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Gothic Elements in The Tell-Tale Heart

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‘Blackness engulfed the room as light seeped in the dark corners and crevices. Taking tentative steps, the man edged closer to the lean figure sleeping peacefully on the bed. Oblivious to the stranger’s intentions, the old man slept peacefully for seven nights, impervious to the looming death that awaited him on the eight-night. The man at the door waited patiently before he rushed over to the old man’s bed and pressed the bed covers tightly over his head after which he calmly dismembers the fragile body with the “vulture eye”. The eye was what led the man at the door commit such a horrendous crime, all the while saying, “Is it not clear that I’m not mad.”’ (Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Tell-tale Heart).

Writers used different stylistic elements such as abnormal psychological behaviors, variations in sentence structure, diction particular to the Gothic genre that creates a dark atmosphere to enthrall the reader. The usage of certain elements like damsels in distress, supernatural elements, castles, mansions, dungeons to further reiterate the transcendent nature of the gothic genre. Provoking the reader’s thought process and eliciting their reactions towards pieces of writings, such as the ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ by Edgar Allan Poe, gained popularity during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Gothic novels and short stories comprise of a “battle between humanity and unnatural forces of evil (sometimes man-made, sometimes supernatural) within an oppressive, inescapable, and bleak landscape” (Pagan, Amanda. “A Brief History of Gothic Horror”).

In the nineteenth century, Poe made use “of the psychological processes, insight into the unconscious, a sense of structure, and an insistence on unity of tone and mood” (The Gothic Experience. “The First Wave of Gothic Novels:1765-1820) to create literary pieces that would be remembered centuries later. The thoughts penned down on paper require the reader to delve deep into the minds of the characters and understand the rationale behind their actions. As seen in the “The Tell-Tale Heart” the reader is aware that the main character cannot be trusted at face value as the man tries to convince the reader of his sanity after murdering and disposing off the old man’s body. Similar themes of death, suspense, terror is prevalent throughout Edgar Allan Poe’s stories.

In ‘The Raven’, the narrator is beleaguered by the Raven and the thought of never seeing Lenore again whereas the narrator in ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ is haunted by the old man’s “vulture eye” to an extent that he thought was justifiable enough to kill the old man. Similarly, the prince in the ‘Masque of the Red Death’ “is haunted by the loss of life and time” (Boden, Olivia. “Gothic Elements in Edgar Allen Poe’s stories”). It is apparent that “he fears death and the end of his time on earth” (Boden, Olivia. “Gothic Elements in Edgar Allen Poe’s stories”). By drawing a comparison between different stories written at different times in Poe’s life, one may infer commonality and influence of many different factors on the style, format and content of the texts.

The short embodiment of “The Tell-Tale heart” at the beginning of this essay reflects the main aspects of the short story that keep the reader at an edge. In “The Tell-Tale Heart”, Poe introduces the reader to the unreliable narrator who tries to prove his sanity to the reader. The narrator explains how his sense of hearing became powerful which allows him to hear sounds from heaven and hell. Considering the order of events, it is possible that the story is narrated to the policemen after the narrator has been caught. This assumption could be seen in how he tries to prove he’s innocent and sane at the beginning of the short story. The reader later discovers that the narrator could even hear the old man’s heartbeat even after the old man died. This set of shortcomings drove the narrator to a point that he confessed his sins to the police officers who he thought “were playing a game with me (him)”.

The reader quickly notes that the capricious narrator occupies himself with the thought of a harmless eye that quite possibly has a cataract which provides a logical explanation for “the film over it”. The unwonted attention payed to the eyes, proves that the narrator has lost touch with reality. It is seen that the narrator tries to shift his guilt of murdering the innocent old man by creating unrealistic explanations for his motivation to murder. The short sentence structure quickens the pace and builds tension that further adds to the distress of the reader. The usage of long sentences in between such as “I was careful not to let a single drop of blood fall on the floor. I pulled up three boards that formed the floor, and put the pieces of the body there. Then I put the boards down again, carefully, so carefully that no human eye could see that they had been moved” (Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Tell-Tale Heart”) allows the reader to focus on the gruesome details that the narrator pays attention to which enables the reader to take note of the hysterical behavior of the narrator. A similar plot is seen in Poe’s, “A Black cat” which revolves around the murder of a defenseless animal, which was killed by the person who once loved it more than anything” (Study Moose. “”How is tension created in ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ and ‘The black cat’?”). Both these stories revolve around the murder of an innocent being: an old man and a black cat. Providing little or no logical explanation for the murder of the vulnerable beings, variations in the sentence structure and interesting diction creates a link to other work in the Gothic canon in literature.

To further understand the added layers of complexity in this short story, we must apprehend the historical context in which the “The Tell-Tale Heart” was written in. Gothic fiction and Gothic romanticism both gained popularity in the eighteenth century. “Unlike Romanticism, which focused on the power of the individual and the sublime truth of nature, American Gothic literature explored the human experience through irrationality, madness, guild and supernatural horror. It often features characters suffering from melancholy, insanity and obsession, blurring the lines between fantasy and reality” (Owl Eyes, “Historical Context in The Tell-Tale Heart”). The gothic genre is deep-rooted within the loopholes in American society and culture at large. Some critics noted that the emergence of gothic literature was a response to slavery, war and poverty which greatly affected the masses in America, including Edgar Allan Poe.

During the time that Poe moved to the South, he witnessed the toxic effects of slavery which led to the eventual impoverishment of the black population. The element of altercation towards slavery is eminent in Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “Black Cat”. “Toni Morrison wrote a book called Playing in the Dark: Whiteness in the Literary Imagination. In it, she argues that many Poe stories, most notably “The black cat” are part of the Southern Gothic tradition in that they express anxiety over the institution of slavery, though in a veiled, hidden or coded fashion” (“The Tell-Tale Heart” Notes). The “Tell-Tale Heart” is no exception to this interpretation. Assuming that the narrator is a slave, which might amplify the reason his name wasn’t mentioned in the story, the old man’s blue eye reflects upon the racist culture of the eighteenth and the nineteenth century.

These racial undertones hint at the superiority that the “blue eye” and white skin possess over the narrator’s black skin which further adds to the frustration of the narrator. This might also explain “why the narrator took so much pleasure in violating the man’s privacy and the sanctity of his bedroom” (“The Tell-Tale Heart notes”). Perhaps, killing the old man put an end to the constant gaze that scrutinized every aspect of his life. As a reader, this interpretation changes my perspective on the previously perceived insane narrator who was obsessed with the “eye of the vulture” to a much more mellow being who let out his anger and frustration by closing that “cold blue eye” that would turn the blood in the narrator’s body become like ice. The subtle hints prevalent in many of Poe’s story points the reader in the direction of a largely ignorant world entangled in racial politics. The historical context in which this story was written, helps in decoding the essentials of the story all the while removing any prejudice against the narrator.

It is seen that the Gothic genre creates a sense of morbidity and eeriness which depicts the writer’s view of certain elements in the political realm. Stories like the “Tell-Tale heart” sparks the interest of the reader as they try to create a distinction between reality and imagination. Edgar Allan Poe used this technique to his advantage by using different literary devices such as the variation in sentence structure, imagery and symbolism to disguise his opinions at a time where even talking against the government could create problems for the American citizens.

Work Cited

Boden,Olivia. “Gothic Elements in Edgar Allen Poe’s stories”. Updated: 25 November 2014
< https://prezi.com/yuxn58ubn8yh/gothic-elements-in-edgar-allen-poes-stories/ >
Owl Eyes. “Historical Context in The Tell-Tale Heart”.

< https://www.owleyes.org/text/tell-tale-heart/analysis/historical-context?__cf_chl_jschl_tk__=a2cdf93b8a13d1698e2ff4d609b7f4abf89d470d-1581850838-0-AUdRojUScms1qChlJoV5n19-1khbyhyAKSfPjh2Rm9GEj4LBdbyVO9hBI5vBClMBuJLJCHNSZaygiNjr3iuQSOsfdmO3VOowdAI2eWkAhpUqbuLH1n03V5wxMI7XZO_qV5T41OlrgX2sh5LbPWV7CWx_aFEYzTfQbhOHAiV3gR1fJOblCs7sHltZ6EO5lymFm6UCIjxqsQDqToNXTc5vx_pXZNaQ-uqcYZqTVqw81VKCD80lX3mj8ftZo0kKFHZiEuXTpv6U847Hhb-YCLRasJSi45LNotQQwWCIY3lwCNzJzhEJbPzwBQt_cwyngn1L0sqzoYd5IcBtp0LyD4ezUKklbBZjEJKve3lHwdKdUCXN1Zqwu04qysVdUDhDbzZf979eddo09nuW62JSV3VISuo >

Pagan, Amanda. “A Brief History of Gothic Horror” Published on October 18, 2018 in the New York public library.
< https://www.nypl.org/blog/2018/10/18/brief-history-gothic-horror >

Study Moose. “How is tension created in ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ and ‘The black cat’?” Revised:
15 Oct 2017
< https://studymoose.com/how-is-tension-created-in-the-tell-tale-hearts-and-the-black-cat-essay >

“The First Wave of Gothic Novels: 1765-1820”. Revised: August 26, 2008
< https://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/gothic/history.html >

“The Tell-Tale Heart” Notes.
< http://perrylocal.org/mostova/files/2011/09/The-Tell-Tale-Heart-Notes.pdf >

Gothic Elements in The Tell-Tale Heart essay

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