The Protagonist’s Insanity and Unreliable Narration in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”

Term Paper, 2014

11 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1. Introduction

2. Analysis and interpretation of the narrator in “TTH”
2.1 Analysis of the narrative situation
2.1.1 General classifications
2.1.2 The narrator’s unreliability
2.2 Interpretation of the narrator’s unreliability: intention, subjectivity and insanity
2.2.1 The narrator’s intention
2.2.2 The narrator’s procedure to realise his intention
2.2.3 The narrator’s unreliability as a result of utter subjectivity
2.2.4 The narrator’s insanity as a result of unreliable narration

3. Conclusion

4. Works cited

1. Introduction

Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t. (Hamlet 2.2.200–201)

Edgar Allan Poe published his short story “The Tell-Tale Heart”[1] in 1843 when there was an ongoing discussion about the insanity defence in the United States (Cleman 624, Shen 340). The discussion arose because new definitions were introduced for the type of insanity that was required of an accused to qualify for legal exemption. In earlier times, until the end of the 18th century, “any sign of rationality – such as appearing calm and reasonable in court, premeditating or planning the crime, or seeking to hide or avoid punishment – demonstrated the presence of an indivisible conscience and concomitant moral responsibility” (Cleman 628).

This meant that it was very hard to be qualified as insane in legal terms; for one would have to have lost every “knowledge of good and evil” (Cleman 628) and behaved like “a wild beast” (Cleman 628), which was not the case very often. As many people were unhappy with this situation and called for a more differentiating approach, the notion of “moral insanity” or “partial insanity” was proposed, being a type of insanity that twists a person’s moral faculties only, not their intellect (Shen 340). This new legal definition of insanity made it possible to exculpate those who had committed a crime in a rationally planned way but were unable to comprehend its moral depravity.

In this paper, the terms “insanity” and “madness” are used with respect to the protagonist of “TTH” and are presupposed to refer to the idea of moral or partial insanity. Since he “made up [his] mind to take the life of the old man” (“TTH” 260) and realises the crime in a carefully thought out manner, the “wild beast” category does not apply to him (Shen 342). He is in possession of reason, but he uses it for wrong purposes. Still, aspects of “commonsense, obvious-perception standards of madness” (Cleman 628) must not be neglected, which are not just related to deranged morality. Besides, the mere observation that the protagonist can be characterised as insane is less crucial than to find out how this observation comes about for the reader.

The quintessence of the arguments put forward is that the reader’s belief in the protagonist’s insanity is created by unreliable and subjective narration. To begin with, the narrative situation of the story is analysed by applying different established categories of narratology and by identifying the narrator as unreliable. Then, the narrator’s unreliability is interpreted with regard to his intention of wanting to appear sane, his subjectivity caused by that intention, and his unconsciously conveyed insanity.

2. Analysis and interpretation of the narrator in “TTH”

2.1 Analysis of the narrative situation

2.1.1 General classifications

The narrator of “TTH” is at the same time the protagonist of the story.[2] In traditional narratological terms, coined by F. K. Stanzel (Nünning/Nünning 111), this is a first-person narrative situation, which is characterised by the identity of “narrating I” and “experiencing I” (Nünning/Nünning 111). After the murderer had some time to reflect upon what happened, he narrates what he experienced to a fictive addressee: “Hearken! and observe how healthily – how calmly I can tell you the whole story” (“TTH” 260).

According to another, more discriminating, analytical model, proposed by G. Genette (Nünning/Nünning 118), one first has to take into consideration on which level of the text the narrator is located (Nünning/Nünning 119). Applying this approach, the narrator of “TTH” is an extradiegetic narrator as his act of narration does not happen within the story itself, but on a higher level. This is illustrated by the interval between the time the narrated events happen and the time the narrator decides to narrate them. This interval is exemplified by sentences like “You should have seen how wisely I proceeded […]. And every night, about midnight, I turned the latch of his door and opened it – oh so gently!” (“TTH” 260).

Furthermore, the narrator is homodiegetic. Such a narrator is also a character in the story he tells (Nünning/Nünning 119). Another possible feature is that of an autodiegetic narrator, who is the same person as the protagonist and tells his own story (Nünning/Nünning 119). This is true for the narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart” as was already mentioned in the beginning. A second criterion to distinguish narrative situations is whether a narrator’s presence as a concrete speaker becomes explicit or not (Nünning/Nünning 119). In the story, the narrator’s presence as an individualised persona is made evident by statements like “I made up my mind to take the life of the old man” (“TTH” 260), which renders him a very overt narrator.

2.1.2 The narrator’s unreliability

One of the most important questions one has to ask when examining the narrator of a story is whether he is reliable or not. If a narrator’s “account of events appears to be faulty, misleadingly biased, or otherwise distorted, so that it departs from the ‘true’ understanding of events shared between the reader and the implied author” (Baldick 234, cf. Nünning/Nünning 120), he is regarded as unreliable.

With respect to “TTH”, one can find several examples of the narrator’s unreliability. Firstly, murdering another human being for no reason other than “a pale blue eye, with a film over it” (“TTH” 260) seems implausible and may indicate that the murderer wants to dissimulate his true reason (which could actually be one of those he negates before mentioning the eye) by inventing a different one: “I think it was his eye! yes, it was this !” (“TTH” 260, my emphasis).

Secondly, the narrator diminishes his credibility by exaggerating some aspects of his actions. It is questionable whether it really “took [him] an hour to place [his] whole head within the opening” (“TTH” 260) of the door to his victim’s bedroom or whether “[f]or a whole hour [he] did not move a muscle” (“TTH” 260) when the old man hears the noise he makes.

Thirdly, he takes it upon himself to behave like an omniscient narrator, asserting that the old man’s groan is “the groan of mortal terror […] not a groan of pain or of grief” (“TTH” 260) or stating that “[h]is fears had been ever since growing upon him” (“TTH” 261), thereby exceeding his limited first-person point of view (Sova 173–174).

Finally, he contradicts the laws of nature when he insists that he can hear the old man’s heart beating despite standing at the opposite end of the room (“TTH” 261). Likewise, he makes his words and thus his whole narration more unbelievable at the end of the story where he maintains to hear the heartbeat even though the old man is dead (“TTH” 262). Taking these examples into account, the reader has reason enough to heavily doubt the narrator’s version of things.

2.2 Interpretation of the narrator’s unreliability: intention, subjectivity and insanity

2.2.1 The narrator’s intention

This being so, it is necessary to find out why the protagonist narrates things the way he does. The answer to that question can be boiled down to the conclusion that his most urgent desire is to convince his fictive addressee of his sanity, not his innocence[3] (Robinson 369):

[B]ut why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses – not destroyed – not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? (“TTH” 260, emphasis in the original)

Indeed, there is not a single passage in the story where he denies his crime. On the contrary, he boasts about his cunning, for instance about the way he dismembers the old man’s body after killing him, leaving “nothing to wash out – no stain of any kind – no blood-spot whatever. I had been too wary for that. A tub had caught all – ha! ha!” (“TTH” 262). Having established the narrator’s intention, it is now interesting to investigate which method he employs to put it into practice and how this contributes to his being unreliable.

2.2.2 The narrator’s procedure to realise his intention

Concerning the first question, one detects that he is eager to influence the reader’s opinion about him (Sova 175). He does this by giving interpretations of his actions and strategies that are supposed to disqualify them clearly as such one would think a madman capable of:

If you still think me mad, you will think so no longer when I describe the wise precautions I took for the concealment of the body. The night waned, and I worked hastily, but in silence. First of all I dismembered the corpse. I cut off the head and the arms and the legs. (“TTH” 261, my emphasis) It is in accordance with his mindset of not caring about his guilt that it does not occur to him that dismembering somebody one has just murdered might not be a particularly wise thing to do with regard to a potential conviction. Similarly, he directly compares himself to what makes up a madman in his view, hence establishing a contrast that seems to prove his sanity (Cleman 631). According to him, “[m]admen know nothing” (“TTH” 260), whereas he acts with “caution – with […] foresight – with […] dissimulation” and has “powers” and “sagacity” (“TTH” 260).

2.2.3 The narrator’s unreliability as a result of utter subjectivity

Concerning the second question, i. e. how this influencing of the reader contributes to the narrator’s unreliability, one has to realise that a narrator is necessarily subjective and biased if he wants to persuade his reader that only his version is true. In “TTH” the narrator’s subjectivity is particularly prevalent. This is exemplified by his motivation for killing the old man:

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. I think it was his eye! yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture – a pale blue eye, with a film over it. 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 (“TTH” 260)

A “vulture eye” is no objective stimulus for murdering somebody, especially as the narrator’s perception of the eye being “of a vulture” and “evil” is also completely subjective (Robinson 372). With the reason for the crime being created solely in the protagonist’s mind, it is not surprising that the major part of the story is set in the protagonist’s mind as well. There is not much “real” action going on; the murder, the decisive event of the story, is over “[i]n an instant” (“TTH” 261), while the murderer dwells at length on his thoughts and internal reactions before and after the deed (Robinson 372).


[1] In the following abbreviated to “TTH”; the edition used for this paper is listed under “Poe” in the works cited.

[2] So the terms “narrator” and “protagonist” will be used synonymously when referring to the murderer as an individual.

[3] This insistence would not occur to a person that really is sane and convinced of it. So the impression of the narrator’s insanity which the reader gets during the course of the story is already foreshadowed right at the beginning.

Excerpt out of 11 pages


The Protagonist’s Insanity and Unreliable Narration in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”
University of Tubingen  (Englisches Seminar)
Proseminar I: Introduction to Literary Studies
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ISBN (Book)
Edgar Allan Poe, unreliable narration, narrator, insanity, The Tell-Tale Heart, narrative structure
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Alexander Lauer (Author), 2014, The Protagonist’s Insanity and Unreliable Narration in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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