“The Tell-Tale Heart”, An Allegorical Reading
In “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe, the narrator is reciting his story and dreadfully tries to convince the unknown listener that he is not mad. Poe’s style of writing leads us to doubt of the truthfulness of his story, based on the narrator’s frenetic diction or unbelievable assertions. Several clues or pieces of evidence throughout the story point to the possibility that this tale is merely a result of the narrator’s imagination and the reflection of his own internal struggle against his evil side.
At the very beginning of the story, the narrator states that he will “healthily and calmly” tell us his story. Still, just before, he mentions that he was and is terribly nervous and that he is affected by a certain disease that enhances the accuracy of his senses. “I heard all things in heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad?” (42) Moreover, for a moment, the narrator is unable to remember how the idea came to his mind of getting rid of the old man’s evil eye as if he never had any specific intent when he did the deed.
The reader is then convinced that the narrator is mentally unstable and cannot be taken at face value.
One of the elements of doubt regarding the veracity of the murder is when the narrator described what he did with the corpse. He assures us that there was no stain of anything and that he had carefully placed the body between the scantlings underneath the floor. Logically, the old man’s cadaver and his blood would have produced a fetid smell in the old man’s room. The smell of putrefaction would surely have been detected by the three policemen when they arrived and were chatting with the suspect on the crime scene.
Another piece of evidence is the policemen’s behaviour when the suspect becomes quite agitated and strange because he is hearing a steadily increasing noise. Policemen on a crime scene would not continue to smile and converse when a suspect is losing control of himself. This behavior as described by the narrator may be the fruit of his mad imagination.
Moreover, the narrator’s “sense of hearing acute” (42) is a relevant hint that he is unable or unwilling to distinguish reality from fantasy. It is pure lunacy for the narrative to say that he had heard the old man’s “groan of mortal terror… that arises from the bottom of the soul” (43) and to hear the victim’s heartbeat after his murder. Furthermore, throughout the story, the old man’s heart rate is always consistent with the narrator’s decreasing and increasing terror. His assertions lack credibility and lead us to conclude that the narrator may have killed the old man in a reality of his own.
We can therefore speculate that this story is the product of a man who could be suffering from a form of psychosis. People suffering from psychosis tend to have delusions of grandeur, hallucinations, catatonic behaviour, can have an inflated sense of confidence and overestimation and can be obsessive. All these symptoms of psychosis are apparent by the narrator’s descriptions.
The bottom line is that the narrator has a distorted or nonexistent sense of objective reality and may be psychotic. Thus, the unreliable narrator’s story must not be taken at face value. The story that is being told is not the case of a real murder but reflects instead, the image of the narrator’s own internal struggle against his evil perverse side, which he is trying to suppress.