Role of Madness in Edgar Allan Poe's "Tales of Terror"
This paper will explore the role of madness in three of Edgar Allan Poe's "Tales of Terror," specifically "The Tell-Tale Heart," first published in the Pioneer of Boston in January of 1843 and edited by the American poet James Russell Lowell; "The Cask of Amontillado," first published in Godey's Lady Book of Philadelphia in November of 1846, a highly popular periodical owned and operated by Louis Antoine Godey and "The Fall of the House of Usher," originally printed in Burton's Gentleman's Magazine of Philadelphia in September of 1839. This trilogy stands today as the quintessential examples of Poe's application of psychological madness as manifested through the words and actions of the unknown narrators in "The Tell-Tale Heart," "The Fall of the House of Usher" and the vengeful Montresor in "The Cask of Amontillado."
Edgar Allan Poe's "Tales of Terror"
As J.R. Hammond so acutely points out, many of the narrators in the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe reveal "their deranged minds by the fevered nervousness of their language and by the total irrationality" of the tale as it unfolds to the reader (1981, p. 82).
This in essence is the primary foundation for Poe's dark excursions into the human mind as expressed through his "tales of terror" which illustrate "the pressures of abnormal psychology (via) neurasthenia, hallucinations, neuroses and psychoses" (Buranelli, 1977, p. 73).
Poe's uncanny ability to transcend reality and inject the reader into the domains of madness is best represented by such tales as "The Tell-Tale Heart," published in the first issue of the Pioneer magazine (January 1843) with American poet James Russell Lowell as its editor; "The Cask of Amontillado," published in Godey's Lady's Book in November of 1846, a masterly excursion into psychosis and retribution, and "The Fall of the House of Usher," which made its first appearance in Burton's Gentleman's Magazine in September of 1839. Within the confines of these tales, a strange, unnerving familiarity with the characters and situations can be sensed which allows the reader to subconsciously relate to the maddening experiences and insane thoughts of the main protagonists.
If the underlying substance of Poe's "tales of terror" lie within the deranged minds of the narrators, then a portrait of this psychosis can be understood by the following scenario: an individual perceives he is trapped in a hostile environment beyond his control which produces great apprehension despite the lack of specific causes for his dread. On occasion, he suffers from real threats in his daily life and confronts these threats with ingenuity and courage, at times even overcoming his fears by retaliating against an innocent victim, either violently or through mental torture. Afterwards, he feels remorse for his actions and is emotionally moved to atone for his guilt through confession or by exposing himself to official punishment or self-inflicted agony.
In the above-mentioned tales, the narrators migrate through one or more segments of this scenario. In "The Tell-Tale Heart," the unidentified protagonist becomes the aggressor by attacking an innocent victim and suffering him in his bed; he feels remorse for his act and then absolves his guilt by confession. In "The Cask of Amontillado, the Montresor both suffers and retaliates against seen or imagined threats via his wine-maddened enemy, and in "The Fall of the House of Usher," Roderick Usher, as a result of his irrational fears, falls victim to his own inherited madness by burying his sister alive.
But in reality, many individuals are frequently at the mercy of some unexplained anxiety brought about by circumstances which are difficult, if not impossible, to deal with in a logical manner. As seen with a quick reading of any of the tales mentioned, the origin of the madness is described graphically, as in the beating of a dead man's heart, the devious yet unexplained treachery of Fortunato and the foreboding atmosphere of the decrepit House of Usher.
In "The Tell-Tale Heart," perhaps the most famous of Poe's "tales of terror," the protagonist is beset by fears with no discernible foundation; his paranoia is unfounded, yet he suffers under these false delusions. As a result, he proceeds to vent these fears upon an innocent "old man... who had never wronged me... never given me insult." He then realizes his fears are directly related to the "Evil Eye" of the old man ("One of his eyes resembled that of a vulture -- a pale, blue eye, with a film over it") which prompts him to "take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever." The victim is then murdered in his sleep and the dismembered body ends up beneath the floor of his bedroom. But the protagonist succumbs to his guilt and confesses his crime to the local police -- "I admit the deed! -- tear up the planks! -- here, here! -- it is the beating of his hideous heart!"
It would appear that the madness inherent in this tale revolves around "the beating of the old man's heart" which according to Elizabeth Phillips indicates criminal insanity as described by Dr. Benjamin West in his lectures of the late 1700's -- "the symptoms of madness include acceleration of the pulse (with) complaints of pain in the head and ringing in the ears" (1979, p. 130).
As a biographical reference, "The Tell-Tale Heart" illustrates Poe's lifelong interest in human psychology, a subject which he found to be of great importance to the overall psychological makeup of his manic characters. His use of the term "mania" in other tales "calls into question judgments of sanity in his narrators" and points to Poe's evident interest in medical theories and abnormal psychology (Phillips, 1979, p.108). It has also been suggested that Poe consulted several prominent books on the diseases of the mind as early as 1835.
The Cask of Amontillado" displays similar characteristics of mental insanity via the Montresor's obsession with the unidentified transgressions of Fortunato. In this tale, Fortunato is led by his enemy the Montresor to sample a cask of Amontillado sherry which inevitably tempts him into a remote section of the family vaults where the Montresor walls him up alive in a niche in the catacombs. The line "My heart grew sick; it was the dampness of the catacombs that made it so" demonstrates the allegorical undertones which correspond to the Montresor's obvious madness which lies not in his heart but in his diseased brain.
Poe's most celebrated protagonist, Roderick Usher in "The Fall of the House of Usher," not only suffers as a victim of "the grim phantasm, Fear," but also inflicts his "morbid acuteness of the senses" upon his sister Madeline who is slowly dying from the result of some unidentified "family evil." The unknown narrator in this tale attempts to comfort Usher by suggesting his fears are unfounded, but Usher is convinced that death is imminent, whereby Madeline abruptly dies ("the lady Madeline was no more"). Usher proceeds to inter-Madeline in the family crypt and soon imagines he has accidentally buried her alive. His fears of premature burial, however, are realized, for he begins to hear odd movements in the house. Madeline then appears in Roderick's chamber, where she falls dead into his arms as "a corpse, and a victim to the terrors anticipated." The narrator then quickly flees from the house as the "deep and dark tarn" swallows up "the fragments of the House of Usher."
Once again, the insidious presence of madness can easily be felt in "The Fall of the House of Usher," not so much in the somewhat detached narrator but in Usher himself, the tortured occupant of a house filled with absolute mania. Daniel Hoffman sees Usher as the penultimate Poe character who exudes "extreme psychological states" and serves as the…