Literacy Analysis of the Techniques in Creating Mood and Building Suspense | Teen Ink

Literacy Analysis of the Techniques in Creating Mood and Building Suspense

August 29, 2011
By Anson Lee PLATINUM, Chai Wan, Other
Anson Lee PLATINUM, Chai Wan, Other
22 articles 0 photos 0 comments

“The Tell-Tale Heart,” a story by Edgar Allen Poe, is about an unnamed narrator who kills a harmless old man because he feels threatened by the old man’s eye. The narrator than retells and describes the story to prove that he is sane because he claims his caution and foresight while committing the crime is proof. Poe is famous for writing short Gothic fictions or, in other words, horror stories. This story is just like his other stories as it can be described as horrific and suspenseful. Through the choice of point of view and a variety of sights and sounds, Poe successfully creates a scary, mysterious and bloodcurdling mood and builds suspense throughout the entire story.

One of the many ways Poe creates fear and suspense is by mainly using a first-person narrator. Through the narrator’s words, we can deduce that the narrator is at least not normal and there is something wrong with him. However, how the narrator keeps insisting that he is sane and only “very, very dreadfully nervous” can have an additional scare factor. As a first person narrator is limited in their reliability, it creates more suspense and dread. The character could be hallucinating or hearing things, and readers can’t determine if what they are claiming to see or hear is true or not. For example, just before the narrator kills the old man, he claims the “hellish tattoo” of old man’s heart is so strong that it would be “heard by a neighbor.” That triggered him to take action and kill the old man at that moment. However, readers cannot know if the narrator actually heard heartbeat or if he just imagined that sound. Another example, at the end of the story, the narrator apparently hears a “low, dull, quick” sound which he claims to be the beating of the old man’s “hideous heart.” That sound is what causes him to confess to three police officers, but we cannot deduce if the three policemen had heard it as well or if there was actually any sound. On one occasion, the narrator pretends to be an omniscient narrator and tells readers how the old man feels and what the old man thinks. The narrator describes the old man’s fears “had been ever since growing upon him” and his terror as “extreme” which increases the horrific effect. In the story, Poe mainly uses a first-person narrator because readers may not know if they should trust the narrator or not, which adds to fear and suspense in a way that cannot be achieved through a third-person narrator.

Another way Poe generates a scary mood and builds suspense is through different sights in the entire story. Near the beginning, Poe introduces the old man’s “vulture” eye or “Evil Eye” as the narrator calls it. The sight of an eye “with a film over it” can already be frightening to some readers. Another very frightening sight is the sight of a person sneaking into somebody’s dark bedroom at night, holding a “dark lantern” and watching the sleeping person. Darkness already creates fear, and many people feel safe in bed, but what is happening here contradicts that. Even the thought of somebody “slowly” thrusting in their head into somebody’s bedroom and then undoing a lantern so a “single thin ray” of light shines out onto somebody can be terrifying to many people. Also, on the eighth night, the sight of the narrator not moving for an entire hour while the old man sits up in fear can create lots of fear and mysterious feeling to readers. The violent sight of the narrator furiously dragging the old man to the floor and pulling “the heavy bed over him” may over cause a bit of fear to readers. To squeamish readers, the sight of the narrator getting the corpse “dismembered” and catching the blood in a tub might also be rather frightening. Near the story end, the sight of the narrator pacing to the floor “to and fro” and foaming, raving and swearing as he is driven to confess by a loud “ringing” noise can by scary as well. In total, Poe also uses sights to help convey more fear to readers. From the narrator’s preparations to the end when the narrator confesses, there is heavy usage of sights in the story by Poe to generate a horrific and mysterious mood and convey that to readers.

Finally, besides point of view and sights, Poe also uses sounds to help create suspense and a fearful, horrific mood. At the very beginning of the story, Poe cleverly writes that the narrator has “the sense of hearing acute” and is obviously insane though the narrator claims differently. It therefore allows him to use different sounds, real or imaginary, to convey fear and suspense. The first sound used is on the eighth night, when the old man is wakened by the narrator and cries out, “Who’s there?” That cry can put intense suspense and fear into readers and create a mysterious mood. Another sound used are “death watches,” or deathwatch beetles when the old man wakes up and is “sitting up in the bed listening.” Deathwatch beetles create ticking noises to attract mates, and in olden times people thought that deathwatches sounded the arrival of death. Readers of the story when it was published, 1843, might have believed in the superstition. After the old man wakes up, the narrator claims to hear a “groan of mortal terror” from the old man. This enables readers to feel the old man’s terror and suspicious of what is happening. There is also a “loud yell” from the narrator and a shriek from the old man when the narrator attacks him. Those sounds can indicate a violent action and may frighten some readers. The most important sound used, however, is heartbeat. To the narrator, the most annoying sound is the old man’s heartbeat that he claims to hear. The heartbeat has rhythm, increasing in noise until the narrator finds it unbearable and brings out two of the most important events in the story – the killing of the old man and the narrator’s confession. The rhythm of the heartbeat acts as “the beating of a drum” to drive the plot to two climaxes and causes suspense and excitement in readers. Overall, because the narrator has acute hearing and is insane, Poe can easily use different real or imaginary sounds to create suspense, mystery and fear.

Edgar Allan Poe has effectively created a story full of suspense, mystery and fear by utilizing point of view and a variety of different sights and sounds. Instead of employing the three techniques separately in different acts, Poe, in many scenes, interlinks them together and uses one to reinforce another in order to create a perfect horrific and suspenseful mood. As readers read the story, they will be immersed by atmosphere the author creates and continually be frightened. In conclusion, “The Tell-Tale Heart,” although very short, is considered by many critics to be one of Poe’s greatest masterpieces because of the way it successfully makes readers squirm in fear.

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