Edgar Allen Poe was a nineteenth century American poet and short story author. The Tell Tale Heart and The Black Cat by Edgar Allen Poe are both stories concerning madness and hysteria. Both tales are written in a gothic horror genre with the intention of chilling and unsettling the reader. This was to make them anticipate what was going to happen next in the story. Poe succeeds in creating tension by the content of the tales, partly being supernatural and suspenseful. He creates this tension by using several different techniques including plot, characterisation and themes.
Poe’s work easily created tension and suspense when they were first published as he was one of the first to experiment in such taboo topics as horror. Poe uses sporadic em dashes throughout both The Black Cat and The Tell-Tale Heart. The dashes show a break in the flow of the thoughts and speech of the narrator. This suggests disjointed thinking processes, possible insanity and a highly unreliable narrator. The story opens with the narrator confessing his unhinged nervousness; “TRUE! – Nervous – Very, very dreadfully nervous. The narrator’s anxiety at the very beginning of the story establishes the sense of unease and ensures that the reader is feeling the full effects of the narrator’s psychological issues. The tension heightens in the reader as the narrator slowly but surely descends into madness and admits to murdering the landlord. Similarly in the Black Cat, Poe utilises em dashes in his writings, ensuring the reader feels the suspense and the tension that the narrator is feeling over murdering his wife.
Like the narrator in The Tell-Tale Heart, the narrator in The Black Cat shows similar signs of anxiety and fear about being accused. The Black Cat narrator exclaims in great nervousness; “When I first beheld this apparition –for I could scarcely regard it as less–my wonder and my terror were extreme” when the cat – whom he killed – first appears in an outline in the walls. The em dashes in both stories create a great sense of unease within the readers as we witness the narrator slowly descending into madness as guilt begins to take over their lives.
In The Tell-Tale Heart and The Black Cat, Poe sets a scene of the supernatural, using unexplained phenomena to create a sense of tension within the reader. When the reader is presented with events they know are not subject to natural laws and appear to have no apparent cause, they begin to experience uneasy feelings due to a fear of the unknown and unexplainable. The Tell-Tale Heart illustrates this use of supernatural occurrences to heighten tension through the narrator hearing the sound of the heartbeat of the man he killed.
The narrator beings to madden as “the sound increased – what could I do? It was a low, dull, quick sound. It grew louder – louder! ” As an audience, we know that a dead man’s heart does not beat, therefore the sound the narrator is hearing must be a result of the psyche baring its guilt or an unexplained supernatural event occurring. In Poe’s, The Black Cat, there are many occurrences of paranormal happenings. A cat appears in an outline upon the wall with a rope around its neck; however the audience is privy to the knowledge that the cat was not placed there by the narrator.
Furthermore, another cat with similar disfigurements as Pluto – being the missing eye – appears around the narrator, resulting in the audience questioning whether history will repeat itself – with the narrator becoming unstable once more – and killing the new cat. Poe creates a mysterious and suspenseful atmosphere throughout his short stories. It produces, within the reader, an overall mood or dominant tone of uncertainty, apprehension and tension which lasts for the duration of the story.
The Black Cat creates this mysterious impression toward the end, when the story reaches its highest point of tension; “These walls are solidly put together. ” ‘I rapped heavily upon the very portion of brickwork behind which stood the corps of my wife’. The suspense thickens here as the narrator openly displays disturbing behaviour before a group of law enforcers who are investigating the case of his missing wife. The reader experiences the rising tension as they endeavour to discover whether the narrator gets caught for his sinful deeds.
Poe creates tension in The Black Cat in an alternative manner. The appearance of another cat shortly after Pluto’s horrific murder has the reader intrigued as to whether the cat is just another cat, or, as the new cat also has a missing eye as the narrator notes; “like Pluto, it also had been deprived of an eye”, if the cat is the supernatural reappearance of Pluto; back to drive his former owner and murderer to insanity. The mystery continues over the course of the short stories, heightening and sustaining tension and suspense within the reader.
Poe employs the use of the technique anaphora, which is the repetition of the same words at the start of adjacent lines or sentences. Anaphora is used in moments of heightened tension in both The Black Cat and The Tell-Tale Heart to impart an emphasis on a particular thought the narrator is experiencing. The Tell-Tale Heart illustrates tension through the use of anaphora as the narrator, who professes that he liked the man, begins to show hatred toward him; “He had never wronged me.
He had never given me insult,” demonstrating that he is experiencing a mental change. Furthermore, the narrator becomes very anxious and tense within the man’s presence, further imparting that fear and tension within the reader. Likewise in The Black Cat, anaphora is used by Poe to establish a sense of unease and mystery. The narrator prides himself on being even-tempered, however “[he] grew, day by day, more moody, more irritable, more regardless of the feelings of others”. The alternation of the narrator’s characteristics conveys an atmosphere of apprehension.
Like a majority of Poe’s short gothic stories, The Tell-Tale Heart and The Black Cat are told from a first person perspective. This leaves the reader questioning whether the first person account of the happenings from the narrator can be deemed reliable and factual or whether there is a biased position taken on. The Tell-Tale Heart’s narrator can be viewed as being questionably sane due to a lack of thorough explanation for his hatred of the man and irrationally despising the man’s blind eye.
At the commencement of the story, the narrator maintains that he is sane, however it becomes clear that he is experiencing mental instability. Readers are unable to determine fact from fiction, ensuing feelings of agitation and mistrust in the narrator. The Black Cat, in a similar form to The Tell-Tale Heart, presents readers with a first-person narrative. The narrator first convinces the reader that “[He] loves animals,” however, he begins to display contradictory behaviours as he establishes abhorrence toward the animal.
The narrator also becomes an alcoholic; “I returned home, much intoxicated . . . ”, resulting in what could have been impaired thinking and views. It is unclear whether his account of the story is trustworthy as his interpretations could have been hindered by excessive alcohol consumption. Poe may have been influenced to create an alcoholic character as history tells us that Poe himself had issues with drinking which led to his downfall and may have played a part in his eventual death.
Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories; The Tell-Tale Heart and The Black Cat display very similar techniques that bring about the rise in tension and mystery throughout the story. The sense of unease is instilled in the readers as the read, experiencing the emotions the narrator is feeling as each is makes a tragic plunge into great mental insanity and is brought to justice for their horrific crimes. Poe utilised techniques such as em dashes, mysterious and supernatural events, anaphora and first-person narration to ensure the reader experiences the full effects of the rising tension the narrator feels.