How does the narrator try to establish his sanity and where is the narrator's sanity is called into question in "The Tell-Tale Heart?"
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In “The Tell-tale Heart” the narrator seems to believe that the reader doubts his sanity, because he is constantly asking if we think he’s mad and reminding us that he is not.
The narrator tries to convince us he is not insane.
1. Just as he begins the story by making us think he is mad, the narrator also begins the story by insisting that he is not.
The disease had sharpened my senses—not destroyed—not dulled them. (enotes etext p. 4)
He tries to convince us that the sickness has not hurt his sanity.
2. The narrator goes on to explain that he is not mad because “madmen know nothing,” yet he is brilliant. He tries to convince us of his brilliance.
But you should have seen me. You should have seen how wisely I proceeded—with what caution—with what foresight—with what dissimulation I went to work! (p. 4)
The narrator explains that he kept peeking in on the old man and the old man had no idea.
3. The narrator explains how clever he was when the police arrived, and he led them right to where the body was and had a nice conversation with them.
I brought chairs into the room, and desired them here to rest from their fatigues, while I myself, in the wild audacity of my perfect triumph, placed my own seat upon the very spot beneath which reposed the corpse of the victim. (p. 6)
The narrator explains that the police never suspected him, but it is likely they did. Why else would they stay and chat with this guy? They were just waiting for him to crack.
Yet we doubt the narrator’s sanity.
1. The narrator’s sanity is called into question immediately. As the story begins, the narrator is demanding why we think he’s mad.
[Very] dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? (p. 4)
By bringing up a disease right away, the reader begins to think that there really is something wrong with the narrator. He might have gotten sick and that caused him to lose his mind, or he might be describing mental illness. The narrator brags about how calmly he can tell the story.
2. We also question the narrator’s sanity when he explains why he had to kill the old man. It was the old man’s eye, of course. The narrator becomes obsessed with 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. (p. 4)
To fixate on an old man’s eye, and want him dead for no reason, is clearly crazy. The narrator admits that he has nothing against the man except that eye.
3. Of course, when he kills the old man we know he’s crazy.
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. 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. (p. 5)
No sane person would hide a body under the floor. Obviously it will begin to smell! Clearly we are not convinced that the man is sane, and his continual protests that he is not mad just convince us that he is.
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