Insanity and Mental Illness in the Tell-Tale Heart

Insanity is a mental problem typically characterized by various abnormal behaviors. This abnormality can contribute to the violation of conventional behavior in society making the victim become a possible threat to himself and others. Individuals who bear this habit tend to pass a certain message to others about themselves. In Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, the reader will discover that the unnamed narrator of the story displays obvious signs of insanity and mental illness. The dictionary defines insanity as unsoundness or a derangement of the mind (Webster’s New Biographical Dictionary, 1983). The narrator can be characterized as insane by his or her actions, which are indeed abnormal. This paper will focus on the abnormal behaviors of the narrator including the consequences of his or her insanity.

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First, Poe suggest the narrator is insane by his or her constant proclamation of sanity. For example, the narrator declares that because the murder of the old man was so carefully planned that he or she could not be insane. The narrator says, Now this is the point. You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing. But you should have seen how wisely I proceeded-with what caution-with what foresight-with what dissimulation I went to work (37). The narrator believes that if a murder is carefully planned the murderer is not insane. Also, the narrator claims that he or she suffers from over-acuteness of the senses. Concerning the sound of the old man’ beating heart, the narrator says, And now have I not told you that what you mistake for madness is but over-acuteness of the senses?-now, I say, there came my ears a low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton (38). The narrator is likely imagining the sound, but claims he or she is hearing it because of sharp senses.

In the beginning of the story, the narrator seems to be very caring to the old man. The narrator has no bad intentions toward the old man apart from his eye, which resembled that of a vulture-a pale blue eye, with a film over it (Poe 37). The obsessive interest in the old man’s vulture-like eye forces the narrator to formulate a plan to murder the old man. The narrator confesses that the main reason for killing the old man was his eye: whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees-very gradually-I made up my mind to rid myself of the eye forever (34). The simple fact that the old man’s eye is the one single motivation to murder proves the narrator is so unstable mentally that he or she must search for rationalization to kill. In the narrator’s mind murder is rationalized with an unreasonable fear of the eye.

Throughout the story there is evidence and clues that suggest the narrator may be suffering from the mental illness schizophrenia. The narrator presents a few main behaviors that can be considered to be symptoms of schizophrenia, and one of them are the delusions he or she has during the story. For instance, an example of one of the narrator’s delusions is in the scene with the policeman. The narrator says, They heard!-they suspected!-they knew!-they were making a mockery of my horror (40)! The narrator is showing signs of referential delusions that happen when a person believes certain gestures or actions are specifically directed at them (American Psychiatric Association). Another clue is the hallucinations the narrator has throughout the story. These hallucinations are mostly auditory, which means the narrator perceives noises as being form the external world, when in reality they are only imaginations (American Psychiatric Association). It’s clear the narrator experiences this symptom when he or she says, It grew louder-louder-louder! And still the men chatted pleasantly, and smiled. Was it possible they heard not (40). There is also the fact that it is physically impossible for someone to hear the beating heart of someone else without the proper equipment, so this noise was in the narrator’s head. The last main symptom of schizophrenia the narrator demonstrates is catatonic behaviors such as extreme muscle paralysis of the body and hyperactivity conduct. An example of this is in the scene when the old man is startled and wakes up, the narrator says, I kept quite still and said nothing. For a whole hour I did not move a muscle and in the meantime I did not hear him lie down (38). Another instance near the end of the story is when the narrator says, I paced the floor to and fro with heavy strides [] I swung the chair upon which I had been sitting, and grated it upon the boards (40).

It is obvious that the narrator of The Tell-Tale Heart shows signs of having a mental illness, which could very well be schizophrenia. The narrator hallucinates when hearing things that are impossible to be heard, and demonstrates behaviors that can be described as catatonic. No matter how much the narrator tries to prove his or her sanity, most readers would view the narrator’s argument as insane because the murder of the old man is motiveless, but also because the narrator’s confession to the murder comes across as premeditated and heartless.

In contrast, some readers may make the argument that the narrator is actually sane after all. Some may say the narrator’s confidence in his ability to calculate and plan the murder shows sanity. Insane people are generally unsure of their actions, but the narrator’s determination and confidence does show a bit of sanity. Also, the narrator has every chance of getting away with the crime, but feels guilty for murdering the old man, which means the narrator must have a working conscience. The narrator also shows the ability to differentiate between right and wrong as shown in the story when the narrator takes care to dismember and hide the body. If the narrator is truly insane, he or she wouldn’t go through such lengths to avoid detention. An insane person would act purely on impulse, not attempt to conceal a crime, and not feel guilty about it. The narrator defies all these conventions.

In conclusion, The Tell-Tale Heart presents many points that proves its narrator is indeed insane. The narrator demonstrates the abnormal behaviors and symptoms of the mental illness schizophrenia. According to the evidence of the story the narrator is more insane than not. It is obvious to the reader of the story that the unnamed narrator offers unjustifiable reasons for his or her actions. The narrator descended into madness.

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Insanity and Mental Illness in The Tell-Tale Heart. (2019, Aug 12). Retrieved September 27, 2022 , from
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