Mental Illness In The Tell Tale Heart Essay

Elements of Power of Mind and Paranoia in “The Tell-Tale Heart”

The short story “The Tell-Tale Heart” was written by Edgar Allan Poe in 1843 and follows the first-person narration about an insane, or mentally-ill, murderer. The concept of power in all of its forms is important to this particular story and its readers. Without the understanding that the mind is an incredibly powerful tool, readers would be confused about some of the choices that the main character makes. The power of mind and guiltiness that the main character had, was so strong that he convinced himself he was not mad, rationalized reasons for murdering the old man along with other irrational acts, worried the police knew and confessed to the murder of the old man. Without understanding the abilities and actions influenced by the power of the main character’s mind, especially that of a “mad man”, readers would not understand the ideas Poe is portraying in the story. The story would also not make sense if the murderer was sane and capable of common, good-intentioned behaviors and actions. The concept of paranoia, which could be considered a mind trick, is a very important concept in “The Tell-Tale Heart”. One of the main reasons the narrator kills the old man and rationalizes the act is due to paranoia. Although, the word paranoia or paranoid is not specifically mentioned by Poe throughout the story, he implies that the narrator is paranoid; possibly due to a mental illness or said mentioned “disease”. The actions and ideas that the main character has can be described as symptoms of a mental illness such as schizophrenia. These two concepts are such large elements of the story that without a basic understanding of both, readers would be lost and could misunderstand the character development; which plays such a large role in this short story.

Edgar Allan Poe explores several different forms of power and their effects on the narrator’s thoughts and carried out actions. Power of the mind is an incredibly significant element in “The Tell-Tale Heart”. The narrator’s mind deceived him many times. Poe chose to introduce the thought process of the narrator early on, and for good reason. The main character’s mind is what made him become obsessed with the old man’s eye. His mind was filled with so much hatred for the eye that he killed the old man for just that. One of the most powerful powers of the mind and one idea that Poe was trying to portray throughout the story is that of self-deception. The main character experienced self-deception when he feared for his own life because of the “Evil Eye”, heard noises, and had sensations that were all false. The narrator’s mind and his belief that he was actually sane, or mentally healthy, is another example of self-deception. Lazar, author of “Deceiving Oneself or Self-deceived? On the Formation of Beliefs ‘Under the Influence’”, mentions that self-deceptive beliefs are indeed direct expressions of the inner fears of the subject, in this case the narrator. Subjects believe themselves and their thoughts about the idea that they are latched onto, regardless of evidence. They rationalize through practical and theoretical reasoning. Self-deception can be defined as a species of irrational belief formation (Lazar). In many instances throughout the story, Poe writes about how the narrator is trying to tell himself and the readers that he is not mad. In the first paragraph the narrator has convinced himself that his “nervousness” and “disease” have only sharpened his senses, not worsened them. In his mind, he believed this to be true, when in reality he was a very sick man. The mind of the main character made him feel as if the old man had power although he was physically powerless. He also tried to rationalize that killing the old man for his “Evil Eye” was a good enough reason to commit murder. He believed that removing the man’s “eye of a vulture” and hiding his body would rid himself of his fear and nervousness. The power of his mind allowed him to convince himself that he would be free of fear once the man was killed. The narrator claimed to have “wisely” planned out the murder and aftermath. His mind deceived him into believing what he was doing was a wise act. He took seven days to watch the old man and his eye at 12 o’clock every night. This proves the idea that Lazar describes about acknowledgement of self-deception. The narrator is not aware of his situation at the time that he is being self-deceived, an important argument Lazar makes. Any sane person would not stalk someone for their “pale blue eye” for seven nights for hours at a time. The main character’s mind made him convinced that he needed to murder the old man. The self-deceiving ability of the mind is why the narrator thought it was so funny on the deciding eighth night when he murdered the old man. When he sneaks into the old man’s bedroom on the eighth night, he is again deceived by his own mind that he should kill the old man when he sees his eye. He becomes angry when he sees the eye and once he murdered him he thought “his eye would trouble me no more”. After he murdered the old man, the narrator mentions again that the actions that he took were wise; an example of self-deception. The narrator has convinced himself that dismembering the body of the old man in the tub is a rational and completely normal act, when in fact it is not. The ability and overall power of one’s mind to make sense of such nonsense in a key element in this short story.

When he finished hiding the body under the floor boards, the main character is greeted by the police. He shows them around and then seats them one floor below where the body is. The guilt within the man’s mind eventually made him confess. His mind plays games with him and makes him believe that he is hearing the old man’s heart beat. The idea that guilt without the man mentioning that he is guilty is an example of unconscious goal pursuit. John Bargh mentions that whether someone consciously or unconsciously pursues a goal, the outcome will be the same. The goal, in this case, having been to confess to the murder. A key concept in the process of unconscious carried out behavior that is displayed in Poe’s story is described as what one perceives directly influences what one does (Bargh). Deception, perception and carried out behavior are all strongly influenced by someone’s mind. Another key point Bargh makes is that unconsciously people take more time to evaluate and act on negative situations compared to positive situations. Many theorists have concluded that human’s behavior is not determined by the conscious mind; instead, actions are taken when they are activated unconsciously (Bargh).

The article “Power Issues and Power Struggles in Mental Illness and Everyday Life” outlines certain power issues that influence all human relationships and taking a role in the management of these problems. This exploration could be applied to problems of bullying in schools, the workplace, local governments, and in one’s own head. Power is defined as a problem in situations when an individual loses the possibility of choice and in the matter is coerced, humiliated, and otherwise forced to participate in action against their will (Twemlow). Throughout the article it is discussed how power issues are present in all human relationships and every interaction exhibits some form of a power issue. These issues can be physical or verbal fights or when one person “dominates” the discussion. The article also explains the loss of control mentally can show the unconscious traits of a personality. An individual can lose or alter the perception of what the main causes of events are in their lives and change views on power roles. Individuals can also suffer from loss of empowerment, feelings of helplessness, and depression from power issues. “Psychotic Experiences and Risk of Violence Perpetration and Arrest in the General Population: A Prospective Study” looks into if subjects with psychotic experiences are at risk for displaying violence. The presence or absence of mental disorders can also have an effect on this. In the general population, psychotic experiences have been associated with an increased risk of violence. These experiences can be defined as hallucinatory or delusional experiences. The researchers concluded, “Specific psychotic experiences may differentially predict physical violence perpetration and arrest, even after adjustment for demographics, dimensional measures of psychopathology and contextual confounders.” (Honings). These articles give a whole new view point of the concept of power in the story, and also factors in power issues, mental illness, and violence that can be a result of these. The definition of power issues directly connects with how the narrator loses the possibility of choice and control over his mind. The narrator’s power struggle with the old man’s eye and beating heart leads to his loss of empowerment and shows the unconscious traits of his personality when he commits murder. The article on mental illness and violence provides a possible explanation for the narrator’s erratic thoughts and actions. There is a possibility the narrator suffered from schizophrenia or another mental illness, causing him to act violently and then hallucinate. These outside sources offer a possible explanation for why the narrator feels compelled to kill a man and is then tormented by his “beating” heart. Insight on mental illness and power of the mind in a real world situation brings a new light to the story and its bizarre narrator. The idea that one’s own mind and thoughts can result in actions which one thought were not in line with their conscious stream of thought. This idea is eerie to many and follows along with this story and many of Poe’s other stories.

In today’s society, paranoia has been known to be a source that, in extreme cases, can lead to murder or harmful actions that can affect the victim as well as others around the victim. A scholarly peer-reviewed journal titled, “A Patient’s Journey: Living with Paranoid Schizophrenia” written by Stuart Baker-Brown, is an autobiography describing the life of a that paranoid schizophrenia victim. The author began experienced severe panicking paranoia after visiting the former Soviet Union. He describes how paranoia soon took over the entirety of his life, so much that he needed to be diagnosed and was hospitalized. Stuart Baker-Brown’s case of paranoid schizophrenia recognizes the severity of the disease and how people view it. He mentioned that society’s portrayal of paranoia is highly disrespectful. Edgar Allan Poe’s story involves one incredibly paranoid person and some may consider this story to paint an ill-informed and misinformed idea about schizophrenia and people with this and similar conditions. Relating to Poe’s story, Stuart Baker-Brown describes that he was “confused in [his] thinking and obsessed that [he] was being followed” (636 Baker-Brown). The narrator in Poe’s short-story was uncontrollably obsessed with the old man’s creepy eye, stating that the character was very mentally confused. Baker-Brown “began to be afraid of everyone and feared that [his] life was in danger,” similar to the character in Poe’s story.

The narrator committed the murder because he feared for his life while there was actually no danger, and the author of the autobiography suffered from the same fear. The downfall of the main character can be described with regard to his mental state. From the very first sentence, readers may take away that the main character is a “mad man” or insane. The actual mental state or possible mental disorders of the narrator may not be taken into consideration by the readers. Edgar Allan Poe mentions the word “mad” with regard to the narrator’s sanity seven separate times throughout the short story. However, Poe does not mention paranoia or any mental illnesses associated with it, the reader can conclude that the narrator was ill. Many insane people or paranoid people say that they are not insane to try to convince others and themselves that they aren’t crazy, so Poe uses this to his advantage of character development. The fact that Poe chose to write the story in first person allows the readers to understand that the narrator, and main character, is mentally-ill. Poe uses the insanity and sense of paranoia as the main element which led the main character to commit murder as well as confess to it. The fact that the main character became obsessed with the old man’s creepy eye and used it as a reason for his murder, allows the readers to believe he was mentally-ill. The narrator describes that he once “loved the old man” and that he did not understand the hatred that he so abruptly attained when the man’s eye fell upon him (Poe). Poe also mentions the beating of the old man’s heart was also a trigger for the narrator’s unmistaken paranoia. The narrator committed the murder because he feared for his life while there was actually no danger.

All of these examples of paranoia can be directly related to symptoms of schizophrenia. It can best be described as a disorder which is characterized by an array of diverse symptoms, including extreme oddities in perception, thinking, action, sense of self, and manner of relating to others (Butcher). Delusions are a symptom of schizophrenia and can be described as tricks the mind plays on someone. Hallucinations can also be incorporated into delusions that a schizophrenic patient has. Although Poe never mentions the main character speaking to people in his head, the narrator does have dialogue that seems to be directed at the readers or possibly a voice in his head. Paranoid schizophrenia can be defined as having absurd and illogical beliefs that are often highly elaborated and organized into a coherent, though delusional framework (Butcher). Poe uses this idea throughout the story, especially when describing the narrator’s reasoning behind the murder as well as the carrying out of the actual murder.

To conclude, the idea of power is very prominent throughout the short-story “The Tell Tale Heart” written by Edgar Allan Poe. Through the story the main character shows many displays of the power of mind through decision making and the guilt he experiences. The idea of paranoia is also an important concept in the short story. From the very beginning the main character is “nervous” and his actions and thoughts reflect this idea. Without understanding the idea of power of mind through self-deception, actions portrayed and the narrator’s incredible ability to rationalize irrational situations, readers would misconstrue the entire concept and themes within “The Tell Tale Heart”. Paranoia can be described as the main reason for the main character’s downfall. In daily life, every human can make decisions based on paranoia. The reader must come to understand that the narrator is not a healthy human and his obsession with the old man and paranoid ideas lead him to make irrational decisions. All of the sources describe the hidden or underlying concepts Edgar Allan Poe wishes to let the readers know.

How to cite this essay: