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Reliable or Not? An Analysis of the Establishment of the Narrator’s Unreliability in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tale-Tell Heart”

Essay 2016 7 Seiten

Amerikanistik - Literatur


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Narrator – reliable or not?
2.1 The narrator’s presentation of his state of mind
2.2 Indications for the narrator’s unreliability
2.3 Conflict between realities

3 Conclusion


1 Introduction

“True – nervous – very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses – not destroyed – not dilled them.” (Poe, 1992:92). These words initiate Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” and point the reader’s attention to the main topic of the short story: the narrator’s state of mind. Even though the narrator tries to assure the reader that he is not insane until the end of the story, his statements raise doubts. The question arises if the narrator is reliable or not. The narrator’s way of telling, acting and reacting to specific things, strengthen the doubts of the reliability and convince the reader more and more of the narrator’s unreliability.

The aim of this paper is to analyze the establishment of the narrator’s unreliability. Therefore, the paper will first take a look on how the narrator presents his state of mind to the reader by pointing his arguments for his sanity out. Then, indications for the narrator’s unreliability are worked out. Finally, the conflict between realities is briefly viewed and a conclusion made.

2 Narrator – reliable or not?

2.1 The narrator’s presentation of his state of mind

Right at the beginning, the reader gets confronted with two questions: “[…] but why will you say I am mad” - “How, then, am I mad?” (Poe, 1992:92). Both are aimed at convincing the reader of the narrator’s sanity (Cleman, 1991:630).

During the further course of the narrator’s presentation to the audience he wants to convince the reader of his healthy state of mind repeatedly. The narrator argues how little the perfectly prepared and tactically realized murder fits to the behavior of a mentally disturbed person: “You fancy me mad […] But you should have seen me […] how wisely I preceeded – with what caution – with what foresight – with what dissimulation I went to work!” (Poe, 1992:92). Referring to his procedure with the lantern the narrator notes: “Oh, you would have laughed to see how cunningly I thrust it in!” (Poe, 1992:92). Later, he concludes his entering into the old man’s room with the rhetorical question: “ Ha! – Would a madman have been so wise at this?” (Poe, 1992:92). The narrator wants to demonstrate his clever dissimulation skills by informing the reader of the natural ease he was able to meet the old man every morning, after his nightly visits: “So you see he would have been a very profound old man, indeed, to suspect that every night, just at twelve, I looked upon him while he slept.” (Poe, 1992:93). Furthermore, he feels affirmed by his perfectly prepared plan: “Never before that night I felt the extent of my own powers – of my sagacity.” (Poe, 1992:93). This is also shown by the “feelings of triumph” (Poe, 1992:93) that he gets during his nightly visits. Later on, the narrator admits to his nervousness and intense reactions on the louder heartbeat of the old man and tries to get them across: “[…] at the dead hour of the night, amid the dreadful silence of that old house, so strange a noise as this excited me to uncontrollable terror.” (Poe, 1992:94). The murder is not seen as an unmistakable symptom of a delusional state of mind, instead it is taken as an example for the narrator’s clever, calm and perfect proceedings: “If still you think me mad, you will think so no longer when I describe the wise precautions I took for the concealment of the body.” (Poe, 1992: 95)

Thereby, the narrator accentuates throughout the story that he is in possession of his complete mental faculties. In his point of view he is totally aware of his actions and reactions. (Cleman, 1991:631) He presents himself as a person with a healthy state of mind pointing to him being a reliable narrator at first.

2.2 Indications for the narrator’s unreliability

One indicator of the narrator’s true state of mind and thereby for his unreliability is his way of telling. The narrator indeed admits that he has been nervous, but consistently emphasizes his clever, calm and careful proceeding. In fact, his form of telling contradicts this content of proceeding. (May, 1991:76) Hyperboles, epanalepsis and exclamations affect his language: “I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth.” – “[…] I undid the lantern cautiously – oh, so cautiously –cautiously […] – I undid it […]” – “Hearken! […] Oh, […] Ha!” (Poe, 1992:92 ). Especially Poe’s use of hyperboles points to the narrator’s delusional state. In addition, the language is characterized by italics, excessive inserted exclamation points and dashes. These stylistic devices cause a hectic art of telling. (Collmer, 1999:103) The more hectic the narrator gets, the more he uses these styles. By the end of the story the syntax breaks down completely, and together with a climactic structure causes a hysteric screaming: “They heard! – they suspected! – they knew !” - “I felt that I must scream or die! – and now – again! –hark! –louder! louder! louder! louder ! –“ – “Villains! I shrieked, “dissemble no more! I admit the deed! – tear up the planks! – here, here! – it is the beating of is hideous heart!” (Poe, 1992:96).

In addition, the narrator’s increased perception of his senses awake the reader’s suspicion. Significantly, the narrator speaks about his “disease” that “had sharpened [his] senses” (Poe, 1992:92) at the very beginning. Because of the overreaching form of expression, the descriptions of his skills appear absurd and hypothesize a psychological disorder. For example, the narrator’s supernatural hearing can also be characterized as a delusional acoustic hallucination (Collmer, 1999:98): “I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell.” (Poe, 1992:92). Especially the hallucination of the pulsatile heartbeat of the old man highlights the narrator’s delusional state: “But the beating grew louder, louder! I thought the heart must burst. […] – the sound would be heard by a neighbor!” (Poe, 1992:94).

Furthermore, the motive of the murder raises doubts of the narrator’s state of mind. On the one hand, the narrator describes how kindly he acts towards the old man and that he has no reason for killing him, but on the other hand he gets obsessive about the old man’s eye (May, 1991:76): “Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult.” – “I think it was his eye! Yes, it was this!” (Poe, 1992:92). The obsession about the “vulture eye” (Poe, 1992:94) possesses the narrator that much that he thinks it is necessary to kill the man because of his repulsive eye. In fact, the narrator does not realizes his murder until he finds the eye open at his nightly visits: “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.” (Poe, 1992:92 f.). The reaction of the narrator, namely the murder, when he finally discovers the open eye and becomes insane about the louder heartbeat of the old man also proves the narrator’s delusional state of mind. This impression is strengthened by the narrator’s behavior towards the police officers. At first, he is extremely confident about not being convicted “for what I had to fear” (Poe, 1992:95), but then he completely loses control and finally gets driven to confess by the bothersome noise in his ear, which was growing increasingly louder and which he recognizes as the pulsatile heartbeat of the old man (Poe, 1992:96).

There are many more indications for the narrator’s questionable state of mind. They all prove that from the narrator’s point of view, reality - or at least what he considers to be reality - is displayed in a strange distorted way, pointing to the narrator’s unreliability. He is not telling, acting and reacting like a normal person with a healthy state of mind does. Instead of doing everything to prove his insanity to escape from his penalty, like a normal person would do, the narrator does everything to prove how calculated he is and how he planned the murder deliberately and carefully (Shen, 2008:339).



ISBN (eBook)
Institution / Hochschule
Christian-Albrechts-Universität Kiel
reliable analysis establishment narrator’s unreliability edgar allan poe’s tale-tell heart”




Titel: Reliable or Not? An Analysis of the Establishment of the Narrator’s Unreliability in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tale-Tell Heart”