Tell Tale Heart Critical Analysis Essay, Research Paper
The Tell Tale Heart is a story, on the most basic level, of conflict. There is a mental conflict within the narrator himself (assuming the narrator is male). Through obvious clues and statements, Poe alerts the reader to the mental state of the narrator, which is insanity. The insanity is described as an obsession (with the old man s eye), which in turn leads to loss of control and eventually results in violence. Ultimately, the narrator tells his story of killing his housemate. Although the narrator seems to be blatantly insane, and thinks he has freedom from guilt, the feeling of guilt over the murder is too overwhelming to bear. The narrator cannot tolerate it and eventually confesses his supposed perfect crime. People tend to think that insane persons are beyond the normal realm of reason shared by those who are in their right mind. This is not so; guilt is an emotion shared by all humans. The most demented individuals are not above the feeling of guilt and the havoc it causes to the psyche. Poe s use of setting, character, and language reveal that even an insane person feels guilt. Therein lies the theme to The Tell Tale Heart: The emotion of guilt easily, if not eventually, crashes through the seemingly unbreakable walls of insanity.
On the surface, the physical setting of The Tell Tale Heart is typical of the period and exceedingly typical of Poe. The narrator and the old man live in an old, dark house: (for the shutters were close fastened, through fear of robbers) (Poe 778). Most of the story takes place at night: And this I did for seven long nights-every night just at midnight (778). The physical aspect is not the most important component of setting for this analysis. More important are the mental and emotional settings. This clearly explains the personality of the narrator. One can assume the narrator is insane. He freely admits to his listener that he is -nervous-very, very dreadfully nervous (777). But he then asks, but why will you say that I am mad? (777). He also admits that, The disease had sharpened my senses (777). If not insanity, what disease does he speak of? The reason for his actions was one of the old man s eyes: -a pale blue eye, with a film over it (777). This is easily recognizable to the reader as an eye with cataract on it. This is nothing to obsess over, yet this eye haunted me day and night (777). Any sane person would take a physical defect of another with a grain of salt. One statement by the narrator sums up his mental state: You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing. But you should have seen me (777). What he is actually saying is: There are madmen who are clumsy in their actions, but not this madman! This is as close to a self-admission of insanity as possible. The mental setting is put into place by the narrator s own statements. This setting is pure chaos starting in the head of the killer and spilling out into the physical world around him resulting in an unnecessary death. When the narrator is explaining the end of his tale to the unnamed listener (presumably a jailor, or a mental health practitioner), he states the beating of the heart was unbearable on his conscious:
I paced the floor to and fro with heavy strides, as if excited by the
observations of the men-but the noise steadily increased I foamed-
I raved-I swore! the noise arose over all and continually increased.
It grew louder-louder-louder! They heard!-they suspected!-they
knew! I felt I must scream or die! (780).
The narrator proceeded to admit his killing of the old man. Obviously, his mental state was one of pure fear and disillusion. An auditory hallucination of a dead heart beating caused so much mental anguish in the narrator that it made him confess to the crime. This indeed shows insanity. Yet this insanity was not as strong as the guilt pushing through it.
Another element that supports the theme is character. Poe never states if the narrator is male or female. The reader generally assumes that the narrator is male. A statement like would a madman be so wise as this? (777) supports this assumption. The narrator is obsessed with the old man s eye: I think it was his eye! Yes, it was this! Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; I made up my mind up to take the life of the old man (777). Anyone who decides to kill someone because their eye looks strange to them is clearly mentally unstable. His methodic ways of watching the old man sleep are also strange: 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. Ha!-would a madman have been so wise as this? (777). Under the circumstances, a madman would surely be as wise as that. Only a madman would bother to look at an old man sleep when it is his eye that torments him: And I did this for seven long nights-every night just at midnight-but found the eye always closed; and so it was impossible to do the work; for it was not the old man who vexed me, but his Evil Eye (778). Why would a sane person bother to do such a worthless task for eight nights in a row? The answer is: A sane person would not perform this task. Even though the narrator was insane he expresses some sort of compassion in the statement: I knew how the old man felt, and pitied him, (778). He then solidified his insanity by finishing the statement with, although I chuckled at heart (778). In his confession of the post murder actions taken, the narrator states to his listener,
If you still think me mad, you will think so no longer when I describe
the wise precautions I took for the concealment of the body First of
all I dismembered the corpse. I cut off the head and the arms and the
This statement was, in his mind, clearing him of any possible connections of insanity. Would an insane man take the necessary actions to avoid getting caught? Unfortunately, for him, the answer is yes. There is no hiding his insanity. The narrator thought his calm demeanor had fooled the officers called to his house to investigate: My manner had convinced them. I was singularly at ease (780), that is until he heard the heart beating. However, there was no heart beating. Any sane person knows that a dead heart does not beat: I found that the noise was not within my ears (780). The sound was in his ears, and more so in his head. The sound of the beating heart was guilt knocking on his door causing him more mental anguish. After cursing, arguing and carrying on violently, the narrator truly believed the officers knew of his guilt. They were oblivious of his torment talking to each other: -they were making a mockery of my horror!-this I thought, and this I think (780). The narrator admits here of his insanity (and subsequently his guilt) at the time of the confrontation, and at the time of his re-telling of the account.
The language used by the narrator in the story shows signs of insanity as well as guilt. He uses repetition of wording often. People with mental and/or psychological problems sometimes repeat words or phrases. When speaking of a lantern s state of darkness he says it was, closed, closed, so that no light shone out, (777). On moving the lantern, he did it slowly-very, very slowly (777). When he was ready to shin the light he undid the lantern cautiously-oh, so cautiously-cautiously (777). Again in explaining the lantern, I resolved to open a little-a very, very little crevice in the lantern .-you cannot imagine how stealthily, stealthily (778). When he finally did get a look at the eye, repetition was again used: It was open-wide, wide open-and I grew furious as I gazed upon it (779). When the narrator speaks of the man s live heart beating he says, It grew quicker and quicker and louder and louder louder, I say, louder every moment! But the beating grew louder, louder! (779). When talking of the attack on the man the narrator repeats again: He shrieked once-once only Yes he was stone, stone dead He was stone dead (779). The narrators language is not better used to describe insanity and guilt than in the following passages when he feels as though he is caught:
Anything was more tolerable than this derision! I could bear those
hypocritical smiles no longer! I felt that I must scream or die! -and
now-again! -hark! louder! louder! louder! louder!- Villains! I
shrieked, dissemble no more! I admit the deed! – tear up the planks!
-here, here!- it is the beating of his hideous heart! (780).
These final two lines in the story beautifully demonstrate how language was used to show insanity being overturned by guilt.
Three elements of literary work that truly sum up the theme of The Tell Tale Heart are setting, character, and language. Through these elements we can easily see how guilt, an emotion, can be more powerful than insanity. Even the most demented criminal has feelings of guilt, if not remorse, for what he has done. This is shown exquisitely in Poe s writing. All three elements were used to their extreme to convey the theme. The balance of the elements is such that some flow into others. It is sometimes hard to distinguish one from another. Poe s usage of these elements shows his mastery not only over the pen, but over the mind as well.