The true meaning of sanity has been up for discussion the last few centuries, as the human race has become more self-conscious. The everlasting battle between life and death, right and wrong, and how to maintain a rational mind in a world of chaos have inspired countless of writers, artists, and musicians. Edgar Allan Poe is no exception to this fascination of the darker perspectives of the mortal life and his story "The Tell-Tale Heart” confronts and challenge the balance between lucidity and lunacy.
The main character is without a face or a name. He is indistinguishably described as possible. Even though his psychical appearance is an undeclared matter, his thoughts are easily revealed, as he is the first person narrator. This makes it easy to understand his actions and sympathize with him, even when he turns out to be untrustworthy.
Throughout the first few lines, the main character states that people accuse him of being mad, which he does not seem to understand. He is trying to convince the reader that he is just as sane and rational as everybody else. His sanity is declared by saying: “The disease had sharpened my senses—not destroyed—not dulled them.” (Page 1, line 2) This implies that he is not only as sane as everyone else but also even more rational thinking. Even after stating this he tries to prove himself by saying: “Observe how healthily—how calmly I can tell you the whole story.” (Page 1, line 4) With these words, he breaks the fourth wall and the reader becomes the judge of his rationality.
This statement could be classified as the main character being narcissistic and vain, however, this conclusion may not be the case, since it seems that he is imagining things. He hears a lot better than it should be possible for any human being. “Meantime the hellish tattoo of the heart increased. It grew quicker and quicker, and louder and louder every instant.” (Page 2, line 68) From a distance, it is not possible to hear another individual’s heart but the main character seems annoyed by the unceasing sound.
It shortly afterward becomes clear that the main character is not totally sensible, as he is hearing things that are not really there. This is proven on page 3, line 115: “It grew louder—louder—louder! And still, the men chatted pleasantly and smiled. Was it possible they heard not? Almighty God!—no, no! They heard!—they suspected!—they knew!—they were making a mockery of my horror!” This is the point where it is obvious that the main character is imagining things. Combined with his paranoid behavior, it can be linked to schizophrenia.
Besides his reality being different from everyone else’s, it is undoubtedly indicated that he has some compulsive obsessions, which appears to be impossible for him to fight. This is also known as OCD in a more common tongue. This is proven by the way he watches the old man every night, while the elder is a sleep.
Looking at the root of the story, it is not concealed at all that this man is unmistakably insane. “It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain; but once conceived, it haunted me day and night.” (Page 1, line 6) The fact that the man does not even comprehend why he desires to act out his doings or how he got the idea is added proof that the man is anything but well-balanced underneath the mask of an average person.
Even though this story is no way near a fairy-tale, it is called “The Tell-Tale Heart” which could mean that he has a passion for telling stories. This is confirmed by the way he seems eager to tell us just how sane he is. The main character has a tell-tale heart and this is his story. He is consumed by the details in his own story and the small things tend to be what drives you over the edge.
This obsession may be why he was triggered by the old man's blindness. When an individual goes blind after a severe injury the eye usually gets a milky white color as seen on page 1, line 10: “He had the eye of a vulture—a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees—very gradually—I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.” The elder man’s blind eye frightens him, which may be triggered by his neurotic passion for specifics.
Looking at it from a more symbolic and psychoanalytic perspective, it is said that the eyes are the mirrors to the soul, and the fact that the man is blind can indicate that the older man has no soul at all. This is not stated at any point in the story, but schizophrenic people tend to have a more paranormal way of thinking. Combined with the fact that the story is written in 1843, it is very likely to be a plausible hypothesis.
Added to the circumstance, the main character only wishes to kill the man while his eyes are open. “And this I did for seven long nights—every night just at midnight—but I found the eye always closed, and so it was impossible to do the work; for it was not the old man who vexed me, but his Evil Eye.” (Page 1, line 22) This indicates that he has no longing for the old man to get hurt, but only to kill the soulless eye. The man himself is not the enemy, but whatever evil is inside of him is. The soul needs to be exposed for it to die.
He keeps telling the reader that he is sane even after he killed and hid the man in the ceiling. The eye is a symbol of evil and his tell-tale heart is a symbol of life. He does not see himself as a bad person but as a savior.
Deep inside he must know that he is a liar because his consciousness hunts him down and makes him paranoid. The fear forces him to open up. “Anything was more tolerable than this derision! I could bear those hypocritical smiles no longer! I felt that I must scream or die!” (Page 4, line 118) His frustrations are noticeably, but he does not regret his actions as seen a few lines later" “Villains!" I shrieked, "Dissemble no more! I admit the deed!—tear up the planks! here, here!—It is the beating of his hideous heart!” This indicates that different forces pull him. He admits his crime, but he shows no sign of agony.
In the perspective of the main character, the old man deserved to die, or at least the eye did. In his reality the eye was evil and he was the hero. The question is what is considered the real world and what is considered madness? What makes one picture of the world more right than another? Reality is defined by what is visible to the eye, but can there really be a true reality when individuals do not see the same things. The main character may be insane and a murder, but that is surely not his truth.