"The Tell-Tale Heart" is a short story by Edgar Allan Poe published in 1843. The story is about an unnamed narrator's attempt to convince readers that he's sane even though he commits premeditated murder. The story is dark and foreboding, and allows readers to witness the narrator's guilty conscience. Classroom activities should focus on Poe's themes of love, hate, guilt and fear, and should help students understand reasons behind Poe's disturbing, yet enlightening, short story.
A Mock Trial
Host a mock trial and assign students to play the roles of lawyers, jury members and judges to determine the narrator's innocence or guilt. The purpose of the mock trial is to help students understand Poe's themes, such as ties between love and hate, rational versus irrational fears and the struggle to come to grip with human mortality. Have students take turns playing the role of the defendant, using quotes from "The Tell-Tale Heart" to proclaim their innocence and validate their behavior. As the teacher, you might play the part of an expert witness who provides details on the mental condition of the narrator. Your class might determine that an insanity plea is the best option.
Ask students to write their own short stories in Poe's Gothic-literature style. The purpose is to help students learn important elements of Gothic literature that directly tie into Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart," such as the focus on a mentally tormented protagonist, a mysterious setting, elements of horror, a suspense plot line, and unusual phenomenon, such as the old man's filmy eye. Instruct students to maintain a high level of emotion throughout their stories and present perplexing ethical dilemmas, such as the narrator's justification for murder in "The Tell-Tale Heart." Themes must be dark, and they should address flaws in human nature. Ask students to edit each other's short stories, or ask them to read their stories aloud to the class. You might set the mood for story-sharing by turning off the lights, lighting candles and instructing students to wear black or gray.
Tragic Backstory and Historical Context
Explain Poe's backstory and the historical time period in which he wrote, so students will understand the deeper meanings in the "The Tell-Tale Heart." Show students the A&E Television Networks DVD "The Mystery of Edgar Allan Poe," so they can witness Poe's tragic life as an orphan, young widower, alcoholic and brooding writer. Ask students to write one-page research papers on the wealthy, educated class in America during the1830s, so they can relate to Poe's struggle to meet the expectations of aristocratic America.
Ask students to create movie posters for the new release of Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" at theaters. Give students a list of criteria that their posters must meet, such as slogans or sayings that clearly explain Poe's themes, drawings or fonts that represent the Gothic style and ratings that clearly explain why the movie contains content for mature audiences. Some students might choose to create a poster in the horror genre, and others might choose action, suspense or murder motifs. The purpose of the assignment is to allow students to use their artistic creativity to relate Poe's short story to present-day cultural norms.
- The New York Times Learning Network: 10 Ways to Teach Literature
- Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute: Poe Lightly; Rosemary Hamilton
- History.com: The Mystery of Edgar Allan Poe DVD
- University of California, Davis: The Gothic Novel
- The Tell-Tale Heart and Other Writings; Edgar Allan Poe
- Photo Credit Comstock/Stockbyte/Getty Images
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