Madness is relative. The sanity of the narrator in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart is best approached from two sides. One of which are from the narrator’s point of view, and the other is a neutral perspective. This is a man who stalked another, murdered him, and covered his traces only to be harassed by his victim’s heartbeat. With the narrator’s consistent denial of his madness, his homicide and overwhelming guilt is what induced his severe paranoia and apparent insanity. However, his actions were committed through fear, while his story affected by false memory and trauma. The narrator’s experience shows how a truly traumatic event can prove to completely destroy and alter any man’s sanity.
A traumatic event is an experience that completely overwhelms the person’s ability to cope with the emotions involved with that experience. In many cases, it may take weeks or years for someone to cope with their immediate circumstances. The narrator’s severe denial of his actions displays his inability to cope with what he did, which shows the psychological trauma that he went through. Trauma can lead to retrograde amnesia, the inability to recall events prior to the traumatic event. Coupled with false memories, much of the narrator’s story is misperceived and induced by madness.
In the opening paragraph of The Tell Tale Heart, the narrator exclaims, “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 43). It is clear that the narrator is explaining his story to someone. The fact that the entire story is being told in the past immediately indicates that he was in a different state of mind when his actions were being committed. Since the narrator is consistently and repeatedly trying to convince the reader that he is not insane or “mad,” the person he is explaining this to is most likely a person of authority. Whether his story is being told to a jury, a cop, or mental facility, he is avoiding punishment, judgment and treatment.
According to H.P. Lovecraft, “the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown”(1). The narrator’s reasoning for his murder was his fear of the old man’s eye, which “resembled that of a vulture – a pale eye, with a film over it” (Poe 43). The fact that his eye is pale only heightens the fear of the unknown. Many say that eyes are the windows to the soul. Since the old man’s eye is pale, it may give the impression that he has no soul, and thus, striking fear into the narrator. It gives an alluring sense of mystery to the eye, which can make one wonder what’s behind it; behind the person, their dreams, their motives. We live in a world where people care how others look or what they think. We fear how people may judge us, and the old man’s eye represents that piercing gaze. Since the narrator felt...