt4.

In January of 1843, 'The Pioneer' published a story which would probably have aroused similar assumptions - if it had been real. Fortunately, the mentioned piece was a short story by Edgar Allan Poe named 'The Tell-Tale Heart'5. Herein, the narrator is also convinced of his innocence and tries to prove it by reconstructing his crime in greatest detail.

This Seminararbeit shall deal precisely with this short story by one of the most famous American writers. In the following pages, one will firstly be introduced to the author and his historical background, the American Romantic Movement with the subgenres Dark Romanticism and Gothic fiction.

Afterwards, the short story will be analyzed regarding its content, literary devices and linguistic means, especially in the end. Furthermore, I wanted to think out of the box and include a personal diagnosis regarding the narrator's psychological disorders.

Rounding up this paper, I rewrote the short story by looking at it from a different perspective - my piece is told by the old man who is assassinated and can thereby answer some questions that have so far remained insoluble.

I sincerely hope you will gain some interesting information while reading this Seminararbeit.

Gauting, November 2011

II. Historical background

1. Edgar Allan Poe - biographical information

Edgar Allan Poe was born on January 19th 1809 in Boston, MA6. After his mother's death in 1811, Poe was raised by the rich businessman John Allan and his wife who wanted him to follow in John's footsteps7. Poe received a profound education in England (1815-20) and in Richmond. During this time, Poe's affinity for poetry was already clearly visible. 13-year old Edgar Allan had already written so many poems that he could have published a book, but he was not allowed to8. After

Illustration not visible in this excerpt

fig. 2: E. A. Poe

school, Poe started language studies at university which caused him to a huge amount of debt. As John Allan was not willing to grant him any more money and Poe was dreaming of becoming a poet and adventurer, he published his first book and enlisted in the US Army9. Returning to Virginia in 1829, Poe began living together with his aunt and her daughter Virginia whom he married in May 1836. Despite his increasing fame in the literary business, Poe remained in poverty10. Trying to find well-paid jobs, Poe often moved e.g. to New York City and Philadelphia where he worked as a magazine editor. Finally, after the publication of “The Raven” in 1845, Poe could claim higher payments for his work. But shortly hereafter, his wife Virginia died of prolonged tuberculosis which unsettled him massively so that Poe was unable to write for months. He used the following months to travel again in order to give lectures and find supporters for a new magazine11. In 1849, having disappeared in Baltimore during a journey from Providence to Philadelphia, Poe was found in a delirium after five days. Edgar Allan Poe died on October 7th in Washington College Hospital. The precise cause of his death could not be diagnosed12.

2. Romantic Movement in the United States

The origins of the Romantic Era in Europe can be found in Germany and England in the 1770s13 and were characterized by the industrial revolution which brought radical changes to society. The monotonous lifestyle and mere strive for revenue were criticized hard by the poets of these days. Instead of looking at one's benefit in life, Romantic poets in Europe saw value in people's intuition and phantasy14. The individual and one's freedom occupied center stage15. They emphasized feelings and dreams - especially in connection with the beauty of nature. Also, myths in the idealized Middle Ages and insoluble phenomenons played a big role in the European Romantic Era16. This Movement reached the United States in the early 19th century. America had just gained her political independence from Great Britain and started to prosper. The values in these days were, too, aspiration for wealth and therefore a strict rational thinking. American poets and authors wanted to hold up a mirror to society and tried to introduce people to their own merits. Despite American Romanticism being diverse and very individualistic, almost all poets rejected rationalism and proclaimed individualism and optimism about man's possibilities. The heart, not any rules, should define literature. Also, they were very aware of nature (especially the wild aspects) and thought of it to be good, whereas society was said to be corrupt and morally wrong. Overall, the moral enthusiasm and commitment to individualism along with total subjectivity accounted for the American literary world. A cultural revolution was to follow the political one17. Another subject matter E.A. Poe remarkably dealt with was the use of the non-normal such as Gothicism and the sense of fear and terror. This so- called 'Dark Romanticism' resp. 'Gothic fiction' will be addressed later on18.

3. Dark Romanticism and Gothic fiction

Dark Romanticism is a literary subgenre which developed through the philosophy of Transcendentalism popular in the USA in the 19th century19. Finding transcendental beliefs far too positive and egoistic, the writers of Dark Romanticism turned to imperfection of mankind and self-destruction. They resented the belief of mankind's divinity and possession of wisdom - thereby painting a far more realistic view of the individuals. Also, nature is seen in a very eerie and dark light going along with the evil. Another motif in Dark Romanticism is society's failure in achieving social reforms20. The characteristics are best summed up by G. R. Thompson:

“Fallen man's inability fully to comprehend haunting reminders of another, supernatural realm that yet seemed not to exist, the constant perplexity of inexplicable and vastly metaphysical phenomena, a propensity for seemingly perverse or evil moral choices that had no firm or fixed measure or rule, and a sense of nameless guilt combined with a suspicion the external world was a delusive projection of the mind—these were major elements in the vision of man the Dark Romantics opposed to the mainstream of Romantic thought.”21

Closely linked to Dark Romanticism, Gothic fiction is also a literary genre molding Edgar Allan Poe's writing style. It is considered to last from 1764 to 182422 and was certainly a countermotion to an optimistic rationalism23 and the change brought by the industrialization and commerce. On the one hand, one tried to escape into the allegedly simpler structures of times gone by - especially the Middle Ages24. Nevertheless, this time is not displayed realistically, but rather glorified and dreamful25. On the other hand, writers thematized a push towards extremity in such aspects as cruelty, rapacity, fear and passion. The vile protagonist pronounces their own preeminence, confronting an innocent who has put trust into the acting character26. This again addresses the fact that man erroneously thinks himself superior and exploits the credulous in society. Especially in Poe's literature, the setting of the story also discloses much about the emotional state of the characters. Last but not least, Gothic fiction is also concerned with the “real horror” in the 19th century, such as the oppression of women, children and, particularly in the United States, slaves27.

4. Publication of 'The Tell-Tale Heart

Throughout his life, the search for monetary sources determined Poe's decisions regarding his occupations and also his writing style. Having written three volumes of poetry without gaining any revenue, Poe decided to adjust himself and continued with a focus on prose fiction28. In the year 1842, James Russel Crowe was, like Poe and many other writers, dreaming of his own magazine. He called it 'The Pioneer' and the first issue was published in January 1843. Through this very issue, Poe's short story 'The Tell-Tale Heart' found its way into people's homes29. Being republished on August 23rd 1845 in the 'Broadway Journal', the story had been slightly revised. Collectively, the story was published several times during Poe's life30.

III. Analysis of the short story 'The Tell-Tale Heart'

In order to ensure that all quotes excerpted from 'The Tell-Tale Heart' can be tracked easily, I have appended a version of the story which is furnished with lines. This edition was taken from the internet31, but yet examined carefully in order to preclude possible mistakes.

1. Content

As far as is known, Poe did not make any statement regarding the question whether the narrator is male or female. As the fact leaves room for speculation, this analysis starts from the premise that the murderer is male in order to simplify the description of the content.

a) Self-justification:

In the beginning, the narrator admits his nervousness present both during the crime and right now, but also insists on his complete sanity. He mentions a disease that “ha[s] sharpened [his] senses” (l.2) - in particular the ability to hear. He feels the need to retell the events most calmly to make sure the reader understands he is not mad.

b) Introduction:

The narrator lives together with a rich old man whom he loves and who was always loyal to him. He does not run after his possession, nor does he see any logical explanation for his desire to kill the doter. Nevertheless, the old man's eye makes his blood freeze and, gradually, he feels an incredibly strong urge to dispose of the eye which reminds him of a vulture, as it is “pale blue […] with a film over it” (l.9). The only chance he sees to eradicate the eye is by executing the old man himself.

c)The first seven days:

In this paragraph, the narrator addresses the reader and defends his sanity again. That underlines the nervousness of the narrator, as he cannot follow strictly to his story telling. Also, the reader shall notice the narrator's self-confidence which is expressed through his continuous self-laudation. The week before the murder, he is all but smarming over the old man and makes his midnight way into the old man's bedroom with the greatest possible caution. But every time he has opened the door and tries to locate the old man's eye with the thin beam of a lantern, it remains close. As his murderous ambitions are only concerning the doter's eye and not himself, the narrator is never able to execute his plans. In order to camouflage his nightly endeavors, of which he is certain they stay unnoticed by the old man, he always acts most kindly in the morning.

d) The murder:

The next segment describes the time before the old man's murder in greatest detail. On the eighth night, he starts another attempt to kill the doter. This time, he actually “fe[els] the extent of [his] own powers” (l.30) and is more than usual excited. When opening the door, the narrator notices that the old man is moving in his bed, but continues nonetheless. As he makes a slight noise with his lantern, the old man erects in his bed and cries “Who's there?” (l.38). The narrator behavescalmly and does not move, only listening to the old man's groaning. He interpretsthis to be the “groan of mortal terror” (l.42), the kind which he is also bothered ofand therefore familiar with. He imagines the old man to calm himself down, butstates immediately that this was useless – as his death was near. After a while, hedecides to open the lantern slightly and a small ray falls exactly upon the oldman's vulture eye. Getting furious about this, he begins to hear another sound –the beating of the old man's heart which increases his anger even more. Keepingmotionless, the narrator can hear the sound of the heart, growing quicker andlouder until he “th[inks] the heart must burst”. Suddenly, a new aspect draws hisattention. Fearing the heartbeat could be heard by a neighbor, he decides to act.Opening the lantern and jumping into the room, he throws the old man on thefloor and strikes him with his heavy bed. Being satisfied with his achievement, hekeeps listening to the beating of the old man's heart until it ceases after a fewminutes which mark his death.


1 cf. VG Nett (ed., 2011): Grafikk: Slik skjedde angrepene 22. juli. http://www.vg.no/nyheter/innenriks/oslobomben/slik-skjedde-angrepene.php;

2 cf. NRK (ed., 2011): Behring Breiviks forklaring: «Arbeiderpartiet har sveket landet, og prisen fikk de betale fredag». http://www.nrk.no/nyheter/norge/1.7725980;

3 cf. the guardian (ed., 2011): Breivik sent 'manifesto' to 250 UK contacts hours before Norway killings. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/jul/26/breivik-manifesto-email-uk-contacts ;

4 cf. SPIEGEL online (ed., 2011): Zu verrückt fürs Gefängnis?. http://www.spiegel.de/panorama/0,1518,776741,00.html;

5 cf. Hayes, Kevin J.: Edgar Allan Poe, p. 118f.;

6 cf. Fisher, Benjamin F.: The Cambridge Introduction to Edgar Allan Poe, p. 1;

7 cf. The Museum of Edgar Allan Poe (ed., 2011): Poe's Life. http://www.poemuseum.org/life.php;

8 cf. Hayes, Kevin J., p. 36-38;

9 cf. The Museum of Edgar Allan Poe (ed., 2011): Poe's Life. http://www.poemuseum.org/life.php;

10 cf. Fisher, Benjamin F., p. 3-5;

11 cf. The Museum of Edgar Allan Poe (ed., 2011): Poe's Life. http://www.poemuseum.org/life.php;

12 cf. Hayes, Kevin J., p. 163-165;

13 cf. Brians, Paul (2004): Romanticism. http://public.wsu.edu/~brians/hum_303/romanticism.html;

14 cf. Brooklyn College (2009): Romanticism. http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/cs6/rom.html;

15 cf. Whitney, Elizabeth (2000): English Romanticism. http://www.uh.edu/engines/romanticism;

16 cf. Brians, Paul (2004): Romanticism. http://public.wsu.edu/~brians/hum_303/romanticism.html;

17 cf. Brooklyn College (2009): Romanticism. http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/cs6/rom.html;

18 cf. IV. 1. Dark Romanticism and Gothic fiction;

19 cf. Galens, David (ed.): Literary Movemens for Students, p. 319f.;

20 cf. New World Encyclopedia (ed.): Dark romanticism. http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Dark_romanticism;

21 Thompson, G. R. (ed.): Introduction: Romanticism and the Gothic Tradition. Gothic Imagination: Essays in Dark Romanticism, p. 6;

22 cf. Lloyd-Smith, Allan: American gothic fiction: an introduction, p. 4;

23 cf. Lloyd-Smith, Allan, p. 5;

24 cf. Lloyd-Smith, Allan, p. 7;

25 cf. Lloyd-Smith, Allan, p. 9;

26 cf. Lloyd-Smith, Allan, p. 5;

27 cf. Lloyd-Smith, Allan, p. 8;

28 cf. Fisher, Benjamin F., p. 48;

29 cf. Hayes, Kevin J., p. 118f.;

30 cf. The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore (ed., 2011): Edgar Allan Poe - „The Tell-Tale Heart“. http://www.eapoe.org/works/info/pt043.htm;

31 cf. The Online Literature Library (ed., 2011): The Tell-Tale Heart. Edgar Allan Poe. http://www.literature.org/authors/poe-edgar-allan/tell-tale-heart.html;


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Title: Edgar Allan Poe's short story 'The Tell-Tale Heart' - an analysis