Why does the narrator lead the policemen to the old man's room? Why does he say the police "knew" that the body was hidden there? Do you agree with his perception? Comment

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Insanity or madness is a central theme throughout much of Edgar Allan Poe’s work. In his short story “The Tell-Tale Heart,” it is in the narrator’s forceful protestations in defense of his sanity that the depth of his insanity is apparent. Notice in the following plea the narrator’s exhortation to be taken seriously and not be judged harshly in terms of his frame of mind:

“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. 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?”

Poe’s narrator shares a home with an old man for whom he professes great affection (“I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire”). Yet, unnerved by the old man’s deformed eye, the narrator decides to kill his elderly harmless roommate, all the while continuing to assert that his actions were entirely the actions of a sane, rational human being (“You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing. But you should have seen me. You should have seen how wisely I proceeded”).

What the reader learns in reading “The Tell-Tale Heart” is that the narrator’s protestations regarding his sanity are in fact the ravings of a lunatic—and a homicidal one at that. The narrator is psychologically impaired. His decision to kill the kindly old man solely because of his deformed eye and his confession in carefully planning the act and carrying it out are all the indications one needs to conclude that he is, indeed, quite mad. To paraphrase Queen Gertrude in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the narrator "doth protest too much." If he is in fact insane, however, the narrator’s insanity is exhibited in another manner: The depth of his conscience is greatly expanded by virtue of his mental illness. That is why he hears the beating of his victim’s heart, while the police officers hear nothing. The narrator has killed and dismembered the old man’s body and buried it beneath the floorboards. He is so stricken with guilt, though, that he imagines that he is hearing the beating of the old man’s heart. As the police officers continue to remain oblivious to the sounds the narrator hears, the latter grows increasingly agitated until the extent of his madness is revealed by his exhortation to his uninvited guests to “tear up the planks! Here, here!”

When the narrator thinks about the oblivious officers (“They heard!—they suspected!—they knew!”), he is again revealing the extent of his madness. He has transitioned from a cold, calculating killer to a remorseful and guilty maniac. The police officers do not know that the old man’s body is buried nearby, and they do not hear the beating of the old man’s heart because it is all in the narrator’s head. He leads them to the old man’s remains because his madness has manifested itself in such a manner that he must confess his sin.

sinshal21 | Student

The Tell-Tale Heart is Edgar Allan Poe's signature story in his inimitable style of suspense writing. The narrator has murdered the old man even though he says, " I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. " Yet the " vulture eye" of the old man bothers him to such an extent that he kills the old man in a cold blooded manner.  Since then he labours under the guilt which keeps on slowly building in him. He is quite pleased with himself over having committed a perfect murder. " I had been too wary for that. A tub had caught it all - ha! ha!" 

He feels so secure in no one detecting his crime that he brings the policemen straight to the old man's room in his overconfidence. " I smiled - for what had I to fear?" As the narrator himself says, he bade them sit and himself joined them " in the wild audacity of my perfect triumph". He is at first at ease but his inherent madness gets stimulated further by his guilt and he fancies that he can hear the old man's heart beating. In his guilt-ridden insanity, the narrator can no longer maintain his casual behaviour and talks loudly, gesticulating wildly to allay any suspicion that he feels the police might have of him. However as the noise of the beating heart in his ears increases, so does his madness, until he feels that there was no way that the police could not hear the noise and were in fact pretending to chat pleasantly, while all the time baiting him. 

The crescendo in the narrator's guilty insane mind builds to such a volume that he concludes that the police did indeed know of his crime and were merely mocking him. His guilt becomes agonising to him and he shrieks out his confession to the police. 

If the narrator had been able to maintain his sang-froid, perhaps his crime could have gone undetected for some more time, since the policemen did not suspect anything wrong and were merely spending some time pleasantly with the narrator. However , it was the narrator's own psychotic mind coupled with his guilt that resulted in his arrest. Throughout the story he tries to show that he is perfectly sane and therein also lies the irony of the story.





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The Tell-Tale Heart

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