The Narrator’s (In)sanity?


“And have I not told you that what you mistake for madness is but over-acuteness of the sense? –now, I say, there came to my ears a low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. I knew that sound well, too. It was the beating of the old man’s heart. It increased my fury, as the beating of a drum stimulates the soldier into courage.” (Poe 305)

Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” experiments with the blurred line of sanity and insanity.  This passage highlights the narrator’s obsession with trying to prove to the audience and himself that he is not insane, but that he has a disease that heightens his senses, especially his hearing.  He starts this passage with a question about his disease as an attempt to gain approval and support from the unsympathetic audience.  He even says with some attitude or a sense of pride that “he knew that sound well, too,” using it as evidence to show his readers his acute sense of hearing is true.  By asking the question and speaking with some inflection, the narrator is sensing the reader believes he has gone mad.  Thus by explaining yet again that he has hypersensitive hearing, he is aware the reader is uncomfortable with his story and tries to reason with us that he is in fact a sane person.

Furthermore, the narrator compares the sound of the old man’s heartbeat to the low, dull, quick sound of a watch ticking.  Each beat of the heart is synonymous with time ticking away, and each beat is one beat closer to the inescapable death the old man will soon face.  It can be said the watch “watches” the time until it is time for the old man’s demise.  Likewise, the very particular description for the sound of the old man’s heart, “such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton,” foreshadows how the narrator will murder the man.  Later we see the narrator suffocates the old man by pulling a heavy bed over him and describes how the old man’s “heart beat on with a muffled sound” for many minutes until it ceased.

With his last sentence of this passage, it seems that the narrator feels heroic for what he has done.  His seemingly simple comparison of the beating heart and the drum actually exposes the appalling thoughts going on inside his mind.  Essentially, it reveals that he thinks killing a terrified old man in his bed is much like a noble soldier going off to war.

Throughout the course of the story, the narrator’s thoughts are unnervingly methodical and precise except for near the ending of the piece.  For example, on the eighth night, on page 304, the narrator did not move for a whole hour after the old man woke up.  However, this can certainly be an exaggeration by the narrator to prove his – dare I say – “talents.”    The narrator also seems to enjoy being in control of the situation, and he tries to play “know-it-all” like an omniscient narrator.  For example, on page 305 he explains what the old man feels: “I knew it was the groan of mortal terror. […] I knew what the old man felt, and pitied him, although I chuckled at heart.”  By knowing what is unknown to others such as when he watches the old man or when he is convinced the officers know nothing, he becomes confident and giddy with his dark accomplishments.  For instance, on page 305, the narrator says, “There was nothing to wash out—no stain of any kind—no blood-spot whatever.  I had been too wary for that.  A tub had caught all—ha! ha!”  The only time he loses his control is when he hears the sound of the dead old man’s heartbeat from the floorboards.  While I do not think the old man’s heart was beating, perhaps he really was hearing a heartbeat, not the old man’s, but his own.  He might have had a slight doubt that he would get caught when the officers did not leave.  Doubt might have turned to panic, which could explain why the sound of the beating began to grow and why the pacing of his sentence structure gradually became faster and more disjointed. Perhaps his conscience was eating him up after killing an innocent, old man.  That said, this entire story is told through the eyes of the narrator.  Thus, he is an unreliable source of information considering we are unsure whether or not he is insane.  The fact that he is trying to prove himself sane by sharing the intricate details of his murder experience shows that he has something wrong in his thought processes.  Here, there is no blurred line of sanity and insanity; it is just a grey blob of the uncertainty in what is reality.

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