The tell-tale heart was a short story by Edgar Allen Poe and it is an interesting, psychological study of a deformed old man who kills the old man and hides its corpse under the floor. The protagonist has premeditated murder because he assumes that his life would be better without the old man who suffers from hypertension. The only problem with this assumption is that, from the beginning of the story it is clear to the reader that the old man is not alive. The goal of this article is therefore to explore how can a protagonist who believes he has committed a murder be considered insane.
The insanity defense was an attempt at explaining why some criminals could not control their behavior and have little or no comprehension of what they were doing when committing a crime. The Supreme Court ruled in 1981 on a case known as The State of Louisiana vs Daniel M’Naghten. The defendant, Daniel M’Naghten, believed that by assassinating Prime Minister Robert Peel’s secretary Edward Drummond, he would alleviate his persecution by Peel’s administration. The issue for this court was whether someone could plead insanity as a defense for killing another person or not.
The decision was that if someone is unable to distinguish between right and wrong, their actions cannot be held accountable because they could not have known it was wrong. The court placed a heavy burden on the defendant by requiring proof beyond a reasonable doubt that they were incapable of distinguishing right from wrong at the time of the crime. The problem with this decision is that if someone truly believes he/she has been persecuted enough to commit murder, how can anyone prove otherwise?
In The Tell-Tale Heart, The protagonist is an old man who hears a loud beating noise originating from his room’s floor. The heart beats louder until the police arrive at the scene where they find a dead body hidden under floorboards. The protagonist claims that the old man is alive and that he has killed him because of his loud heartbeat, which drove him to insanity. The intensity of this “heartbeat” was so great that it apparently shook the floorboards enough for others to notice.
The court’s verdict in The State of Louisiana vs Daniel M’Naghten does not apply here because the protagonist most likely knew what he was doing all along, but still wanted to believe it was an act driven by temporary insanity. The belief about persecution was only an excuse made up after committing the murder to escape punishment; therefore deception may be involved here as well. The protagonist could also have felt persecuted by his own guilt due to lying about killing someone who wasn’t actually dead. The motive behind committing a crime is always important when determining someone’s state of mind.
The protagonist was only trying to justify his actions by placing false blame on a nonexistent entity because he could not bear the guilt of killing someone who wasn’t even alive in the first place. The defendant in The State of Louisiana vs Daniel M’Naghten believed what he did was right; therefore, it would be difficult for the court to prove otherwise if they couldn’t find something wrong with his reasoning. The defendant rationalized what he did and knew that killing another person was wrong but still felt justified by his own motives.
The Tell-Tale Heart’s protagonist also committed premeditated murder which disqualified him from pleading temporary insanity through The State of Louisiana vs Daniel M’Naghten. The protagonist in The Tell-Tale Heart claimed he killed the old man because of his beating heart, which can be considered delusional because it was only in his head. The court ruled that delusions alone could not be used as evidence to argue temporary insanity; therefore, The Tell-Tale Heart is an example of premeditated murder that fails to meet The State of Louisiana vs Daniel M’Naghten requirement for pleading temporary insanity.
The reader cannot fully believe what he is saying. The man tells the reader that people would think him mad because of his actions or words, but then tries to explain that he knows how a mad person would act. The only explanation the man gives for his behavior is that he had an uncontrollable impulse and realized himself not to be crazy. The last reason why the man might have killed the old man was because of a “vigilance of egotism” (Poe 178).
The narrator also feels superior over many other humans, and wants them all dead so they do not come near him. This aspect makes it hard for the reader to understand where the actual insanity starts, as well as it makes it hard to know when this insanity is going to stop. The narrator does not have a clear boundary of what is sane and insane. The story starts with telling the reader that the old man is dead, but it makes it unclear how he died.
The murderer tries to insinuate that he gave him a heart attack with his words, but in reality, the old man was stabbed three time in his sleep when he was sleeping by a maniac who has been watching him when living with this family for quite some time. The narrator even says that “I loved the old man” (Poe 177) which make this behavior even more confusing and suspicious because usually people do not kill someone they love unless they are suffering from mental illness or if there is an extreme circumstance happen (Kapur 30).
The man tells the reader that he was sane and knows what is going on the whole time. The story specifically makes it hard for the reader to believe this by starting with: “True! nervous, very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses-not destroyed-not dulled them” (Poe 177) The narrator tries to explain that his feelings are real by mentioning all of them throughout the story. The first example is guilt or remorse which cannot be felt if one is insane.
The last reason why the narrator says he may have stabbed him because of egotism also adds up as more evidence along with the last paragraph. The man says that “Egotism-how bitterly I hate him who ever painted that trait! ” (Poe 186). The word egotism also makes it hard for the reader to believe what he is saying, as guilt and remorse are common feelings especially after killing someone by cold blood. The man claims he has these feelings but doesn’t appear to have any of them throughout the story.
The first reason why the man tries to prove to everyone that he is sane may be because he believes himself to be sane even though his actions are not normal. The murderer believes himself to be normal by trying to give explanations for what he did or does in certain times through out the story. The second reason why he is trying to prove he is sane is because of a certain fear that his claims will be seen as true. The last reason why he does this may be due to a loss of control or an uncontrollable impulse, which was the original cause for him committing this crime in the first place.