The Narrative Style & Structure of "The Tell-Tale Heart"
“The Tell-Tale Heart,” by Edgar Allan Poe, was published in 1843. According to The Poetry Foundation, Poe is regarded as “the architect of the modern short story,” and this masterful tale of psychological horror is one of “his best and best-known works.” The story's effectiveness relies in large part on its narrative structure and style, both of which work to reveal the narrator’s diseased state of mind.
Unreliable First-Person Narrator
The tale is told in the first person by the confessed murderer of an old man, and as the tale progresses, the reader quickly notices that all may not be as it seems with the narrator. From the very first paragraph, in fact, it is apparent that the voice in which the story is told is an unusual one, characterized by stops and starts, direct addresses to the reader, and an exaggerated and highly wrought style. The emotionally charged narrative hints to the reader that the narrator’s version of events may not be wholly reliable.
Narrator's Obsession Determines Narrative Structure
When the tale begins, the main action -- that is, the murder and dismemberment of the old man -- has already taken place. While the reader is likely to be caught up in the horrific tale being revealed to him, the narrator’s focus seems to be very different, and the pace and structure of the narrative reflect that focus. Concerned primarily with convincing his listener of his level-headedness and sanity and the reasonableness of his actions, the story’s narrator circles around the main event, emphasizing not so much what happened but how it happened.
Driven by Emotion
Since the story is, more than anything, about the narrator’s emotional state, the most important moment is not the murder of the old man. The murder itself is given short shrift by the narrator, taking only one sentence to accomplish: “In an instant I dragged him to the floor, and pulled the heavy bed over him.” Rather, the real climax of the story occurs when the narrator’s perception of the sound of the old man’s heart pushes him closer and closer to panic, finally causing him to confess.
Panic, Derangement, Disorder
Like the narrative structure, the narrative style of the story reflects the disordered, “nervous” state of the narrator’s mind. “Why will you say that I am mad?” the narrator demands of his listener. Stylistically, the narrator’s heavy use of exclamation points, dashes, repeated questions and assertions of his own sanity serves to heighten the emotional impact on the reader, pushing the reader toward an understanding of the narrator’s troubled mind.
Anita Weingarten holds a Master's Degree in English from the University of Pittsburgh, and has been writing professionally since 2001. Her writing experience ranges from technical manuals and marketing materials to guides designed to help young people understand classic literature.