The works of Edgar Allan Poe are famous for featuring dark themes, violence, and psychologically unstable characters. The Tell-Tale Heart and The Black Cat are two of his best known works, both of which involve narrators who are not of sound minds. In The Tell-Tale Heart, the narrator murders the old man he lives with because he is bothered by the man’s eyes. Similarly, in The Black Cat, the narrator attempts to kill his cat but murders his wife when she tries to defend the animal. Madness is a shared characteristic of the narrators in these texts. Each of the narrators commit and successfully conceal murder, but ultimately get caught because of their own insanity. Poe has a unique way of showing this madness in these texts. This essay will argue that Poe represents madness in The Tell-Tale Heart and The Black Cat through the narrators’ lack of motivation to commit murder and the linguistic and structural elements of the texts.
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Madness is represented in both The Tell-Tale Heart and The Black Cat through the narrators’ lack of sufficient reasoning for committing murder. In The Tell-Tale Heart, the narrator realizes that he lacks a motive for killing the old man he shares a house with. He even admits he loves the man. He states, “Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire” (Tell-Tale Heart 1572). Madness is apparent in the unreasonable rationality the narrator uses to justify his murder. The rational the narrator provides is that he thinks the desire to murder the old man results from the man’s eye, which bothers him a great deal. He writes, “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” (Tell-Tale Heart 1572). Being angered by the man’s eye is such an insignificant reason for the narrator to kill him, which proves that he is not mentally stable. His madness is also represented through the premeditation and planning he put into committing the murder. He states, “You should have seen how wisely I proceeded – with what caution – with what foresight – with what dissimulation I went to work” (Tell-Tale Heart 1572)! He plans the murder for a week, which gives him ample time to reassess his reasons for killing the old man.
Furthermore, when the narrator initially proposes the “vulture eye” as his motive for killing the man, he is not fully certain that this is his reason for committing murder. He states, “I think it was his eye – yes, it was this” (Tell-Tale Heart 1572)! As he is writing in past tense, the murder of the old man has already occurred; yet when he initially suggests the eye as a motivation for the murder, he uses the word “think” as opposed to declaring with certainty this was why killed the man. This indicates that the narrator is not of sound mind, as a sane person would be sure of his of her reasoning for killing another person before committing the murder.
Similarly, madness is also presented in The Black Cat through the narrator’s absurd rationale for attacking the cat and proceeding to kill both the cat and his wife. After returning home in a state of intoxication, the narrator states, “I fancied that the cat avoided my presence” (Black Cat 65). The narrator becomes angry at the thought of the
cat avoiding him, and in a fury of aggression he gauges out the feline’s eye. Believing the cat is avoiding him indicates he is unnecessarily paranoid. A sane person would not reach the conclusion that the cat was trying to evade him and her, as avoidance is a human quality. The narrator’s violent reaction and venting frustration on a helpless animal also suggests he is mentally unstable. The narrator even somewhat confesses to his madness in this instance, as he writes, “The fury of a demon instantly possessed me. I knew myself no longer” (Black Cat 65). Afterwards, he regrets harming the animal. He states, “I blush, I burn, I shudder, while I pen the damnable atrocity” (Black Cat 65). However, despite the regret he feels after attacking the cat, he later proceeds to kill it. Madness is represented in this text by the escalation of the narrator’s violence from attacking the cat to killing it, even though he feels guilty after his first aggressive interaction with the animal.
In contrast to The Tell-Tale Heart, the narrator in The Black Cat could have what some consider have valid explanations for his madness. He states that he kills the cat because he is overcome with perverseness, which is wrongdoing for the sake of behaving inappropriately. The narrator believes that perverseness is a normal experience that everyone faces. He states, “Who has not, a hundred times, found himself committing a vile or a silly action, for no other reason than because he knows he should not” (Black Cat 66)? However, the narrator must be mentally unfit to begin with in order to go so far as to murder a pet under the excuse of perverseness. His reasons for killing the animal are inconsistent and irrational, which also shows how madness is represented in this text. He explains that he “hung it because I knew that it had loved me, and because I felt it had given me no reason of offence” (Black Cat 66). The narrator also mentions that he feels remorse and cries while hanging the animal. A reasonable person in good mental health would have realized his lack of motive for killing the cat and prevent himself from committing murder. Some literary critics provide a second explanation of the narrator’s madness – his abuse of alcohol. Critics occasionally claim that his alcoholism results in the downward spiral of his insanity. However, Joseph Stark, author of “Motive and Meaning: The Mystery of the Will in Poe’s ‘The Black Cat’”, points out that the narrator was only intoxicated during one of his violent outbursts. He writes,
The murders of the cat and his wife occurred while he was sober. Only the gouging out of the cat’s eye happened while he was drunk. Though alcohol may have been a contributing factor to his crime it cannot be described as the ultimate cause. (6)
Furthermore, the narrator cannot use the explanation of either perverseness or alcoholism to justify the murder of his wife. He kills her simply because she tries to prevent him from murdering another innocent cat. It is obvious that neither of the narrators in these texts have sufficient motivation to commit the vicious crimes they execute. Stark writes, “The ‘moral’ of Poe’s tale, then, may be more a statement on the insufficiency of human reason than the nature of the human will” (9). Madness is represented in these texts through the narrators’ lack of justified rationale for committing murder, especially since both narrators realize they have insufficient reasons.
Poe uses many literary devices and linguistic elements to help convey madness in his works. Poe relies heavily on the use of irony in The Tell-Tale Heart to represent the madness of the narrator. The narrator emphasizes multiple times that he is not mad.
Ironically, his overemphasis of his sanity causes the reader to assume he is actually mad. Hollie Pritchard, author of “Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart”, writes, “The actions of the narrator, combined with his insistence that he is not mad. This leads readers to determine that he must suffer from some psychological disorder” (4). In The Tell-Tale Heart, madness is represented by the narrator’s ironic lack of awareness of his own insanity. Poe also uses verbal irony to show madness in this short story. The narrator discusses how he empathizes with the old man while he is planning to kill him. He states, “I knew what the old man felt, and pitied him, although I chuckled at heart” (Tell-Tell Heart 1573). Additionally, dramatic irony is used to show madness. The audience is aware that the narrator killed the old man, but the police are not. Insanity is depicted through the narrator’s action of inviting the police to rest in the room where he has hidden the man’s body, and putting his chair directly on top of where the body has been disposed of. He writes, “I brought chairs into the room, and desired them here to rest from their fatigues; while I myself, in the wild audacity of my perfect triumph, placed my own seat upon the very spot beneath which reposed the corpse of the victim” (Tell-Tale Heart 1575). Poe also represents madness through the imagery of the senses in this story. The narrator gives a vivid, detailed description of the heart. He writes, “There came to my ears a low, dull, quick sound – much such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton” (Tell-Tale Heart 1574). He also shows his mental instability when describing the old man’s eye as “all a dull blue, with a hideous veil over it that chilled the very marrow in my bones” (Tell-tale Heart 1574). The way that the narrator’s senses are so profoundly impacted by the old man proves his madness. Finally, insanity is represented in the sentence structure in the final passage. The narrator writes, “They heard! – They suspected! – they knew” (Tell-Tale Heart 1575)! The use of short, abrupt sentences indicates the narrator’s panic, and with each proclamation the narrator escalates the extent to which he believes the police hear the heart and make the connection to him.
Comparably, Poe also uses literary techniques to represent madness in The Black Cat. The extent to which the narrator uses pathetic fallacy (attributing human emotion or responses to inanimate objects or animals) in reference to the cats indicates his mental instability. For example, he thinks that Pluto experiences the effects of his alcoholism, and believes that the cat feels love for him, which is an incredibly complex emotion. Additionally, the narrator’s oversimplified reaction to the incredibly traumatic events he experiences shows madness in this text. At the beginning of the text, he nonchalantly describes the story as normal, when it clearly is not. Richard Badenhausen, author of “Fear and Trembling in Literature of the Fantastic: Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Black Cat’”, writes,
[The narrator] refuses even to acknowledge a disengagement from the human race by suggesting that his murderous actions differed in no way from the normal everyday occurrences of the domestic realm; indeed, he preposterously calls the events of his tale a “series of mere household events”. (4)
Madness is also represented by oversimplification of traumatic occurrences in the narrator’s description of the murder of his wife. His insanity is apparent by examining his discussion of his wife’s death. He simply states how he “buried the axe in her brain” but goes on for many sentences describing in detail the gory, horrific task of hiding her body. Badenhausen states,
Poe accentuates the effect by allowing his narrator to concentrate not on the murder itself (described in two short sentences) but on the grotesque methods considered for eliminating the body (seven sentences, including discussions of decapitation, burning and burying) and achieving a final solution (11 sentences). (4)
His unhealthy fixation on the disposing of his wife’s corpse is a clear example of how madness is represented in the linguistic elements of The Black Cat. Poe subtly uses literary devices and language structure to convey madness in The Tell-Tale Heart and The Black Cat.
This essay proved that that insanity is represented in The Tell-Tale Heart and The Black Cat through the narrators’ insufficient rationale to kill others and the linguistic elements of the texts. It was argued that madness was characterized in The Tell-Tale Heart through the narrator’s reasoning that hatred of the old man’s eye was sufficient motivation to kill him. Similarly, in The Black Cat, madness is represented through the narrator’s lack of logical reasoning to kill both the car and his wife. It was also argued that in The Tell-Tale Heart, madness is represented through the use of irony, imagery and sentence structure. Comparably, this essay proved that madness is characterized in The Black Cat through the narrator’s use of pathetic fallacy and his understating the events of the story. These texts are examples of how Edgar Allan Poe cleverly represents madness in his works, which contributes to his reputation as an excellent writer of Gothic literature.
Works Cited/Works Consulted
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- Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Black Cat.” 1843. American Short Stories. Ed. Bert Hitchcock et
- al. 7th ed. New York: Longman, 2002. 64-70.
- Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Tell-Tale Heart.” 1843. The Norton Anthology of American
- Literature. Ed. Nina Baym et al. 6th ed. Vol. B. New York: Norton, 2003. 1572-75.
- Pritchard, Hollie. “Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart.” Explicator 61 (2003): 140-144. Web. 3
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- Stark, Joseph. “Motive and Meaning: The Mystery of the Will in Poe’s ‘The Black Cat’.”
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