Wednesday, February 01, 2006

The Tell-Tale Heart

When reading Poe’s story of “The Tell-Tale Heart”, one is immediately confronted with the question of whether or not the narrator is “mad”. The narrator insists that he is not “mad”, but as Shakespeare illustrated when he said “the lady doth protest too much”, the narrator’s denial of being “mad” only helps to convince us that he is, in fact, insane.

In a modern court of law, if the narrator attempted to plead insanity, he would not be found insane because his actions were premeditated. He carefully planned to kill the old man, and followed through on that plan with complete awareness of his actions. However, the narrator does exhibit certain signs of mental illness throughout the story. His meticulous attention to detail demonstrates an obsessive-compulsive nature, he shows clear signs of paranoia, and his detachment from human emotion borders on sociopathic.

The narrator’s obsessive-compulsive nature is illustrated in his careful planning of the murder. He plans to kill the man long before he actually accomplishes the task, and sneaks in to watch the man sleep, giving much thought to every detail of the murder. The narrator is also particularly pleased with himself that there was “nothing to wash out – no stain of any kind – no blood-spot whatsoever”. The narrator’s obsession with the old man’s eye also shows a preoccupation with appearances, and he even describes himself as having an “over-acuteness of the sense”.

The narrator also shows signs of paranoia throughout the story. For one, we see that he believes that the old man’s eye has some special power when he says “no human eye – not even his could have detected anything wrong”. In reality, the old man’s eye was probably useless and unable to see a thing, but the narrator believed it to be evil and somehow more capable of seeing than the average eye. The narrator also demonstrates paranoia when he is being questioned by the police and believes that they can hear the imagined beating of the dead man’s heart as he can. “They heard! – they suspected! – they knew! – they were making a mockery of my horror!”

The narrator’s semi-sociopathic nature is shown in his detachment from human emotion and his ability to imitate emotions that he does not actually feel. However, it is important to note that the narrator is not a true sociopath in the strict definition of the word. Two signs of a sociopath are an inability to control impulses and a lack of moral sense, both of which are displayed in the narrator’s murder of the old man.

Although the narrator detaches himself from human emotion, it is clear that he still feels guilt and sympathy, though he tries to suppress these feelings. This is shown when the narrator says “I knew what the old man felt, and pitied him, although I chuckled at heart.” The narrator’s feelings of sympathy are brief and fleeting, and are quickly replaced by an actual feeling of pleasure over another person’s suffering.

The heart, which can be seen as a symbol of life, can also be seen as a symbol of emotion. Before killing the old man, the narrator hears the heart beating and it increases his fury. This fury, which could be described as a human emotion, is suppressed when the narrator kills the old man.

Although the narrator is able to feign the appearance of ease while being questioned by police, he is only able to suppress his feelings up to a certain point. His feeling of guilt, in particular, is no longer something he can detach from and presents itself in the beating of the dead man's heart. The narrator is haunted by the beating of the heart because it connects him with life – it reminds him that he is a human being with an emotion of guilt that is no longer suppressible. Hence, the narrator is not a true sociopath, but simply a man who exhibits some sociopathic tendencies.

Through the narrator’s obsessive-compulsive behavior, paranoia and sociopathic behavior, we can see that he does demonstrate some signs of mental illness, but the question still remains as to whether or not he is truly “mad”. To call him “mad” would suggest that he is not responsible for his own behavior, but his careful planning and deliberation of the murder show that he knew full well what he was doing, and his unavoidable guilt shows that he knew his actions were wrong.


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