“The Tell Tale Heart” is a short story written by Edgar Allan Poe, published in 1843. He was famous for his tales and poems of horror and mystery. His best-known works were in the genre of gothic horror, such as The Tell-tale Heart, The Black Cat, The Cask of Amontillado and The Premature Burial. Poe’s recurring themes revolve around questions about death and paranoia, how they contribute to the psychological imbalance and how it leads to insanity. His writing was largely influenced by his past since Poe’s life was troubled and tragic. He never studied about the supernatural, thinking the human psyche had enough materials for horror. Poe wrote the story in narration format which fully shows us the point of view of a mentally disturbed man. It successfully gives us a feeling of uneasiness as we read the story, diving deeper into the mind of a murderer. Throughout the story, we can see the narrator slowly descends into madness.
First, a brief summary of the story. An unnamed narrator confesses that he had murdered an old man. He says all he had was love for the old man, and that it was the ‘Evil eye’ that drove the narrator to kill him. He then describes how he murdered the old man by creeping into his room and killed the man, he proceeds to dismembering the corpse and hiding it under the floor plank. But soon after the police came and knocked at the door, called by a neighbor who heard a shriek in the night. The narrator invited the police inside to search the house, remaining calm. He then led them to sit down in the room below which he hid the corpse. When the narrator and the police were talking, the narrator hears a ringing sound, although the policemen didn’t seem to hear him. He believes that the sound came from the beating of the corpse’s heart. He gets increasingly disturbed by the sound and confesses his crimes to the police.
It is shown very clearly at the very beginning of the story, the narrator is nervous, he feels agitated about something he did. This is expressed through the sentence structure with the use of the multiple dashes, exclamation and question marks in the first paragraph. The true horror lies within the motive of the murder, i.e. the evil eye. The fact that the eye was his reasoning for killing the old man emphasizes his madness and his delusional thought process. He convinces himself that it was the eye that pushed him to do it, as he reassures himself “I think it was the eye! Yes, it was this!” through this line we know that he himself doesn’t truly know the purpose of this. At the same time, the narrator seems to be separating the person from the eye, as we can see in the fourth paragraph, “for it was not the old man who vexed me, but his Evil Eye”, which is why he was capable of murdering the old man while maintaining his love for him. Moreover, there is an element symbolism that Poe uses here: the old man’s eye represents the character’s outlook on the world, the eye is blue with a veil covering it, indicating the character is stuck and confused with the situation he is in.
Schizophrenia is a serious mental illness characterized by incoherent or illogical thoughts, bizarre behavior and speech, and delusions or hallucinations, such as hearing voices. (Kazdin, 2000) These symptoms are portrayed in the mind of the narrator in situations such as when he believed the old man had an eye of a vulture and near the end when he expressed that he could hear the dead man’s heartbeat through the floorboards. He then decides to spy on the victim in his bedroom for a week straight, expressing his feelings of triumph when he was not caught in the act, and proceeds to state that he is not insane “Ha!–would a madman have been so wise as this?”.
One of Edgar Allan Poe’s famous quotes, “Science has not yet taught us if madness is or is not the sublimity of the intelligence.” and as we can see, Poe’s narrator insists that his actions are intelligent and wise, yet these actions only makes the reader see him as a mad man. On the eight-night, the narrator closely describes his actions as if it was a well-orchestrated plan. Despite all of his bizarre actions, there may be a reasoning for his behavior. When the narrator heard a groan in the room, he instantly knew that “It was not a groan of pain or of grief –oh, no! –it was the low stifled sound that arises from the bottom of the soul when overcharged with awe.” He does not make it clear whether the old man was evil to him before this, but there is a possibility that the narrator might have been treated badly. Symptoms of paranoia are also shown in his character: his irrational fears and his belief that there is someone or something out to harm him, i.e. the evil eye and its mysterious powers.
The mysterious writing style of Poe plays a huge part in the horror aspect of the story, it engages the readers’ attention and makes us eager to know how the story unveils. In one of Poe’s short stories “The Cask of Amontillado” opens with a narrator, Montresor, who speaks of his plan to kill Fortunato. The narrator states, “I must not only punish, but punish with impunity”. Poe is able to take gothic tales of mystery and terror and shift the emphasis from the suspense to his creative use of language and various meanings of words. As the story progresses, the feeling of uneasiness slowly sets in. When the narrator saw the eye, his fearfulness towards it turned into fury. The eye may also be a symbolism of the narrator’s inability to hide his evil tendencies since according to him, it has strange powers that makes his blood run cold. In the line “Now, I say, there came to my ears a low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton.”, the narrator depicts the watch as the old man’s heart, in other words, it symbolizes the countdown to the old man’s death. He hears the old man’s heartbeat faster and faster, although it seems that the heartbeat actually belongs to the narrator himself “I have told you that I am nervous: so I am.” New delusions start to form as the narrator exclaims “And now a new anxiety seized me –the sound would be heard by a neighbor!”.
Signs of antisocial personality disorder such as sense of persistent lying, superiority, criminal behavior, lack of empathy and violence are portrayed in the mind of Poe’s narrator. As we enter the climax of the story, his coldness and lack of empathy is shown as the narrator performs the killing skillfully as if it was done before. The line “I then smiled gaily, to find the deed so far done.” gives the readers a feeling of queasiness. At this point the narrator still insists of his sanity by stating “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.”, yet this only makes the reader see him as even more insane. The horrific events that happen later on demonstrate the twisted mind of the narrator, which creates a profound impact in the story and leaves a deep impression on the readers. Poe’s narrator did not leave out the details about the concealment of the corpse since the element of gore adds to the horror of the story.
The narrator’s triumph was short-lived since not long after came a knock on the door from the police. As expressed through the text, he tried to remain content and showed us that he was not affected by the sudden intrusion. The line “The shriek, I said, was my own in a dream.”, justifies the antisocial behavior that was suggested, he’s good at lying and by the looks of it has done it many times before. His charm had convinced the officers that there was nothing suspicious going on and even sat upon the place where he hid the corpse. His paranoia then takes over his mind and he begins to panic, he hears the dead man’s heartbeat through the floorboards. It seems most likely that the sound is only in his head, since the policemen are oblivious to it as they continue to chat away calmly to the narrator. As we can see near the end, the narrator’s feeling was expressed through the sentence structure, similar to the first paragraph. The sudden exclamation, “Oh God! what could I do? I foamed –I raved –I swore!”, the repetitive speech, “louder –louder –louder!”, through the irregular sentence structure we could understand the intense feeling of the narrator. As the narrator became more unnerved we know that the ending was near. The narrator’s mental state was breaking down and his ugly side was showing.
“The tell-tale heart” is a study about the narrator’s mental state. In the beginning, the behavior of the narrator hints that the narrator might not be as sensible as he says he is, and in the end, he has a complete mental breakdown. The horror in this story focuses on making the reader feel uneasy with suspense, anticipation and dread, in other words, the lead up determines how scary the acts are.