The Tell Tale Heart
“Character Analysis of the Narrator in The Tell-Tale Heart”
The Tell-Tale Heart was a short story written by Edgar Allan Poe and published in the mid-19th century. The gist of the story revolved around the plot of the narrator to kill the old man who had vulture-eye. Moreover, the story accentuated the narrator’s claim that he was sane when he did the crime. Thus, this story raised an issue about insanity defense. However, the fact that the narrator avoided to claim that he was insane, given the lighter sanction for mentally-ill offenders, brought dramatic irony in the story. According to Wall (2013), Edgar Allan Poe purposely invoked the discourse on insanity defense in order “to make the protagonist’s unconscious self-condemnation and the narrator’s unconscious self-conviction reinforce each other in order to convey the implicit moral in a highly dramatic and ironic manner” (p. 130).
The narrator possessed a vague identity; while most of the readers would contend that he was insane for committing such crime, the narrator also circumvented the intention and purpose of a normal person. Hence, some scholars believed that in this case, Poe wrote a “problematic narrative of insanity” in the person of the narrator (Wall, 2013, p. 130). Though he acknowledged his “disease” of being dreadfully nervous, narrator also insisted that he had sharp senses making him aware of his action. As a matter of fact, he established a strong belief that he had neither had hatred nor interest to the wealth of the old man. Thus, it gave confusion to the readers what was the profound intention of the narrator for killing the old man. While most readers would think that the narrator was insane, his action towards the end of the story reinforced his vague identity. Most offenders often defend themselves for committing their crime. The same is true with the character of the narrator. The only difference is the intent of defense – most offenders defend because of clemency while the narrator defends himself to convince that he was sane.
The Tell-Tale Heart was written from the first person point of view. Throughout the story, Poe allowed the readers to understand the psyche of the narrator why, how, and when he killed the old man. The language and style of the story were crafted in such a way that the narrator directly converse with the readers. This style allowed the readers to put themselves in the man’s shoe. The plot was crafted in a wise manner making the readers conclude that every move that the narrator made was indeed rational, from the perpetrator’s point of view: Madmen know nothing. But you should have seen me. You should have seen how wisely I proceeded –with what caution –with what foresight –with what dissimulation I went to work!
One of the most accurate descriptions of the character of the narrator can be found through his intent. According to Ki (2008), the narrator possessed an ego-evil type of character. This is defined as a behavior primarily driven by greed and selfish calculation. Ego-evil emphasized the relevant role of self-love to perform an action. Hence, it is about “the self’s over identification with its views and interests, which easily leads to a narcissistic denigration of the other and a violation of universal laws” (Ki, 2008, p. 25). This is very much evident in the character of the narrator; his intention to kill the old man is driven by his shallow reason. In spite of being a father-figure to him, the narrator opted to kill the old man because of his vulture-eye, which constantly distresses the narrator.
Wall (2013) explored the possibility of drawing different conclusions by a reader from another country about the characters in the story. For instance, the circumvention of the narrator about his mental condition has evoked dramatic irony. On a legal basis, mentally-ill offenders were treated differently in most countries. In English courts, “it was morally improper to punish a person whose mentality did not allow him to understand the difference between good and evil” (Ewing, 2008, p. xviii). This law was already established long before Poe wrote The Tell-Tale Heart. Thus, it was noteworthy to emphasize the narrator’s denial to insanity defense. Wall contended that “the narrator’s refusal to invoke the insanity defense both grants him ironic power in determining his destination for punishment in opposition to the ordinary course of the justice system, and allows Poe to explore the gap between the culpability-negating legal definition of insanity and actual mental illness” (p. 130). In other words, a reader from another country may interpret that using insanity as a way to defend does not necessarily lead to acquittal. If it does, the narrator perhaps used this reason to exit punishment. In the end, the narrator confessed his crime because of guilt. The detached heart in the story “served as a conscience and a judge” of the narrator (Beatty, 2012, p. 301).
The Tell-Tale Heart covers a lot of ethical and legal discourses. The vague identity of the narrator indeed confused the readers whether or not he was sane or insane. To better understand the narrator’s behavior and intent, Poe used first person of view in the story. The overarching judicial rhetoric was reflective in the character of the narrator. He was crafted in such a way that he knows the possible clemency of mentally-ill offenders yet refused to acknowledge insanity defense.
Beatty, A. (2012).The Tell-Tale Heart: Conversation and Emotion in Nias. Ethnos 77 (3): 295-320.
Ewing, C. (2008). Insanity: Murder, Madness, and the Law. Oxford University Press.
Ki, M. (2008). Ego-Evil and The Tell-Tale Heart. Renascence 61 (1): 25-67.
Wall, B. (2013). Narrative Purpose and Legal Logic in “The Tell-Tale Heart”. The Edgar Allan Poe Review 14 (2): 129-143.