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PPHS English 332
American Modernism Project
American Romanticism Project
Aspects of American Romanticism
List of Romanticism Works
A Dream Within a Dream by Edgar Allan Poe
A Rainy Day by Nathaniel Hawthorne
A Walk at Sunset by William Cullen Bryant
Alone by Edgar Allan Poe
Annabel Lee by Edgar Allan Poe
Bartleby, the Scrivener by Herman Melville
Dream-Land by Edgar Allan Poe
Eldorado by Edgar Allan Poe
Eleonora by Edgar Allan Poe
Forms of Heroes by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Hop-Frog by Edgar Allan Poe
Ligeia by Edgar Allan Poe
Little Annie's Ramble by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Mr. Higginbotham's Catastrophe by Nathaniel Hawthorne
My Love by James Russell Lowell
My Low and Humble Home by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Paradise of Bachelors and the Tarturus of Maid by Herman Melville
Silence by Edgar Allan Poe
Spirits of the Dead by Edgar Allan Poe
The Ambitious Guest by Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Balloon Hoax by Edgar Allan Poe
The Bells by Edgar Allan Poe
The Black Cat by Edgar Allan Poe
The Bridal Ballad by Edgar Allan Poe
The Canterbury Pilgrims by Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Cask of Amontillado by Edgar Allan Poe
The City in the Sea by Edgar Allan Poe
The Coliseum by Edgar Allan Poe
The Darkened Mind by James Russell Lowell
The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar by Edgar Allan Poe
The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe
The Gold Bug by Edgar Allan Poe
The Happiest Day by Edgar Allan Poe
The Haunted Palace by Edgar Allan Poe
The Lake by Edgar Allan Poe
The Last Leaf by Oliver Wendell Holmes
The Lightning Rod Man by Herman Melville
The Man of the Crowd by Edgar Allan Poe
The Martyr by Herman Melville
The Masque of the Red Death by Edgar Allan Poe
The Murders in the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allan Poe
The Oval Portrait by Edgar Allan Poe
The Premature Burial by Edgar Allan Poe
The Purloined Letter by Edgar Allan Poe
The Sleeper by Edgar Allan Poe
The Spectacles by Edgar Allan Poe
The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether by Edgar Allan Poe
The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe
The Valley of Unrest by Edgar Allan Poe
To the River by Edgar Allan Poe
Ulalume by Edgar Allan Poe
What the Birds Said by John Greenleaf Whittier
William Wilson by Edgar Allan Poe
The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe
While most average people could not recognize a random line from Edgar Allen Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, many would recognize not only the name of the story, but the author’s name as well. Along with this, they could probably tell you about The Tell-Tale Heart’s story of madness and murder. This famous short story was written during the revolutionary writing era known as the Romantic era. As a Romantic piece, it differs slightly from its literary peers in that the style it is written in is a subgenre of Romanticism, called Dark Romanticism, which has a few aspects that differ from its parent genre. However, The Tell-Tale Heart is an excellent example of this subgenre of Romanticism, and despite its differences, it still has similarities to its brothers and sisters.
While the similarities The Tell-Tale Heart has with other Romanticism works are what tie it into the movement, the differences are what make it unique to Dark Romanticism. For example, one of the main components of the story is the narrator’s insanity, shown as he murders his neighbor because he is afraid of the cataract the man possesses and when he laughs at how clever he was in butchering the body in the bathtub so as to catch all the blood (Poe). The narrator also insists throughout his telling of the story that he is not insane, furthering the audience’s suspicions until they believe he really is insane, however obvious it was or was not to them at the start of the story (Poe). The character’s attitude towards his alleged insanity (Poe), the nervousness that he displays and admits to during and before the narration (Poe), and the extreme action that he takes in response to his own fear (the murder of the old man) (Poe) allows Poe to delve into the psychology of this man, and this aspect of psychology and human nature is what gives The Tell-Tale Heart one of its Dark Romanticism components (Langley).
A second major piece of the story that its Dark Romanticism hinges upon is the major role that fear plays within the plot. Emotions are a big part of Romanticism, but specifically, fear is the emotion the Dark Romantics focus upon (Langley). The Tell-Tale Heart orbits around several different fears itself. For instance, the reason the narrator of the story kills the old man with the “vulture eye” not because he hates the man or wants his money, but because he has a fear of his cataract-inflicted eye (Poe). The old man’s fear also plays a part in the story when the narrator is about to commit foul play against him. It alerts the old man to the possibility of something ominous, but his rationalization of the fear (another example of the use of psychology) when he tries to convince himself the noise he heard was just “wind in the chimney” or “a mouse crossing the floor” puts him at ease enough so that the narrator can make his move (Poe). After the deed is done and the police arrive due to a scream heard by another neighbor, the narrator makes it very clear that he has no fear of his deed being found out in order to make the next sequence of events even more thrilling (Poe). The narrator hears the beating of the old man’s heart in his ears, and his fear of being found out slowly grows into a maelstrom of panic, climaxing when he screams to the cordial policemen, “Villains! … dissemble no more! I admit the deed! --tear up the planks! here, here! --It is the beating of his hideous heart!” (Poe). This seeming overdose of fear is common in Dark Romantic pieces; it is the gateway through which many of the authors explore the darker sides of human nature and psychology (hence the name “Dark Romanticism”).
Fear not only helps the authors explore psychology, but it also lends itself to the other two major components of Dark Romanticism: mystery and superstition or the supernatural (Langley). The Tell-Tale Heart features one large mystery at its end that blends with the supernatural aspect of the story, the mystery being, was the old man’s heart really still beating, or was it just a figment of the madman’s guilty conscience (Poe)? Because the mystery is never solved, it allows the author to not only play with the mind of his or her own characters, but it also allows them to mess with the audiences’ minds and explore their own psychology. The possibility of the heart still beating beneath the floorboards, the supernatural aspect, also adds another fear factor to the story, but this time, the fear is meant for the audience. The fear, once again, ties all the components into a neat package of Dark Romanticism and makes this story a prime example of its genre and of a work by the great Edgar Allen Poe.
One thing noticeable in the story that also marks it as one by Poe is the narrators apparent insanity. While this story was not written during a particular point in Poe’s life, it may be that it reflects his own feelings of spiraling into madness. All his life, he struggled with a gambling problem as well as a problem with depression due to all the misfortune that followed him throughout his life (“Poe‘s Life“); perhaps, in writing The Tell-Tale Heart, he is speculating on what he will become as a result of his addiction and depression. It is also possible that he is referring to America in general with the theme of insanity. At the time of its writing, Manifest Destiny was widespread and America was on the brink of war with Mexico over territorial disputes. In this context, then, The Tell-Tale Heart could become a warning piece for the government, telling of the possibility of the government spiraling out of control due to reasons it believes to be justified, just as the narrator murders the old man for what he believes to be a justifiable reason (Poe).
As a great example of its genre, The Tell-Tale Heart obviously shares similarities with other Romantic and Dark Romantic stories; however, since Romanticism and Dark Romanticism are so contrasted, it mainly finds its connections with other Dark Romantic stories, such as The Wedding Knell by Nathaniel Hawthorne. This story uses fear as The Tell-Tale Heart does, only in a much lesser dose. The fear is used to provide the conflict for the story; the bride is afraid of the commitment to wed her groom and retire to their grave together (Hawthorne). She is also afraid of losing her beauty and youth, and clinging to such things becomes a focus in her life, turning her into who she is at the beginning of the story (Hawthorne). However, unlike in The Tell-Tale Heart, the bride overcomes her fears and deals with them using love, a common theme in Romanticism (Langley), while teaching the audience a valuable lesson about love and commitment in general (Hawthorne). In this way the aspect of fear connects these two stories, but it also draws them apart.
However, “What the Birds Said” and The Tell-Tale Heart have very little in common. The Tell-Tale Heart is a tale of terror, murder, and insanity (Poe); “What the Birds Said” is an optimistic poem about the end of the Civil War (Whittier). The only thing that is similar about them other than the fact that they both came from the same literary movement is that they both appeal to the emotions of the readers, though they do this in different ways. In The Tell-Tale Heart, Poe tries to invoke fear into the audiences’ hearts with his character’s insanity and cold-blooded act of murder (Poe), while Whittier, in “What the Birds Said“, tries to give the audience a sense of optimism, happiness, and victory with his hopeful analogy of the springtime lifting up a gray cloud of gloom (Whittier). Other than this, however, these two pieces have little to nothing in common.
The Tell-Tale Heart was not written during a stressful or depressing time in Poe’s life, but the terror it gives the reader makes it a prime example of Romanticism and Dark Romanticism (The Poe Museum). It stands out as a black sheep of its time by being the member of Dark Romanticism and not having much in common with generic Romantic works, but it is not alone in this subgenre. Like its author, this story has created a legacy for years to come through its story of madness and murder, and it has inspired countless modern writers of horror to pursue the genre. The tell-tale heart beats on.
Langley, John. "Romanticism." Mr. Langley's Digital Classroom. John Langley, 24 Oct. 2010. Web. 10 Dec. 2010. <
Poe, Edgar A. "The Tell-Tale Heart."
. Poe Museum, 2010. Web. 9 Dec. 2010. <
The Poe Museum.
The Poe Museum
. Web. 9 Dec. 2010. <
Whittier, John G. "What the Birds Said." The Complete Works of John Greenleaf Whittier. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1894. Poetry Archive. 2002. Web. 9 Dec. 2010. <
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