A short story I recently re-read

‘The Tell-Tale Heart’, by Edgar Allan Poe

Available here. Read it in about 15 minutes.


Thinking about using rhetorical devices…

This is the opening of a classic Poe horror story. The story is told in the first person, by a murderer. He talks directly to someone – perhaps the reader, perhaps the police, or perhaps a cellmate – explaining why he was moved to commit the murder, how he carried it out, and how he was ultimately driven to confess. This direct address to the reader places them in the role of confidant. 

The story begins in medias res, with the narrator seemingly responding to a question or comment from someone unseen. Right away, the narrator draws attention to his own ill mental health by twice asking how the listener could possibly question it: ‘why will you say that I am mad?’ / ‘How, then, am I mad?’ He challenges the listener to ‘observe how healthily—how calmly I can tell you the whole story’, believing his story will show he is indeed not mad; note the irony here, that he is confessing to murder and thinks doing so will prove him innocent of madness. Later, he expects the listener will be impressed with his cleverness and patience in plotting and carrying out the murder: ‘You should have seen how wisely I proceeded’, and ‘Oh, you would have laughed to see how cunningly I thrust it in!’. His denials, misjudging his listener’s response, and repetition of words in the semantic field of ill mental health – ‘disease’, ‘mad’, ‘Madmen’ – foreground his illness, and bring to the reader’s attention that this is an unreliable narrator.  

Repetition is used throughout to emphasise his thoughts and ideas; it’s as though the character is trying very hard to articulate his experience to a listener who he knows will doubt or not understand it, and is trying to persuade them to accept his perception of the world and events: ‘nervous / dreadfully nervous’ (with adverb for further emphasis); ‘very, very’; ‘not destroyed—not dulled’; ‘Object there was none. Passion there was none’; and ‘—with what caution—with what foresight—with what dissimulation’ (these last three examples also feature parallel sentence construction, which builds up and strengthens the narrator’s argument). Parallel sentence construction is used elsewhere to juxtapose ideas: ‘I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell’, which suggests the narrator’s sinister thoughts, and again links to his ill mental health.

The unwell mental state and disordered thinking is supported by the use of punctuation. In the first paragraph the multiple dashes and commas add speed to the speech, while in the second and third paragraphs short sentences do the same. Meanwhile, also in the second paragraph, the exclamations show the narrator’s excitement, as he comes to the realisation that his employer’s eye was the reason for his murder: ‘I think it was his eye! yes, it was this!’. The number of exclamations increases in the third paragraph, as the narrator becomes more excited in his telling of the story.

Imagery supports the narrator’s mental state: ‘haunted me day and night’ is an apt way to describe the mysterious and ethereal thoughts of murder that drift into the narrator’s mind and stay there; ‘the eye of a vulture’ shows that he sees his employer’s eye as being something evil, as vultures have connotations of being cruel scavengers, ironically preying on weak animals after waiting for them to die.

I love this classic story. If you’re interested in writing an unreliable narrator, or rhetorical devices, read or reread it.

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