The Portrait of a Madman: Schizophrenia in “The Tell Tale Heart”

by David Schlachter

In a time when mental illnesses were principally misunderstood and the domain of priests and jailers rather than science, Edgar Allan Poe’s, “The Tell Tale Heart,” showed significant insight into the mind of a particular madman who manifested symptoms of what is today a recognized mental disease. Symptoms such as severe, sudden, and seemingly erratic deviations in action, the modification and denial of outside reality, and ambivalence starkly characterized and portrayed the mind of Poe’s schizophrenic.

From a third person perspective, many of the narrator’s actions would be interpreted as very sudden and unexplained deviations in typical behavior. Even the narrator realizes, to an extent, the arbitrary nature of his actions. He states that, “[the old man] would have been a profound man, indeed, to suspect [his actions].” (Poe 386) A person who, for seven days, “went boldly into the chamber, … calling [the old man] by name in a hearty tone, and inquiring how he had passed the night,” (386) seems to abruptly change his course of action, to the extent of murdering the old man. When the police arrive, the narrator is, “singularly at ease,” (389). However, as time progresses the narrator swiftly becomes, “excited to fury.” This constant display of such frighteningly inconsistent action seemingly lacking motive is a clear symptom of schizophrenia. Flawed reasoning contributes to these actions, which is a result of the madman’s mind retreating inwards and incrementally denying, or masking, reality.

“The disease has sharpened my senses … not destroyed … not dulled them.” (385) The narrator’s insistence that his senses and, therefore, his perception of reality are not flawed is cause to question the validity of this claim. The inward focus of the narrator’s mind and his subsequent flawed perception of reality, is first manifest as the narrator tells us that the old man, “had the eye of a vulture … a pale blue eye, with a film over it,” (385). He further describes it as “a dull blue, with a hideous veil.” (387) This seems to be an exaggerated perception that is not reasonably faithful to reality. However, a more apparent flaw in perception is the supposed beating of the old man’s heart. As the narrator stands outside the old man’s door, he tells us that, “there came to my ears a low, dull, quick sound … It was the beating of the old man’s heart.” This was a merely a projection of the narrator’s stress. As the old man lay dead under the floorboards, the narrator claims that the sound he professes to hear is, “the beating of his hideous heart.” It is interesting to note that as the narrator becomes more concerned about the suspicions of the police the supposed tatoo and volume of the sound he discerns increase. While the narrator’s perceptions may not be purely the insane mirage of a madman, they have clearly been modified substantially, more so than the degree of subjective reality that most people seem to experience. This denial of outside reality, or its modification in keeping with suspicions, is a symptom of schizophrenia. The narrator’s perception of the eye and heart was exaggerated in accordance with suspicions that he had generated. Clearly he distrusts the old man.

Although his suspicions and hatred are transparent to the reader, the narrator tells us that he “loved the old man,” and he had “never wronged [him, or] … given [him] insult.” However, the narrator also feels the urge to murder the old man. The feelings seem diametrically opposed and the narrator attempts to explain his ambivalence by stating that “it was not the old man who vexed me, but his Evil Eye.” This presence of antipodal emotions focused on the same individual, at the same time, is another symptom of schizophrenia that is clearly manifested by the narrator.

The narrator of Poe’s, “The Tell Tale Heart,” is clearly a schizophrenic. Poe’s use of a first person narrator allows insight into this very interesting mind, and brings attention to the inward focus and isolation that fabricate outward symptoms, such as sudden and severe deviations in action, flaws in perception, and ambivalence, that produce a shockingly accurate portrait of a madman.