Madness & Guilt in Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”

Analysis of “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe

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Madness & Guilt in “The Tell-Tale Heart”

At least since Goethe published Faust in 1790, writers have been fascinated by the interplay between psychology and morality. Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” takes part in this extended philosophical and artistic conversation and offers us a character whose madness may have the potential to remove him from common moral thinking. But can insanity remove him from guilt? Being insane, Poe’s narrator poses the question of whether or not guilt is the inevitable result of evil behavior, regardless of sanity. “The Tell-Tale Heart” offers an answer to Goethe’s question about the relationship between psychology and morality. The answer is yes. With clever irony, Poe draws a character in “The Tell-Tale Heart” who cannot escape guilt, even as he professes to be perfectly at ease, in command of his own soul. Morality exists outside of psychology, the story suggests, so madness – or genius – is not a means of evasion. For Poe, the soul knows what its hands have been up to even if the mind refuses to see it.

The opening lines of the story paint the picture of a disturbed mind. The story’s theme is already apparent as the schism between reality and self-perception (a fantasy in this case) is clearly drawn. The narrator, telling the story in the form of a monologue, is given a voice that immediately seems harassed, even wrecked: “TRUE! — nervous — very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? […] Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell.” The assertion here is that an ability to hear “all things in heaven” and “many things in hell” proves that the narrator is sane. This, of course, is an insane thing to say. The contradiction is the story’s first use of irony and it underscores the thematic question – to what extent can a person believe his own lies? Can he go far enough in this belief to escape the bounds of morality?

While ultimately the answer is dramatized (as a definitive “no”), the story’s central uses of symbolism show us just how far the narrator is able to go in achieving a distance from both reality and moral feeling. Before committing murder, the narrator describes his victim’s “vulture eye.” He calls it an “Evil Eye” and presents this detail as a justification for his crime. He suggests that he has nothing against the old man he kills, but the eye haunts him in ways that necessitate murder nonetheless. The vulture eye symbolizes the narrator’s insanity, concisely expressing the idea that the narrator is not engaged with reality but instead is psychotically and emotionally isolated in a violent and threatening paranoid fantasy.

The next salient symbol, the old man’s beating heart, can be directly linked to the story’s thematic interest in morality’s persistence regardless of madness or genius. The heart, referenced in the story’s title, comes to symbolize the notion that morality has the power to break down the walls of insanity and to penetrate madness just as would penetrate the mind of a sane person. The narrator has committed a nearly perfect murder and he would get away with it but he imagines that he hears the sound of the old man’s heart as “a low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton.” This analogy is offered initially when the narrator has sneaked into the old man’s room to kill him. It is repeated again when the narrator is sitting with the police.

The sound seems to represent the old man as a human being, a moral being, and it is exactly this sense of moral reality that stands behind the noise of the beating heart as it “arose over all and continually increased” and “grew louder –louder –louder!”  Thus guilt apprehends the narrator, using the voice of his insanity to articulate a deeper human reality. The moral world is real, the story suggests, whether or not the mind is capable of seeing that reality.

Poe’s first person narrative skillfully examines the question of psychotic amorality and provides a dramatic testament to the ways in which our moral existence may be impossible to ignore – whether by virtue of insanity or by virtue of genius rationalizations. And the narrator is intelligent, perhaps genius. Like Dostoyevsky’s Roskolnikov, the narrator would get away with the crime if only he could sever himself from a sense of guilt. But “The Tell-Tale Heart” suggests that no level of IQ is high enough to outwit our basic humanity, which entails a fundamental acknowledgement of the reality and inner lives of others.

Works Cited

Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Tell-Tale Heart.” 1843.

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