Insanity in “The Tell-Tale Heart”
The man speaking in Poe's “Tell-Tale Heart” could be just inventing the story and telling it as if it was true; however, let's hypothetically believe or assume that it is in fact true. In that case, the main character would be presenting a severe case of insanity. This is going to be the thesis of this paper (following the author's assumption that the character is not imagining the story).
Paragraph after paragraph, the man unconsciously shows his state of insanity even though he often tries to prove the opposite. In the first paragraph, he starts telling the reader he is not a madman. It is exactly his defending himself that makes him look suspicious for no one is accusing him of being crazy. “But why will you say that I am mad?” (277). He is anticipating the reader's judgement. All along the story his tone is desperate in the development of his defense even though his arguments seem logical. Then he proceeds to say that “the disease had sharpened his senses - not destroyed - not dulled them” (277). One can see that they are neither destroyed nor dulled; however, they are definitely altered (e. g: hearing someone's heart beating) for he hears things that are not real. Using the word “disease” he contradicts himself: if he is not suffering from insanity, then what is this disease that alters (“sharpens”) his senses? He is convinced that he is sane and wise and wants to prove so but fails throughout the whole explanation of his murder. He also says he hears “all things in the heaven and in the earth” and “in hell” (277). No sane person has the ability to do this; ironically, this would be suggesting that everyone else, including the reader, is crazy. Is it not obvious that this man is in denial? After saying how nervous he was, and still is, he justifies his sanity by saying how calmly he will tell about the murder. Nevertheless, his tone sounds desperate and far from calm. One can see this by the use of exclamations and repetitions of words: “TRUE! - nervous - very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am” (277). But this is just the beginning, and the reader has just started to feel that there is something wrong with this character. It is not only how he tells the story but also the disturbing content that shows the pure insanity of his soul.
First, he shows an example of obsessive behavior. He says that the idea of killing the old man he lived with “haunted” him “day and night” (277). Apparently - and he admits this himself - there is no object or passion that drove him to murder him. “I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire” (277). His reason was the old man's eye. He even attributes names to it such as “Evil Eye” and says it is like the eye of a vulture, meaning the eye of Death. He feels threatened by it. But what a sane person can see that he can not is that it is not the eye but his own conscience that troubles him. He can not stand this feeling of being looked at, of being seen in the inside, as if this eye could penetrate anything. Therefore, he decides to kill the man to get rid of the eye.
Then again, he repeats that he is not a madman because he was wise, organized and cautious in the planning of the assassination. As an example, he says he “was never kinder to the old man than during the whole week before” he killed him (277). Then how could he coldly and calmly kill him unless he was insane? And every night he did the same routine of going into the old man's room and being so meticulous with his movements. “Oh, you would have laughed to see how cunningly I thrust it in!” (277). He manages to be humorous about something most sane people would find disturbing and cruel. Even his exaggerated discretion and subtlety are a sign of his mental state.
While the eye is closed, he can not kill the man - he argues. For that reason he repeats his ritual into the old man's room for seven nights. “I could scarcely contain my feelings of triumph. To think that there I was, opening the door, little by little, and he not even to dream of my secret deeds or thoughts” (278). He finds amusement in strange little things like these, instead of being nervous and worried until the sin is done. When the man woke up because he heard a noise, they both stayed still for an hour. During that hour, the main character overanalyzed the old man's thoughts and feelings. He obsesses with darkness and shadows that can not be seen but are present. “And it was the mournful influence of the unperceived shadow that caused him to feel -although he neither saw nor heard - to feel the presence of my head within the room” (279). However, shadows do not exist in such darkness. And he could have said “the presence of him in the room” instead of “the presence of his head within the room”; but then again, his word choice shows his obsession with introducing his head into the room every night.
When the eye opens he gets furious and calls it “the damned spot” (279). The veil on the eye terrifies him so he places the ray of light coming from his lantern right on it. In this paragraph, he does not describe the man's reaction or anything else that goes on between them, it is just the eye and him, almost like a duel.
Next he reiterates, “and have I not told you that what you mistake for madness is but over acuteness of the senses?” (279). “It was the beating of the old man's heart” (279). It is humanly impossible to hear someone else's heart beating and specially at such a distance; he was either imagining it or most probably mistaking this sound with the beating of his own heart. He was barely breathing, motionless, and under pressure; therefore, it is most likely that his heart rate would have increased. Even now when he is describing the scene he does not sound calm at all: “The old man's terror must have been extreme! It grew louder, I say, louder every moment! - do you mark me well? I have told you that I am nervous: so I am” (280). He was in “uncontrollable terror” too; ironically, he was the dangerous one in the picture. “But the beating grew louder, louder!” (280). Parallel to the sound getting louder, his craziness kept increasing too. “And now a new anxiety seized me - the sound would be heard by a neighbour!” (280). He does not reason or think like a mentally healthy person. He describes this noise as if it was almost deafening. Even if it was his own heart, no one could hear it. Afterwards he kills the man pulling “the heavy bed over him” (280). Then he smiles “gaily”. He does all this with calm and lack of emotion.
“If still you think me mad, you will think so no longer when I describe the wise precautions I took for the concealment of the body” (280). But such are these precautions that instead of proving his sanity he assures the reader of his craziness. The more he tries to seem sane, the more he fails to do so. “I dismembered the corpse. I cut off the head and the arms and the head” (280). This is not something one can do easily and specially emotionless. This is a very savage and cruel action that he narrates as if it was the most common thing.
After hiding the corpse under the floor, he “then replaced the boards so cleverly, so cunningly, that no human eye - not even his - could have detected anything wrong” (280). By saying this, it seems as if the Evil Eye had the power to see all the things that could be wrong. It was (to him) an eye that could examine and judge, see what he can not see of himself. He was afraid of what the eye could see but this time he felt he had done such a perfect job that not even the Eye could detect the deed. Another inconsistent thing he says is that there was “no stain of any kind”. If he dismembered the corpse, he must have had blood all over the place unless he skipped in his narration part of the dismembering process. Then again, the crazy humor: “A tub had caught all - ha! ha!” (280).
The officers came to him because someone had heard a shriek. He had not been as wise as he said, for he thought the neighbors might hear the heartbeat but not a shriek. Then he calmly welcomed the officers into the house and talked to them freely and unworried. Feeling that he had nothing to fear, he challenged the perfection of his crime by offering the officers to sit right on top of the floor where the corpse was hidden.
After this a sudden change took place. It all started with a headache and a ringing in his ears. The sound, again, increased gradually. He believed it to be the old man's heart; however, the man was dead. His insanity worsened once again as the sound grew louder. Headaches can often be related to the change in insane people from sane to abnormal behavior. Also, the normal behavior in this case would have been to start feeling nervous and scared in seeing the officers and then calming down and regaining confidence as things went smoothly. But his attitude was the opposite.
He was convinced that the policemen could hear the heartbeat but were tricking him by not saying a word about it and pretending they were not hearing anything at all. “They were making a mockery of my horror!” (282). Instead of dissimulating, he acted strangely and violently: “I swung the chair upon which I had been sitting, and grated it upon the boards, but the noise arose over all and continually increased” (281). A sane person would have lied as he did before when he said the shriek was his own, or would have asked the policemen to leave because it was late and he was tired; nonetheless, he was too absorbed in his paranoia to think wisely. Then if one tried to follow his own reasoning and theory, he was not as sane as he thought himself to be for he was not as wise as he could have been.
His last sentence, when he confesses his deed, is: “It is the beating of his hideous heart!” (282). He does not understand that a dead heart can not beat and believes that the officers thought the same way. He said the heart is “hideous”. He is almost mad at the heart itself for telling on him, for bothering him; however, it has been only his conscience that made him suffer.
His insanity made the heart “beat”, tell on him.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Tell-Tale Heart”. Tales. (Handout from class).