Instructor Perry Cumbie
English 112 (190)
April 05, 1999
Paranoia in "The Tell Tale Heart"
"The Tell Tale Heart," by Edgar Allen Poe, is told from the point of view of the narrator, who is suffering from paranoid delusions. The narrator has killed a man and is defending himself based on his ancient belief in the "evil eye." We are given a look inside the mind of an insane person by Poe's unique description of the distorted sense of perception that the narrator witnessed during his murder.
Paranoid personality disorder is diagnosed primarily by observing inappropriate anxiety and fear. It will often time be accompanied by odd beliefs or magical thinking that is inconsistent with cultural norms. Excessive superstitiousness, belief in clairvoyance, telepathy, or "sixth sense" is not uncommon. In some of the more extreme cases it is possible for the disease to induce unusual perceptual experiences like illusions or hallucinations. The narrator gives many clues that this is his underlying illness. The most obvious clue is when the narrator openly states that he has a disease, and that it is effecting his senses. The narrator states that the disease had sharpened his senses, not destroyed or dulled them. The narrator also states that he is nervous, very, very dreadfully nervous, not only at the moment, but also in the past. He displays heightened sensitivity toward peoples' thoughts about him. He is afraid that people will say he is insane. Throughout the entire story he continually reassures himself of how calm, steady and stealthily he was able to do things. The narrator states that he is so afraid of the eye that it makes his blood run cold. To ensure there is no doubt that the narrator is suffering from paranoia, he states that his disease has caused his hearing to become more acute, so acute that he can hear things in both heaven and hell. These are all very clear symptoms of paranoid personality disorder.
In paranoid personality disorder there is usually an inappropriate belief in superstition, telepathy or clairvoyance. The narrator of this story displays this characteristic in his belief of the "evil eye." The belief in the evil eye dates back to ancient times and even today it is fairly common in India and the countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea. References are made to it in Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist and Hindu faiths. The belief centers around the idea that those who possess the evil eye have the power to harm people or their possessions by merely looking at them. Wherever this belief exists it is common to assign the evil eye as the cause of unexplainable illnesses and misfortunes of any kind. To avoid the wrath of the evil eye a person would have to either avoid being seen by it, or dispose of the host. The narrator's knowledge of this ancient superstition, when combined with his personality disorder, became adequate reason for the narrator to kill an innocent man.
The most disturbing symptom of the narrator's illness was his distorted perceptions and illusions. These hallucinations are a clue that the disease is in the late stages, and has become very dangerous. The narrator mentions that he has been awake late at night, in his own bed, listening to sounds. He describes his battle with late night hallucinations as, hearkening to the death watches in the wall. He describes one of the terrifying sounds as, a groan of mortal terror that arises from the soul. Not all of the narrator's hallucinations required darkness and solitude to be perceptual. The beating of the old mans heart, which to the narrator sounded like a watch enveloped in cotton, was able to be heard on several occasions. The old man's heartbeat was able to be heard even after the man was dismembered and packed underneath the floorboards - so the sound could not have been real. However, the sounds were so real to the narrator that he was afraid that other people could hear them. These situations caused a self-inflicted downward spiral in the mind of the narrator. The paranoia would cause hallucinations, then he would become even more paranoid because of the hallucinations. This downward spiral was present during the high points of the story. Just before killing the old man the narrator was afraid that the sound of the heart would be heard by the neighbors. In a frenzy, he killed the old man. At the end of the story, when the police were in his house, the narrator thought the police could hear the heartbeat of the (dead) old man. Once again, the downward spiral created a frenzy in which the narrator admitted his crime to the police.
In Poe's story, we get a chance to look inside the mind of a person who has a paranoid personality disorder. The symptoms are made clear a number of times. We also get to view how a sick mind can confuse and distort reality to the point of murder. External knowledge of superstitions, such as the evil eye, combine with paranoia to create hallucinations and inappropriate behavior.
In Edgar Allan Poe's short story "The Tell-Tale Heart," the author combines vivid symbolism with subtle irony. Although the story runs only four pages, within those few pages many examples of symbolism and irony abound. In short, the symbolism and irony lead to an enormously improved story as compared to a story with the same plot but with these two elements missing.
"The Tell-Tale Heart" consists of a monologue in which the murderer of an old man protests his insanity rather than his guilt: "You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing. But you should have seen me. You should have seen how wisely I proceeded . . ." (Poe 121). By the narrator insisting so emphatically that he is sane, the reader is assured that he is indeed deranged. E. Arthur Robinson feels that by using this irony the narrator creates a feeling of hysteria, and the turmoil resulting from this hysteria is what places "The Tell-Tale Heart" in the list of the greatest horror stories of all time (94).
Julian Symons suggests that the murder of the old man is motiveless, and unconnected with passion or profit (212). But in a deeper sense, the murder does have a purpose: to ensure that the narrator does not have to endure the haunting of the Evil Eye any longer. To a madman, this is as good of a reason as any; in the mind of a madman, reason does not always win out over emotion.
Edward H. Davidson insists that emotion had a large part to play in the crime, suggesting that the narrator suffers and commits a crime because of an excess of emotion over intelligence (203). Poe relates how the narrator believes the validity of the previous statement: ". . . very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease has sharpened my senses—not destroyed—not dulled them . . ." (121). The disease in this case is obviously a severe case of emotions, nervousness among them. Thus, even in the story the narrator realizes that he is overcome by emotions, and as such he must confess the repulsive murder of an unarmed old man.
William Bittner mentions how Poe fancies the agony of conscience that leads the murderer to confess (180). It is neither the police nor a witness that dooms the narrator; it is the narrator himself who instigates his own demise. How ironic, and terrifying, it is that a madman who has no need for reason finds it impossible to carry on without justice.
In the same sense, "The Tell-Tale Heart" is a study of terror. Poe formulates the story so that the madman narrator paints a vivid and remarkable picture of the fright of his victim:
Presently I heard a slight groan, and I knew it was the groan of mortal terror. 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. I knew the sound well. Many a night . . . the terrors distracted me. (122)This leads Arthur Hobson Quinn to surmise that the intense picture of terror was so graphic because the narrator himself suffered causeless terrors in the night. Quinn further infers that the narrator has a deep sympathy for the old man, even though the narrator is scheming to kill the old man (394).
The study of terror is Poe's style throughout the short story. Vincent Buranelli suggests that by denying fixed axioms but adhering to logic, Poe demonstrates the irony of a madman who is analytical (58). The madman is quite logical and reasonable, but in an contradictory way; the narrator has the facilities to reason and plan but not to distinguish right from wrong. Poe's subtle endeavor at displaying righteousness as a theme is unveiled: for those who do not wish to apply logic, reason, and morals consistently, self-destruction is imminent.
"The Tell-Tale Heart" is an almost perfect illustration of Poe's theory of the short story. As defined by Quinn, Poe's theory of the short story is a narrative, short and to the point, with every word contributing to the central effect (394). The central effect of "The Tell-Tale Heart" combines the narrator's previous terrors, the old man's current terrors, and the terrors for the narrator yet to come. Upon inspection, Quinn declares that no word is wasted, and therefore affirms the theory of the short story as held by Poe (394).
Buranelli asks us to consider the obsessive fury that Poe conveys throughout the story (80). The homicidal narrator creeps into the old man's room, each time growing bolder and more daring. Finally the passion can no longer be held back, and the madman kills, stopping the wrath, for a time. But then the police come, and the wrath, which had previously been released, starts building up, adding more and more weight to the narrator's shoulders until he can take it no longer, and must again release the pressure, this time by confessing his heinous crime to the police.
Davidson ponders the heroes of Poe's stories and the tragedies that almost always seem to befall them. Davidson suggests that Poe's heroes suffer a internal conflict: a war between their own faculties, body and mind, or mind and soul. Robinson observes that the only way to conclude the struggle once it has begun is either to die or to destroy one's self (203). Thus, as the mind and soul of the narrator are clashing over the vexation of the old man's Evil Eye, the only release for the narrator is self-ruin.
Further, it is the Evil Eye that the narrator murders, not the man, as Davidson notes (189). The man has done nothing untoward to the narrator, as Poe illustrates: "I loved the old man. He never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire . . ." (121). Instead, the narrator murders with cunning and defiance for the nuisance of the Evil Eye, "a pale blue eye with a film over it . . ." (Poe 121).
Richard M. Fletcher remarks that the mad narrator justifies the murder by believing that the old man is possessed by the Evil Eye (164). The reader is taken aback here, mostly because of the facetiousness that Poe intends. The irony here is that the old man is executed because he is considered a madman by one who is himself insane.
All this time, the narrator thinks that the organ of sight, the Evil Eye, is so vexing; but in the end, a sound, the beating of the old man's heart, is what condemns the madman. Robinson perceives this irony, the guarding against one danger while being overcome by another, as a major theme of the story (189-90).
Marie Bonaparte sees a obscure symbolistic link between the old man and Poe's adoptive father in real life, John Allan, and between the narrator in the story and Poe. There are several similarities between the old man and Allan. Both men had blue eyes. According to Bonaparte, much like the old man had never wronged the narrator, Allan had never wronged Poe. Similarities abound between Poe and the narrator, as well. Neither had a wish for riches, and they both behaved affectionately to their counterpart's face even though they despised him behind his back. Bonaparte suspects that the story was an outlet for Poe's pent-up aggression toward his adoptive father (497).
Robinson sees yet another symbolistic link involving the Evil Eye, this one even more critically unnoticed than the prior. Robinson wonders if Poe sees himself in the old man, and the Evil Eye represents an Evil I (101). Robinson adds little further proof, but still the question is intriguing. In that case, the murdered man is sacrificed to a self-constituted deity. If so, then the self-destruction theme is furthered significantly, as the author himself is murdered (symbolically) as well.
Jean-Paul Weber recognizes another theme, time, throughout the story (92). The first instance of time as a theme in the story is the entrance of the narrator into the old man's bedroom at midnight each night. Slowly penetrating the dark room at midnight, Poe's narrator states that "a watch's minute hand moves more quickly than did mine . . ." (122).
Weber continues to search for time used symbolically, and he finds an extremely incisive example of symbolism. After the narrator kills the old man and dismembers the corpse, he plots to hide the body under the floor. At some moment, judging by the context of the story, at three o'clock, the narrator rips up "three planks from the flooring of the chamber" (Poe 123). Weber reasons that the three planks represent the Roman numeral III (93).
One final observation regarding time is made by A. Robert Lee. Lee sees time used symbolically in the rhythm of the heartbeats. Lee envisions the narrator hearing the heartbeats as irreversible time: "a watch . . . enveloped in cotton" (Poe 123). Furthermore, Lee finds it ironic that the narrator, who is from the very beginning of the story considering himself the ideal of patience, seems bothered by the notion of time and the irrevocable direction that it takes (170).
Bonaparte has maintained that the composition of "The Tell-Tale Heart" was doubtlessly influenced by a severe heart attack, to which Poe refers in a letter dated December 1842 (496). The heart attack happened in the summer of that year, after Poe returned from Sarasota Springs. The implications of Poe's obsession with the heart after a near death experience are vitally important to understanding the story and the symbolic meaning behind it.
A heart attack and a brush with death would give very good reason for Poe to choose heartbeats to express the deep and buried obsessions with which he deals. The heart, which to him embodies what is wrong with him and his life, symbolizes in the story that which is wrong with the narrator, that is the lack of the coherence of the application of logic, reason, and morals.
Buranelli reasons that Poe had a deeper understanding of the obsessions and compulsions that exist in "The Tell-Tale Heart." Poe, Buranelli contends, wants so badly to shine and to be admired, but repeatedly creates situations in which he is sure to be pitied, snubbed, insulted, and humiliated. From himself, Buranelli continues, Poe draws the understanding of the compulsions that enable him to write the story (34).
One of the most widely recognized themes of "The Tell-Tale Heart" is how the author destroys himself. The narrator betrays himself in his own terror. Lee recognizes this, and notes that sight terror (the Evil Eye) becomes sound terror (the heartbeats), and as a result law and conscience become irrelevant. Undermined confidence instigates the crime, anxiety causes it, and failed confidence undermines security in it (170). As a result, the narrator is left with no recourse other than to confess his crime, and accept the consequences of it.
Fletcher realizes that the narrator's deranged world has been inverted, and that the only way to restore the narrator's realm to the domain of sanity is for the narrator to confess his crime (164). The domain of sanity includes the fundamental state of the narrator, according to Davidson, and the character is impelled to give himself up and pay the ultimate penalty in order to return to that fundamental state (203).
In conclusion, Poe's short story "The Tell-Tale Heart" utilizes a plethora of symbolism and irony in order to add worth to the story. Taken by themselves, the plot, theme, characters, and setting are nothing extraordinary. However, Poe masterfully weaves the ingredients of the story together, and as a result the whole greatly exceeds the sum of its parts. The style that Poe uses to relate the story can incorporate the elements of terrors and obsessions and yet symbolize the incomprehensible terrors and obsessions that Poe as the author must have lived through to be able to formulate such an account. Perhaps this is why Poe considered "The Tell-Tale Heart" one of his best works (Quinn 430).
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