Insanity in the Tell-Tale Heart

Edgar Allan Poe wrote the Gothic fiction short story The Tell-Tale Heart in 1843 at the age of thirty-four. This story is about the insanity-driven murder of an innocent old man. The story only contains six characters, three of which are police officers. The story is told from the perspective of the murderer himself. It follows him through the events leading up to the murder, the act of the murder, and the events after the murder. As he narrates the story, he keeps trying to convince the reader of his sanity. The narrator sees no fault in his doings, and he claims to be a sane man on multiple occasions. Throughout the story, the reader learns the narrator is everything but sane. This is obvious by his obsessions with the old man and time. Edgar Allan Poe in The Tell-Tale Heart illustrates the effects of guilt, the fall into madness, and the realm of death to give us insight into the physical and emotional effects of insanity

Throughout The Tell-Tale Heart, Poe demonstrates guilt and its ties with insanity. Near the end of the short story, after the murder, the narrator says, Villains!” I shrieked, “dissemble no more! I admit the deed! –tear up the planks! here, here! –It is the beating of his hideous heart!”. After the murder of the old man, the narrator thinks he can hear the old man’s heart beating beneath the floorboards where his body is stashed. However, it cannot be the old man’s heart, for his heart has stopped. In Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe, Daniel Hoffman says, Of course it was his own heart which the murderer heard beat (232).

The narrator is dealing with guilt from the murder, and he does not even realize it. His heart is beating out of his chest, and his anxiety from the murder is catching up with him. His insanity has him so focused on the old dead man that he does not even consider the possibility that it could be his own heartbeat. The guilt has his emotions so troubled that it is having physical effects upon his own heart. In Eight American Authors: A Review of Research and Criticism Jay B. Hubbell states, the undercurrent of meaning is so strangely marked by conflicts of a very evident sort – between man and man, and between man and nature (32). Unable to handle the overwhelming heartbeat, the narrator confesses to the death of the old man. His external conflict of the narrator versus the old man leads to the internal conflict of man versus natural guilt. His guilt, along with his insanity, led to him admitting to the crime and ultimately getting in trouble.

Madness is often one of the biggest themes in Poe’s writings, much like it is in this one. This story, from the main begging all the way to the very end, conveys messages of falling into madness. The narrator is unstable in the beginning no doubt, but it only goes worse as the story goes on. His internal insanity leads to him physically acting upon it. In the opening line of the story, the narrator tells the reader, True! – Nervous – very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am! But why will you say that I am mad? (Poe 3). This opening line lets the reader know something is off with the narrator. Before telling the reader any information, he immediately proclaims that he is not calm, or as one might say, he’s fearful of everything. A sane person would not start off immediately claiming to be sane and asking why others say he is not. In the next few lines, the narrator says, Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? (Poe 3).

In Edgar Allan Poe, Harold Bloom says, His denial of madness only intensifies the effect of his bizarre claim The opening words imply that we have provoked the speaker by asserting what he denies: far from being insane (52). Bloom, along with many others, see this opening paragraph as an immediate red flag of the narrator’s madness. Sadly, the madness only gets worse, and the narrator falls into it, eventually acting upon it. As the story goes on, readers see the narrator fall deeper into his insanity by physically killing an older man. While this is most definitely insane, it is not the worst part. The worst part would be the narrator obsession with the old man’s eye. Poe states in the story, He had the eye of a vulture – a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever (Poe 3). The narrator mentions this eye several times throughout the story, revealing his obsession with it. This eye leads to the narrator’s self-destruction. The emotional effects of insanity, more so the obsession with the eye, leads to the physical effect of killing the old, innocent man.

Like most of Poe’s works, one of the biggest focuses in The Tell-Tale Heart is death. However, it is more than just the death of the old man, although that it is a huge part of it. This story also focuses on the death of the narrator’s freedom and insanity. The old man dies at the hands of the narrator. Poe states, In an instant I dragged him to the floor, and pulled the heavy bed over him. I then smiled gaily, to find the deed so far done (3). The narrator did not commit a gruesome murder, he simply smothered the man. But his motives behind this link back to his insanity. In The Tales of Poe (Modern Critical Interpretations), Harold Bloom states, The narrator is mad, or at least abnormal according to his own account He is doubly mad when he imagines he hears the pounding of the dead man’s heart (141).

The narrator’s motives for killing are stated in the short story itself, but they are not real reasons for murder. This murder is purely due to the narrator’s insanity. Perhaps the narrator became obsessed with the thought of killing someone, or maybe he truly did not know what he was about to do. Either way, he completed the murder. He even went on to try and cover up the murder. Within the story, he says, I then took up three planks from the flooring of the chamber and deposited all between the scantlings. I then replaced the boards so cleverly, so cunningly, that no human eye could have detected anything wrong (Poe 6). Not only was he obsessed with the murder, but he also became obsessed with the hiding of it. When speaking of the murder and the coverup, it is almost as if the narrator is proud of his doings. In Symbolisme from Poe to Mallarme; the Growth of a Myth when discussing Poe and his works, Joseph Chiara says the first is that what one may call vertical symbolism, that is to say the apprehension of the invisible world through the visible (97). Poe uses this specifically in The Tell-Tale Heart. He shows the invisible insanity through the visible murder. Not only does the narrator become physically obsessed with the murder by carrying it out, but he also becomes emotionally obsessed by being proud of it.

In conclusion, Edgar Allan Poe uses the story The Tell-Tale Heart to show readers the effects of guilt, the fall into madness, and the realm of death to give us insight into the physical and emotional effects of insanity. The narrator’s insanity is discernible through his actions and storytelling. Although the narrator seems calm at first, he ends up letting his guilt get the best of him and admits the murder of the old man. His guilt led to his demise in the end. Through the whole story, we see the narrator fall deeper and deeper into madness. He starts off with an obsession that leads to a murder. He then conceals the body but admits to the murder. This murder, the murder of an innocent old man, shows us just how truly mad the narrator is. In the end, the narrator’s insanity ended up taking a toll on him, both emotionally and physically.

Works Cited

  1. Bloom, Harold. The Tales of Poe (Modern Critical Interpretations). Chelsea House Pub,
  2. 1987.
  3. Bloom, Harold. Edgar Allan Poe. Chelsea House Publishers, 1999.
  4. Chiari, Joseph. Symbolisme from Poe to Mallarme; the Growth of a Myth. Rockliff, 1956.
  5. Hoffman, Daniel. Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe. Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1972.
  6. Hubbell, Jay B. Eight American Authors: a Review of Research and Criticism. WW Norton &
  7. Company, 1956.
  8. Poe, Edgar Allan. The Tell-Tale Heart and Other Writings. Bantam Books, 2004.
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