Sample Literature Review On The Role Of The Plot In Building Up Tension In Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”

April 13, 2022 by Essay Writer

Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Tell-Tale Heart” comprises, in only 2200 words, so much cleverly built suspense, that it has become one of his most renowned works. In the story, an unreliable narrator, a mad murderer, tells the story of his murder in order to convince the audience that he is not mad. The story is rich in symbolism and in clues which allow the readers to make sense of the events, to anticipate the murder and to understand the reasons for the narrator’s crime. However, one of the most important elements of fiction in this story is the plot. The plot is a term which refers to the way in which the narrative events are arranged in order to construct the story. The plot elements work in perfect harmony to build up tension in the story and to create a chilling atmosphere for the readers.
The plot elements drive the action from the opening line to the conclusion, each part of the story having a crucial role in building the tension felt by the readers. In the exposition, the narrative order is reversed, as the story begins after the events have taken place, and represents the narrator’s justification for his acts. Here, the author uses foreshadowing in order to give clues regarding the rest of the story, and in particular, its conclusion. Thus, the narrator states that, “Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth” (Poe para.1). This may not make much sense in the beginning, but by the end of the story, it becomes relevant, and it represents further evidence for his madness. In the exposition, readers also meet the other important character, the victim, who is an old man with “the eye of a vulture –a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold” (Poe para.2). As the complication is unveiled, the readers find out that the narrator plans to kill the old man although he loves him, because of his strange-looking eye which makes him nervous. This is a very important clue that the narrator is mad, and yet, he denies it repeatedly based on the fact that he is able to tell the story calmly, and that he devised the plan cleverly.
However, the facts and his narrative contradict his claim of being sane, and contribute to raising the tension, as the readers realize that they are introduced into the mind of a mad killer. The narrator thus reveals how he planned the murder, which creates rising action. At this point, the narrative pace slows down, as the narrator gives details of his stalking of the victim. The tension is created because the readers become the accomplices and witnesses of the murderer, and they anticipate the crime without knowing when it would take place. Night after night, the narrator watches the victim, waiting for the right moment to attack. Subsequently, during the climax, the narrator kills the old man, and this is when the tension reaches new heights. The narrator gives grotesque details on the murder, as he explains that he dismembered the body and hid it under the floor. He gives these details as further evidence that he is not mad, and yet, by this time, the readers are fully aware of the fact that he truly is so. They are however motivated to keep reading in order to find out how the conflict is solved.
The suspense is maintained during the next part of the story, which corresponds to the falling action. However, in this story, the narrative pace remains fast and the tension continues to increase after the climax, and until the last line of the story. The narrator’s confidence in front of the policemen disappears as he begins to hear a strange noise. It is unclear for the readers whether the noise is real or not, and this intensifies the tension, as one would expect the murder to be discovered from one moment to another. The noise however, is in the murderer’s head, and in the resolution, the narrator confesses the murder, yelling “I admit the deed! –tear up the planks! here, here! –It is the beating of his hideous heart!” (Poe para.18). Therefore, in the conclusion, his madness betrays the murderer, who cannot bear the noise in his mind any longer. This parallels the beginning of the story, where the narrator’s statement regarding his sharp hearing made little sense. However, it is now clear that the narrator truly believes that he heard the beating heart of the dead man, and this is a final confirmation of his madness.
In conclusion, Poe uses each element of the plot with great care in order to gradually build up tension. While after the climax, there should be a falling of action, the author continues to build up tension until the final line, which represents the unexpected resolution of the story. This way, while the confidence of the narrator in his own cleverness decreases, the expectation that he will be caught increases for the readers. A different use of the plot elements, in particular, of the exposition, falling action and resolution, would have had a negative impact on the story, and would have created a less powerful impact on the readers.

Works Cited

Poe, Edgar Allan. The Tell-Tale Heart. 1843. Web.


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