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A tell-tale heart – essay
The gradual descent into insanity is a common characteristic of Edgar Allan Poe as an auteur. This being one of Poe’s shortest stories separates itself from his other literature as it draws its focus onto the irony of the stalking, and confession of the murder of an old man. ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ explores the mind of a mentally unstable and delusional individual on his descent to madness. In doing so the short story touches upon the contrasts between the rational and irrational.
The ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ presents two physical settings. It is clear from the narrator’s perspective that there is a change of setting. “Observe how healthily – how calmly I can tell you the whole story”, the narrator then continues, “It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain”. This passage indicates that the story that is narrated, is told in retrospect. The passage can be interpreted as being the narrator attempting to justify his murder and convince the reader that he is not mad as he can tell the story calmly and sanely. The passage can also be perceived as being directed towards the police officers that are introduced at the end of the story. In doing so the narrator might also try to convince the police officers that his deed was justified and necessary. The theme of insanity is shown through the narrators descend into madness. The narrator states that “very gradually – I made up my mind to take the life of the old man” which marks the beginning of his descent. It is made clear to the recipient of the story that the narrator believes he is sagacious in his lurking. However, the narration gives the impression that he is a madman. The narrator says “I undid the lantern cautiously-oh, so cautiously – cautiously” and also says “I kept pushing it on steadily, steadily” and “you cannot imagine how stealthily, stealthily”. The narrator’s reiterations present a sort of vocal tic which adds to his characteristic of being mentally unstable and mad.
The story explores the contrasts between the rational and irrational. The theme of rationality is shown through the narrator’s attempts to rationalize his actions. The premise of the narrator’s suffocation of the old man is the ‘evil eye’ he has. Whenever the narrator gazes at the “dull blue” eye he experiences chills through “the very marrow” in his bones. This suggests that the old man’s eye terrifies him. It does, however, seem very unlikely that the old man has an inhuman eye “no human eye – not even his”. The rational explanation for the appearance of the eye that the narrator is fixated about, is that the old man is suffering from cataract. The disease bears a close resemblance to the eye of a vulture. This is proven by the narrator’s very similar description of the eye’s “pale blue, with a film over it” and “a dull blue, with a hideous veil”. This can also explain why the old man is never woken up or is disturbed by having the light shone into his “evil eye”. This is because he might be lacking vision in one eye. The narrator attempts to convince the reader that he is cunning and wise when observing the old man in his bed. The narrator’s irrational nature is emphasized in this passage where he very slowly enters the bedroom with only his head and lantern “It took me an hour to place my whole head within the opening so far that I could see him as he lay upon his bed”.
The use of irony in the short story adds to the narrator’s complete unawareness of his own instability expressed through his lack of rational perception. The narrator contradicts himself implicitly. He states that he “loved the old man” and that “he had never wronged me”. This implies that he had no quarrels with the old man and therefore had no motivation for murdering him. He then contradicts himself by being excited by the old man’s “uncontrollable terror”. The theme of irony is also shown when the narrator hears the old man’s “groan of mortal terror” and recognizes the feeling. The narrator “knew the sound well”, he had experienced them himself being “welled up from my own bosom, deepening, with its dreadful echo, the terrors that distracted me”.
This can be interpreted as the narrator explaining that he suffers from terrors which indicates that he has been or is feeling fear to the marrow of his bones and has experienced something horrific. This is also supported by the symbolism of the narrator burying the old man underneath the floorboards, which can be interpreted as him repressing his emotions and hiding them and then eventually being welled up when he confesses the murder. However, it is vaguely explained and remains a mystery to the readers. This corresponds well with the characteristic of the narrator which is only described implicitly. The narrator’s gender is not revealed. This might be because the gender of the narrator is not important to the story and that Edgar Allan Poe has written the story in such a way that the common reader assumes the gender of the narrator to be male. The most prominent ironic situation is the narrator’s own sagaciousness and over-acuteness that end up being the reasons for his confession to the police officers. His own hypersensitivity betrays him. This also supports his irrationality as he had confirmed the death of the old man when he felt his heart. He is however still convinced that the beating heart belongs to the “stone dead” man. This also shows his descent into madness as he perceives the noise as being a ringing in his ears, but then convinces himself that it is “the beating” of the old man’s “hideous heart”. He contradicts himself in this passage where he has previously described himself as cunning but is unable to correctly identify the source of the beating heart.
‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ is a story that largely focuses on the inability of the narrator to judge his own state of sanity. This is further supported by the narrator frequently being deceived by his own senses and even contradicting himself which diminishes his reliability. The topic of repressed emotions and the border between sanity and insanity is addressed by interpreting the narrator’s behavior and actions. This determines that the narrator is indeed a madman.