Historical Context in The Tell-Tale Heart

First published in 1843 in The Pioneer, “The Tell-Tale Heart” is characteristic of the macabre themes for which Poe became famous. Poe was a part of the American Gothic literary movement that became popular in the 19th century at the same time Romanticism was in vogue. Unlike Romanticism, which focused on the power of the individual and the sublime truth of nature, American Gothic literature explored the human experience through irrationality, madness, guild, and supernatural horror. It often features characters suffering from melancholy, insanity, and obsession, blurring the line between fantasy and reality. Graphic violence and disturbing scenarios challenge the Romantic belief in reason. The genre arose out of the darker experience of 19th century American culture and society; it is largely viewed as a reaction to the nightmare of poverty, tension over the history of slavery and racial politics, and the daunting wilderness of the American frontier.

Historical Context Examples in The Tell-Tale Heart:

The Tell-Tale Heart 3

"death watches..."   (The Tell-Tale Heart)

"Death watches" are a type of beetle that lives inside walls. Part of their mating ritual is to bang their head into the wall to attract mates. In Poe's time it was a widely held belief that these banging noises were a countdown to someone's inevitable death.

"Evil Eye..."   (The Tell-Tale Heart)

The "Evil Eye" was a superstition that people can use their eyes to curse others. Curses could range anywhere from bad luck, to disease, to death.

"disease ..."   (The Tell-Tale Heart)

The specific disease to which the narrator refers is unclear. Because he has characterized himself as "dreadfully nervous" he could be suffering from hysteria, a medical diagnosis generally assigned to women meant to explain extreme emotions or depression. In men, hysteria was generally used to explain PTSD symptoms, or anxiety.