Edgar Allan Poe may be considered one of the founders of American Gothic Literature. His obsession with the macabre and his ability to explore the psychological repercussions of perceived danger inspired him to write various short stories including "The Pit and the Pendulum" and "The Tell-Tale Heart." In "The Tell-Tale Heart," Poe explores the events that lead the unnamed narrator to devise a plan to murder his neighbor and the subsequent events that lead the narrator to admit his guilt. In "The Tell-Tale Heart," Poe is able to convey that insanity is a great disease of the mind where even the person that is suffering from the madness does not realize that he or she is, in fact, insane but rather believe that he or she is mentally stable.
It may be argued that Poe drew inspiration for many of his mentally unstable character from his own personal experiences. There is evidence to support that Poe himself was afflicted with an unknown mental illness from which he may have derived inspiration for many of his stories. Furthermore, Poe may have been playing upon the public's fear of mentally unstable people as more and more public institutions for the mentally ill were being opened across the country. In 1843, the year that "The Tell-Tale Heart" was published, there were a total of 13 mental hospitals open across the country ("Dorothea Dix Begins Her Crusade").
At the beginning of "The Tell-Tale Heart," the narrator, though institutionalized, denies his mental instability and boasts: "True! -- nervous -- very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?...Hearken! And observe how healthily -- how calmly I can tell you the whole story" (Poe, 37). As the narrator recounts his tale of how he premeditated and prepared to murder his neighbor on account of his "evil eye," it becomes more evident that he may have been suffering from paranoid schizophrenia or a similar, undiagnosed mental affliction. Symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia, as defined in modern times, include delusions, argumentativeness, emotional distance, having a sense of self-importance or having a condescending manner, violence, anxiety, and auditory hallucinations (Mayo Clinic Staff). In the story, each of these symptoms can be attributed to the narrator and the behaviors that he demonstrates.
To begin with, the narrator exhibits several behaviors that may be attributed to being delusional. For example, he obsession with his neighbor; the narrator declares that his obsession was not driven by anything that his neighbor had done or anything that he had owned, including objects or money, but rather states that "I think it was his eye! yes, it was this! One of his eyes resembled a vulture -- a pale blue eye, with a film over it" (Poe, 37). The narrator admits that he did not suddenly decide that his neighbor's evil eye would bring forth his demise, ironically doing so at the end, but rather "by degrees -- very gradually -- [he] made up his mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid [himself] of the eye for ever" (37). Another one of his delusions, is his belief that he is not mad, but rather of sound mind and judgment. He does not believe that his sentiments towards the old man's vulture eye dulled or destroyed his senses, but rather that the disease, or obsession, that overtook him "had sharpened [his] senses" (37).
His delusions of being mentally healthy lead to his argumentativeness. Despite the fact that the narrator is himself convinced of his mental stability, he tries to convince others of his mental health. As stated previously, he credits his "disease" with sharpening his senses and not destroying or dulling them. Given the great lengths to which the narrator attempts to convince others of his mental stability, it may be argued that the narrator is not only trying to convince others, but also convince himself that he has not gone mad. The one thing that the narrator admits to being throughout the entire ordeal nervous; the narrator admits "very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am" (37).
The narrator is also able to create emotional distance between himself and the old man, as well as, between the old man and his eye. The narrator initially admits that he "loved that old man" however this "love" is not enough to keep the narrator from killing him (37). As soon as the narrator decides that the old man's evil eye must be destroyed, and the old man along with it, his character changes. The narrator boasts, "You should have seen how wisely I proceeded -- with what caution -- with what foresight -- with what dissimulation I went to work! I was never kinder to the old man than during the whole week before I killed him" (37). As he plotted against the old man, the narrator began to view him not as a person, but rather his prey. Over the course of eight days, the narrator checks in on his neighbor whilst he sleeps; each following day, the narrator would act as though nothing was wrong and speak "courageously to him, calling him by name in a hearty tone, and inquiring how had passed the night" (37). The narrator also claims to create a distinction between the man and his eye stating "it was not the old man who vexed me, but his Evil Eye," however, he is unable to plot against the eye itself because he "found the eye always closed" (37).
During his preparations, the narrator exudes an air of self-importance and self-confidence, believing that he is completely prepared for the task he is to undertake. The narrator did not act impulsively against the old man, but rather, like the decision to kill his neighbor, he prepared gradually. While he observed the old man sleeping for a week, he did not let anticipation get the best of him; on the eighth day, the narrator demonstrated that he had self-control. The narrator claims that on the eighth day, he was "more than usually cautious in opening the door. A watch's minute hand moves more quickly than [his] did" (38). He credits his cautious behavior to the fact that "[n]ever before that night had [he] felt the extent of [his] own powers -- of [his] sagacity" (38). As he laid in wait, the narrator contemplated what the old man must have felt, however he cannot truly compare himself to the old man as he is not in the same, vulnerable position. After he carries out the violent murder, the narrator believes that he can carefully dispose of the body, so much so, that there will be no evidence that the old man was murdered and buried beneath the floorboards. The narrator believes, after dismembering the body and placing the limbs beneath the floor, that he "replaced the boards so cleverly, so cunningly, that no human eye -- not even his -- could have detected any thing wrong. There was nothing to was out -- no stain of any kind -- no blood spot whatsoever" (39). He credits the lack of visual evidence on his preparation, divulging that he "had been too wary for that" and "[a] tub had caught all" the blood (39).
Violence is also a symptom of paranoid schizophrenia and the end result of what the narrator has been preparing for. Not only is the narrator physically violent towards the old man as he apparently smothers or crushes him by pulling a bed over him, subsequently dismembering the remains and improperly disposing of the body parts, but he is also psychologically violent towards the old man. Throughout the week, the narrator feigns love and respect for the old man all the while he is contemplating his demise. Moreover, the narrator preys upon the old man's terror, which is fueled by the fact that the narrator has been stalking him, and becomes a menacing and deadly force that lurks in the shadows of the old man's room (38).
While it may appear that the narrator would have and could have gotten away with the violent murder of his neighbor, anxiety and auditory hallucinations bring forth his demise. Despite having been able to convince the three policemen that stopped by the room that all was well, before long the narrator "felt [himself] getting pale and wished them gone" (40). The narrator's anxiety progressed to the point that his "head ached" and he "fancied a ringing in [his] ears" (40). No matter how much the narrator attempted to talk to try and cover the ringing that he heard in his ears, he found that the ringing was not coming from within his ears, but rather from an outside source. This auditory hallucination was described as "a low, dull, quick sound -- much such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton" (40). The more that this hallucination plagued the narrator, the more erratic his behavior…