“The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Poe
“The Tell-Tale Heart” is one of the leading first narrative pieces created by Poe about an unnamed narrator with mental instability. The narrator downplays his mental illness by arguing that he is extremely nervous but is mentally stable. He proceeds to share a story from his past to prove that he is okay. However, his story is counterproductive because it reinforces the idea that he is mentally unstable. The narrative is about an Old Man he killed because he had a horrible eye (Anastasia). According to Poe, the narrator crept into the older man’s room while he was sleeping and killed him, moved the corpse from the bed and dismembered it to hide his actions. The narrator argues that the precision and careful planning in killing the older man proved that he was with a sound mind. In this case, he moved swiftly and erased the trace of the murder by hiding the body underneath the floor. The narrator disliked the old man’s eye that he describes as being pale, clouded, blue and “vulture-like” (Poe 8). He argues that the evil eye drove him to murder after seven days of failed attempts of completing the task. However, on the eighth day, he gets a chance and moves swiftly to kill the older man on his bed. Efforts by the narrator to use his story of killing the older man as prove for his sanity backfire because it depicts him as being mad. For instance, on several occasions, he talks about hearing things on earth, hell and heaven that no other person can detect (Howarth). Therefore the author critically structured the piece by using an unknown narrator to illustrate how people with mental instability deceive themselves that they are okay, leading to their downfall.
Firstly, mental illness is illustrated by the narrator’s decision to murder the older man despite him, claiming that he loved him. He notes that the older man never wronged him, but he disliked the man’s pale blue evil eyes. The narrator, therefore, decided to kill the man because of his psychotic obsession of the eyes. Psychotic obsession is a form of mental illness that affects many people in society (Edna and Michael). Obsession with the eyes would keep him awake at midnight as he sneaked into his room to cast the light from the lantern on the “vulture eyes” (Zimmerman). All his actions were taken cautiously to avoid waking up the older man. However, in the morning, he would face the man and talk to him in a friendly manner. The actions of the narrator illustrate a man who was mentally disturbed and needed help. On the eighth night of sneaking into the older man’s room, the narrator notes that he fairly chuckled at the idea of killing him. Unlike other nights, the old man was startled by the narrator’s actions and “sprang up in bed, shouting ‘who is there’” (Poe 4)? The narrator later proceeded to kill him and decapitated his body. The mental instability of the unnamed narrator is illustrated by his obsession with the older man’s eyes that kept him awake for eight nights. He had a mental disorder that gave him the urge to sneak into the man’s room and try to kill him. His actions were not informed by his dislike of the older man but by his hatred and obsession with the man’s eyes. He believed that they were evil, and he had to kill him. His decision to shine light into the older man’s eyes can be seen as a way of casting out evil. His obsessive disorder, therefore, led him to murder the man he claimed to love.
Secondly, mental illness is illustrated in ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ by the narrators “over-acuteness of senses” that made him hear things no other man could apprehend. After he saw the old man’s “hideous veiled eyes” he notes that he became furious and detected a dull, low quick sound in his ears (Anastasia). The narrator proceeds to alert the audience that they should not mistake the voices he heard with insanity. However, the voices in his ears illustrate a troubled man who suffered from mental difficulties. Besides, after committing the brutal murder, he seemed unfazed that he had committed a criminal offence. The author notes that the narrator said to himself that “his eye would not trouble me anymore” (Poe 5). The phrase depicts a man who was satisfied with his action because he believed that they brought him peace. However, he later regrets his act after he is taunted by imaginary sounds coming from the floor. The sounds were imaginary because he was the only one who hard them despite the policemen sitting with him in the house. According to Poe, the police searched the house and hanged around to talk with the narrator, who claimed that the scream the neighbours had was his. Next, the narrator seeks to convince the audience that because he was able to trick the police, he should not be considered to be mad. However, when critically analyzing some of his actions such as his strange laughter one concludes that he lost his rational mind. For example, after dismembering the body, he reacts by saying that “A tub Caught it all –ha-ha!” (Poe 6). The laughter and satisfaction of dismembering a body depict an insane man. He started the story by saying that he loved the Old Man. Therefore, it is expected for him to have some guilt and remorse for ending his friend’s life. Thus the narrator’s calmness even after the police arrived does not illustrate a rational mind but an irrational one.
Ultimately, the author critically structured the piece by using an unknown narrator to illustrate how people with mental instability deceive themselves that they are okay, leading to their downfall. Mental illness is represented by the narrator’s decision to murder the older man despite him claiming that he loved him. He notes that the older man never wronged him, but he disliked pale his evil blue eyes. The narrator, therefore, decided to kill the man because of his psychotic obsession of the eyes. The actions of killing an older man because he disliked his appearance illustrate insanity. He had a mental disorder that gave him the urge to sneak into the man’s room and try to kill him. Secondly, after he saw the old man’s “hideous veiled eyes” he notes that he became furious and heard a dull, low quick sound in his ears. The narrator proceeds to alert the audience that they should not mistake the voices he heard with insanity. However, the noises in his ears illustrate a troubled man who suffered from mental complications. The sounds were imaginary because he was the only one who hard them despite the policemen sitting with him in the house. Poe’s narrative, therefore, provides a critical illustration of why mental illness is a crucial issue that needs to be addressed. The narrator had a mental illness but did not receive the relevant assistance to improve his condition. He proceeded to kill an innocent man who he considered a friend without a convincing reason (Zimmerman). Also, after committing the brutal murder, he still has the motivation to use it as evidence to prove that he is not insane. Thus his downfall after confessing to the policeman about the crime he committed resulted from mental illness.
Anastasia. The Theme of “The Tell-Tale Heart;” Expressive Means and Stylistic Devices in the Story. 2005, stylisticmiracles.blogspot.com/2013/05/the-theme-of-tell-tale-heartexpressive.html. Assessed 5th March 2020
Edna B., and Michael J. Kozak. “DSM-IV field trial: obsessive-compulsive disorder.” The American journal of psychiatry (1995).
Howarth, William L. Twentieth century interpretations of Poe’s tales: a collection of critical essays. Vol. 838. Prentice-Hall, 1971.
Poe, Edgar Allan. The tell-tale heart and other writings. Bantam Classics, 1983.
Zimmerman, Brett. “Frantic forensic oratory: Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”.” Style 35.1 (2001): 34-48.