How Edgar Allen Poe Builds Tension in His Short Stories [Yr 9 Living Texts]

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Edgar Allen-Poe (1809 – 1849) is widely acclaimed as one of the first and greatest gothic writers. His output mostly consisted of short stories and poems for various American magazines in the 1840s. Surprisingly, despite his fame and recognition within his own lifetime, he lived a life of squalor and poverty. Although best known for his gothic stories, he also wrote numerous detective and adventure stories. An alcoholic and an opium user, his stories often display a surreal, dark and dreamlike style. The world which Poe would have known was more superstitious and dangerous than today. For example, in the 19th century having a coma could be mistaken for death, as a result, it was not uncommon to be buried alive. Poe included live burial, grave-digging and murder in many of his works, which were the acute reflection of Victorian society’s foremost fears. One of the main assets of his work, however, was his ability to build intense suspense. By using a variety of techniques, Poe was able to create tension and mystery in his short stories. In this essay I will aim to describe his myriad methods.

Poe employs excessively detailed descriptions and repetition to delay the reader’s arrival at the final climax; he did this because he wanted to give time for the suspense to develop before arrival at the inevitably blood-curdling climax. For example, In ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’, before the murderer kills the innocent old man, there is a substantial amount of repetition and more complex sentences ,e.g. “ cautiously -- oh, so cautiously -- cautiously (for the hinges creaked), I undid it just so much that a single thin ray fell upon the vulture eye.As a result of this delay, the reader becomes even more inquisitive over what events will happen next.

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What is more, in ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ , the narrator’s  use of unnatural language hints at the abnormal mental state of the narrator: He describes the old man’s eye as ‘Evil’ or ’Damned’- damned in this case meaning  satanic or cursed. The reader, therefore, has cause to doubt the sanity and stability of the narrator and wonders how the story will conclude.

 Furthermore, the narrator in ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ enjoys recounting in gruesome detail, and appears to be proud of his act of murder. “I could scarcely contain my feelings of triumph”. Again, this creates doubt within the reader’s mind ...

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