How Does Edgar Allan Poe Keep the Reader in Suspense in "The Tell-Tale Heart"?

Edgar Allan Poe has been called a master of suspense and
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Edgar Allan Poe uses numerous devices to keep the reader in suspense in "The Tell-Tale Heart." The opening lines brand the narrator as unreliable. His hyperbolic statement, "I heard all things in the heaven ... I heard many things in hell," gives the reader a taut squeeze: these are the words of a madman. Poe increases suspense by foreshadowing murder: "I was never kinder to the old man than during the whole week before I killed him."

1 Diction and Rising Action

Half of text is devoted to rising action leading to the murder. The old man gives "a groan of mortal terror," and the narrator is likewise excited to "uncontrollable terror" by the victim's audible heartbeat. Sound imagery creates tension as the heartbeat "grew louder and louder" until a point where the "heart must burst." New York University's database describes the narrator's first-person account as "frenetic diction" -- through it, Poe builds suspense by describing the main character's obsessive repetition.

2 Heartbeats of Suspense

The narrator believes the tell-tale heart still beats even after the murder, and "I foamed, I raved, I swore" at the investigating police, whose presence adds more suspense: "They heard -- they suspected! -- they knew!" The repetitive, imaginary sound grows "louder! louder! louder!" as the heartbeat takes over the story until the narrator's confession stops the beating heart.

Michael Stratford is a National Board-certified and Single Subject Credentialed teacher with a Master of Science in educational rehabilitation (University of Montana, 1995). He has taught English at the 6-12 level for more than 20 years. He has written extensively in literary criticism, student writing syllabi and numerous classroom educational paradigms.