An Analysis of Guilt in the Tell-Tale Heart, a Short story by Edgar Allan Poe

In the short story, “The Tell-Tale Heart,” author Edgar Allen Poe combines elements of dramatic irony, situational irony, and disturbed syntax to reveal the narrator’s instability. By doing this, the author outlines the greater universal theme that guilt cannot easily be hidden. Throughout the piece, Edgar Allen Poe employs dramatic irony in order to intensify the suspenseful mood. His narrator, an insane man, attempts to disguise his craziness by repeatedly claiming to be sane. However, his actions and obsession over the old man suggests the main character’s dishonesty.

The author establishes the narrator’s unreliability and through this enables a tension to be built up throughout the story as the events that proceed become less predictable.

Later in the story, Poe further creates dramatic irony to conceal the surprising climax until the end of the story. After killing the old man, the narrator hides the body and claims that “no human… could have detected anything wrong,” a hyperbole that Poe develops to save drama for the ending.

The author, in the tense climactic scenes, displays the maniac’s lack of credibility through the central motifs of the clock and the heart. The storyteller’s obsession is conspicuous as he increasingly refers to the watch as he approaches the elderly man. Adrenaline rushing, the narrator thinks he is hearing watches and the old man’s heart when he is just hearing small noises. However, Poe dramatizes the narrator’s reaction, adding more and more watches as the killing nears, highlighting the scenes where the madman appears to be most frantic.

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In addition to dramatic irony, Poe also develops situational irony in several separate instances throughout his story, further emphasizing the narrator’s insanity. The irony first appears when Poe inserts the idea that the narrator “loved the old man” near the idea that he would “take the life of the old man.” Along the same lines, Poe also creates a digression from seemingly legitimate reasons to murder the old man such as “his gold” to “it was his eye.” By doing so, Poe creates confusion that makes the murder appear more mysteriously. This adds to the eerie mood and builds suspense as the actual killing approaches. Poe further demonstrates situational irony throughout the story as the storyteller sneaks into the old man’s house each night, claiming that “[he] was never kinder to the old man,” checking up on him to see his security every morning. Yet again, the author contrasts what the narrator claims to be doing with what actually is done, creating more tension. Despite the narrator’s nervousness holding him back from killing the old man, he spends each day increasing the old man’s suspicion and the notion that the storyteller is guilty.

The writer sets up this irony to foreshadow the madman’s arrest, causing the audience to anticipate madman’s conviction. When the eighth night finally comes about, the madman finds his chance to strike, when “the shutters were close fastened through fear of robbers.” Although the narrator makes it seem that the elderly man finally realized what goes on at night and devised a method to reduce his anxiety, it only helps the madman overcome his fear of being caught. Inherent that the madman never will truly admit specifically why he murdered on the eighth night, Poe hints—with the aged man’s increased defense and the narrator’s closing opportunities—that the maniac could resist no longer. After Poe’s first climax, the murder scene, he continues to employ situational irony making the plot more unstable. Well resembling the resolution of the story, the narrator claims that he was able to hide the body so that “no human eye—not even [the old man’s]—could have detected anything wrong.” However, the story keeps going as Poe rebuilds the tension. The slight break that the author provides increases the security of his audience only to catch them vulnerable to the all of a sudden climactic conclusion—just as the old man was killed by surprise.

Throughout his story, Poe does not employ irony alone; he also incorporates choppy, inverted, and repetitive syntax, demonstrating the narrator’s frenzied state. The story starts off with a syntactical example as the narrator claims that he is “nervous –very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am,” displaying the madman’s impaired speech. Easily noticeable throughout the entire story, with the insane man’s caesuras and repeated words, Poe hits upon the idea that the maniac is not sane, but tense from guilt if he cannot talk normally. Poe’s employment of repetition also highlights the key moments when the lunatic was most afflicted: just before the killing and the police interrogation. In those scenes, the narrator would repeat “louder! louder! louder!…” as his senses sharpened in nervousness and tension. This provides insights on the maniac’s status, calm and pleased during the killing yet insane and disturbed before his murder and his arrest. The author incorporates this syntactical strategy in his story in order to demonstrate the narrator’s madness and guilt despite his denial and to intensify the suspense that grows as the narrative approaches its climax.

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An Analysis of Guilt in the Tell-Tale Heart, a Short story by Edgar Allan Poe. (2022, Apr 20). Retrieved from

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