“The Tell-Tale Heart”: The Motive of Insanity

The motive of madness is generally characteristic of romanticism, and many authors have turned to it in their works. Poe’s stories that include the motive of madness include “The Oval Portrait,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether.” This analysis will use the text “The Tell-Tale Heart,” first published in 1843. This motive of insanity is critical in the system of motives of the philosophy of Edgar Poe. Poe’s psychopathic insanity leads to the disintegration of the human personality. This process of disintegration takes place in the state of mind of the protagonist of the analyzed story.

In most cases, the deviation in the minds of the heroes of Poe’s “terrible” short stories leads to the commission of “terrible” acts and self-destruction. The hero of the short story “The Tell-Tale Heart” does not admit that he is sick; he kills his neighbor for no reason. In this novel, one can see how Poe creates the image of a character suffering from monomania – excessive concentration of attention on any subject. The main character’s thoughts are focused on the old man’s glass eye, “I think it was his eye! Yes, it was this!” (Poe 3). The term was introduced by the French psychiatrist Eskirol, who designated monomania as an isolated mental disorder of people whose mental health was generally preserved. Monomania also suffers from the main character of Edgar Allan Poe in his short story “Berenice”. This concept is currently used to refer to psychosis, accompanied in particular by auditory hallucinations or delusions. Therefore, madness in the novel “Telling Heart” becomes logical, capable of being cognized using the mind.

The narrator twice declares that he suffers from a particular illness in which perception is heightened. His hearing is especially acute, so much so that sometimes he even “heard many things in hell” (Poe 1). It is difficult to determine how much these statements about the hero’s illness can be trusted. Twice the hero hears the heavy heartbeat of the old man. The first time, these sounds provoke to murder, the second time, the hero confesses to the committed crime because he can no longer tolerate the noise of the heartbeat in his head. Perhaps the loud beating of the heart is a figment of the killer’s imagination; maybe he indeed suffers from such an exotic affliction. The images of the heart and the old man’s eye drive the narrator crazy and make him commit crimes.

Since the hero potentially has mental disabilities, he can be considered an unreliable storyteller, and the authority of such a storyteller is questioned. Readers cannot be sure that everything happened exactly as the protagonist says, nor can they trust his words that he is mentally healthy. The nature of the storyteller manifests itself at the moment of the highest nervous tension; such a method of character for the creation of many other heroes of Gothic literature. The driving force behind the novel is the narrator’s assurance that he is sane, “You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing. But you should have seen me” (Poe 4). The very same denial of his insanity, he argued by the systematic accuracy and, especially, the thoughtfulness of his actions.

Thus, the motive of insanity in the story is revealed as an attempt to distinguish between a sick and a healthy mind. Edgar Poe acted within the framework of the canons of Gothic literature in the process of creating the main character but also brought in some novelties. The reality that the sick mind of the protagonist generates is the basis for his illegal act.


Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Tell-Tale Heart and Other Stories.” USA, Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2011.

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