The Tell-Tale Heart

A short analysis of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”.

Through his portrayal of the conflict between the reality of the actions of the narrator in “The Tell-Tale Heart” and the reality manufactured by said narrator, Edgar Allen Poe shows his reader that the line between sanity and insanity is indeed a fine one.

The narrator, in order to prove his sanity, characterizes himself as calm and even-minded, painting a picture of sanity through his explanation of the manner in which he planned the murder. The narrator speaks of how he “was never kinder to the old man than during the whole week before [he] killed him,” taking logical precautions that might just as well have been taken by a sane man as an insane one. The arguments given are the products of a contrived reality, a façade of sanity. The narrator also engages in assertions of his mental health, bidding his listener to “Hearken! and observe how healthily—how calmly I can tell the whole story.” Would not the protestations of an innocent man wrongly accused and completely sane sound similar? The defensiveness and conviction of the narrator’s arguments are not synonymous with insanity, indeed they are characteristics of the arguments of the sane as well, which is the horrifying point of the story: the protestations of clearly insane men are not so different from those of a completely sane man, forcing the reader to identify with a psychopath and proving that the line between insanity and sanity is, to all appearances, a thin one.

However, this façade of sanity breaks down when the actions of the narrator begin to belie his own characterization of himself. There is a clear conflict between the manufactured reality of his arguments and the actual reality betrayed by his reactions. The unmotivated murder of the old man is clearly not the act of a sane man. On the contrary, the gruesome description of the dismemberment of the corpse dispels, for the reader, all thoughts of his sanity, though not to those around him. The narrator manages to convince several policemen of his lucidity when they visit his residence, a disturbing event in and of itself, but when one considers the idea that this psychopath might have gotten away with his deed had it not been for his cry of “I admit the deed!—tear up the planks!—here, here!—it is the beating of his hideous heart!” the line between the sane and the insane blurs even further. The heart symbolizes the narrator’s conscience, which, unlike his mind, recognizes the atrocity of the crime he has committed and leads him to turn himself in. Had it not been for his admission, the policemen would never have known of the narrator’s insanity, demonstrating the tenuous line between sanity and insanity.

And a 1953 short film based on “The Tell Tale Heart,” which upon its release was the first cartoon ever to be rated X in Britain. But X in the 1950’s. . . well. . .

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