illustration of a human heart lying on black floorboards

The Tell-Tale Heart

by Edgar Allan Poe

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Is the narrator in "The Tell-Tale Heart" guilty and insane?

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The narrator in "The Tell-Tale Heart" is undoubtedly guilty of murder, yet he perceives himself as sane, demonstrated by the meticulous planning of his crime. Despite his unstable mental state, he exhibits understanding of his wrongdoing through his strategic actions, suggesting he would not plead insanity in a legal context.

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The narrator is clearly guilty of murder but what is important is that he considers himself sane. The purpose of him narrating the story is to tell the reader of his sanity as indicated by his careful and astute planning of the crime.

I think it is unlikely that the narrator would want to enter a plea of insanity. He may be content to be punished as his plan to evade detection was unsuccessful.

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It might be nice in a debate to address the legal criteria for establishing insanity--could the accused appreciate the nature of the act was wrong. Clearly he knew his behavior was wrong. The plotting, planning, and subterfuge proved he knew he was committing a crime.

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Because the protagonist so carefully and methodically carried out this murder, it would be difficult for him to obtain the "insane" defense.  He carefully planned his murder and then had made the effort to hide it with great care.  He clearly IS insane, but in a court of law, due to the premeditation and the fact he could think clearly about how he was going to carry it out and dispose of the body, he would probably not be able to claim insanity.

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Although the narrator has indeed committed murder, the question you're asking is whether he is to be considered morally responsible or not. In most Occidental societies, a person truly insane cannot be held accountable for his acts. Execution or a life sentence in prison is waïved for confinement in a psychiatric ward or mental hospital.

So finally, what is the difference? If a person cannot be rehabilitated, he will continue to be a public threat since he acts on impulse rather than reason. A "crazy" person cannot " learn" to be good. Isolation by confinement seems to be the only recourse to keep society "safe" from such specimens....

As to the moral aspect of guilt, this is also a slippery fish to seize. If a person has no control over his acts, he may be considered a dangerous criminal but not "guilty " per se, if guilt is indeed the opposite of innocence. That would be likened to convicting a person of careless driving in a car without brakes or a steering wheel!

There are some famous public trials where the defendent has pleaded insanity or senile debility to avoid prosecution. The Pinochet trials are an example of this; I'm sure with a little research you can find others.

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The narrator of the story is guilty of murder.  He kills the old man and then chops him up and hides his body parts under the floorboards in the house.  At the end of the story, he confesses to the police who come to the house to investigate strange screams that have been heard in the neighborhood. 

The narrator/murderer feels so guilty, he keeps hearing the beating of the dead old man's heart, he blurts out that he killed him and hid his body.   

Whether he is insane is the question for debate.  Many criminals try to get out of taking responsibility for their crime by claiming to be insane.  Although I think that the narrator is insane, he is very clearly totally in control when he decides to kill the old man. This is a premeditated murder, carefully planned.

Premeditated murder takes thinking and patience and planning.  The narrator stalks the poor old man, frightening him every night until he decides to kill him.

In my opinion, he is insane, because he thinks that the old man's sick eye is evil. 

"For an unknown reason, the old man’s cloudy, pale blue eye has incited madness in the narrator. Whenever the old man looks at him, his blood turns cold. Thus, he is determined to kill him to get rid of this curse."

Then after his crime, he hears the heartbeat, which is obviously inside his own mind.

So my verdict is: guilty and insane, lock him up and throw away the key!

Good luck in your debate.

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In the story "The Tell-Tale Heart," is the narrator insane? Does his insanity as evidence that he is not guilty of the crime?

There is insanity, and there is criminal insanity.

The narrator of this story is clearly delusional, having hallucinations, and out of touch with reality as we understand it. He tries to explain that he is sane in ways that only convince us, ironically, that he is out of his mind. No person who is connected to reality would murder an old man because they think he has an evil eye. No rational person would believe they heard the loudly pounding heart of a man dead and buried.

But this behavior, while it might warrant quite a bit of psychiatric help, does not rise to the level of criminal insanity that would alleviate the narrator of guilt. The narrator would have had to convey in the story, convincingly, that he had no idea what he was doing or that it was wrong. If he were convinced that the old man was, say, a head of lettuce that he needed to chop up for his salad and was able to persuade people that he really didn't know in the first place that he was murdering or attacking a human being—if he were that detached from reality—he might well not be guilty by reason of insanity.

However, the narrator clearly communicates that he does know the old man is a human, states that he kills him, and shows enough understanding of the legal consequences of his act to hide the body and try to deceive the police. He knows what he did is wrong in the eyes of society. The only reason he confesses is because he thinks the police hear the heart too and are mocking and playing with him. A person with such an awareness of what he has done and the implications of the deed is not criminally insane.

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In the story "The Tell-Tale Heart," is the narrator insane? Does his insanity as evidence that he is not guilty of the crime?

If the narrator were truly insane, he probably would not be able to relate the circumstances of the story or to feel anxiety at the visit of the detective. Since the presence of the detective makes him increasingly uncomfortable, we can surmise that he is feeling guilty and anxious about the possible discovery of his crime. Despite his crimes, the narrator obviously feels that he is responsible and that on some level he deserves punishment. The calm smiling demeanor of the detective unhinges him, showing his paranoia and nervousness, until he can stand it no longer and insists on tearing up the floorboards. This is his way of wanting to confess his crimes and suffer the consequences, proving he understands the moral implications of his actions, which proves he is sane.

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In Poe's short story "The Tell-Tale Heart," is the narrator crazy, and if so, is he guilty of murder?

One of Edgar Allan Poe's most popular short stories is "The Tell-Tale Heart." The question of the narrator's sanity is not unusual especially because he begins his tale by insisting that he is not crazy!

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.

The narrator insists he is not mad, but admits that he suffers from the disease of madness. His argument is that rather than being incapacitated in any way, his condition has improved his senses. This conclusion is based upon his insanity for logically one cannot be ill and be better off for it. However, he continues to insist that he is not crazy throughout the story.

The one paragraph that seems to solidify not only his insanity but also his guilt is found below:

It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain; but once conceived, it haunted me day and night. 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.

Note first that "the idea" has taken ahold of his mind: it haunts him continually. This is clearly obsession in the strictest sense. The "haunting" not only infers that the idea is never out of his mind, but also that he has no control of the idea. This supports the conclusion that the narrator is mad.

Additionally, he recognizes that he has no reason to wish the man ill. He states that he is not driven by passion (anger); there is no desired outcome that he anticipates from the man's death. In fact, he claims that he "loved the old man." He does not harbor any ill feelings toward him, for the old man never harmed him or insulted him. And the speaker does not want the old man's money either. With no valid reasoning present, these statements further convince the reader of the instability of the narrator's mind.

What very neatly supports his insanity is the younger man's obsession with the old man's eye. In his madness, he has fixated on the elderly man's blind, blue eye.

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. 

The narrator's paranoia is obvious. He personifies the eye, treating it as if it has a life of its own, apart from the will of the old man. He irrationally believes that the eye is the cause of his distress and only in killing the man can he be rid of it. When entering the man's room in the dead of night, the speaker believes that the eye follows him, but the film over the eye makes this assumption irrational and impossible.

Having established that the man telling the tale is insane, consider if the man is culpable (or accountable) for committing the murder. Could he not be found innocent by reason of insanity?

The insanity plea in a court of law is only useful if it can be established that the madness present prevented the perpetrator of the crime from distinguishing between right and wrong. More specifically put, the definitive measure of insanity was based upon the trial of Daniel M'Naghten in England in 1843. M'Naghten murdered the Prime Minister's secretary because he believed the Prime Minister was "conspiring against him." Findings in this case became the standard measure for insanity, and are still used in U.S. courts:

The "M'Naghten rule"...created a presumption of sanity, unless the defense proved "at the time of committing the act, the accused was laboring under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing or, if he did know it, that he did not know what he was doing was wrong."

The narrator did know that what he was doing was wrong, and fully comprehended exactly what he was doing.

Certainly the murder is premeditated. The man announces to the reader that once he ascertained (erroneously) that the eye was the source of his difficulties, he immediately decided that he had to kill the man to be free from its non-functioning gaze. There also can be no doubt that the narrator knew the difference between right and wrong—knew that he was committing a crime.

First of all, he does not want the old man to cry out and alert the neighbors—who would, ostensibly, call the police. Then he hides the body. (Actually, he literally crows with delight while recounting how brilliantly he disposed of the evidence of his deed.) He buries all beneath the floorboards in an attempt to conceal what he has done.

When the police eventually arrive, he pretends that all is well. He invites them in to search the house. He explains that the old man is in the country. He even takes the men into the old man's room and with insane arrogance invites them to sit, rest and chat even while the body parts rest squarely beneath their feet.

Here again his madness is glaringly apparent in that soon thereafter he is convinced that he hears the beating of the dead man's heart. (He is delusional). He soon becomes excessively agitated, while also noticing that the policemen seem oblivious to his discomfort while the sound grows ever louder in his ears. Ultimately, with paranoia bursting from within him, he is certain that the men are well aware of what he is done and they are "making a mockery of [his] horror."

All at once, he begins to rave in his madness:

I felt that I must scream or die! and now—again!—hark! louder! louder! louder! louder!

“Villains!” I shrieked, “dissemble no more! I admit the deed!—tear up the planks! here, here!—It is the beating of his hideous heart!”

The narrator is not only insane, but he is also guilty of murder.

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Is the murderer in "The Tell-Tale Heart" sane or insane?

It is not generally regarded as a characteristic of sanity to keep insisting, with increasing vehemence, that one is not mad. The narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart” not only does this but even accuses the reader of thinking him mad, an accusation he repeats four times throughout the course of a very short story.

Other evidence of the narrator’s madness includes his extremely tenuous justifications for the murder.

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!

In this quotation, it seems as though his distaste for the old man’s eye has only just occurred to the narrator, but he adopts it as his reason for murder and henceforth insists upon it with all the dogmatism of madness. His description of his preparations for the murder also seem unbelievable to the point of insanity. He keeps referring to the slowness of his movements and once says that he took an hour to put his head around the door. He says that he could not kill the old man on the first seven nights because his eye was closed (scarcely surprising, since he was asleep); but by waiting until the old man is awake, he loses the element of surprise, which was the point of killing him in the middle of the night. Finally, of course, there is the matter of his hearing a deafeningly loud heartbeat emanating from a corpse.

Altogether, the feverish, rambling, paranoid style of the narrator and the lack of motive and method in his murder suggest that, if not actually insane, he is very close to madness.

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Is the murderer in "The Tell-Tale Heart" sane or insane?

There are several significant pieces of information that suggest that the narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart" is insane. The narrator begins by attempting to convince his audience that he is not mad before mentioning that he hears all things in heaven, earth, and hell. Typically, a sane, reliable person would not need to persuade the reader that they are not mad. A sane person would also not believe they could hear things in heaven and hell. The narrator then mentions that he loves the old man while he plots his murder. The narrator's conflicting emotions and actions indicate that he is clearly mentally unstable. The fact that the narrator says the only reason he wants to murder the old man is because of his Evil Eye is additional evidence to support the claim that he is insane.

The narrator then attempts to persuade the audience of his sanity by describing the precautions he took to hide the old man's body. He proceeds to tell the reader that he chopped the old man's body up and hid the parts underneath the floorboard. This graphic display further illustrates his insanity. Finally, the narrator begins to experience auditory hallucinations as the police officers question him. He ends up admitting his guilt and showing the officers where he hid the old man's body at the end of the story. Overall, the narrator's attempts to convince his audience that he is sane, his contradicting statements, his horrific crime, and auditory hallucinations support the claim that he is insane. 

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Is the murderer in "The Tell-Tale Heart" sane or insane?

From the very beginning of the story, the narrator is adamant that he is sane. In fact, he says he is not mad, just very nervous because of a situation he found himself in:

TRUE!—nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? 

The narrator is so keen to prove his sanity that he recounts how he came to murder the old man with whom he lived. Some of the details of his story, however, suggest the narrator suffers from some kind of mental instability. He claims, for example, that the old man had an evil eye—the "eye of a vulture"—which caused him great distress and really "vexed" him.

Despite the narrator's claims that a "madman" could not plan such an intricate murder, the ending of the story provides further evidence that he is, in fact, insane. Specifically, the narrator suffers auditory hallucinations in which he hears the "beating heart" of his victim. The narrator is so haunted by the sound that he rips up the floorboards and reveals his crime to the world. These actions suggest the narrator is far more insane than sane.

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Is the murderer in "The Tell-Tale Heart" sane or insane?

The murderer keeps insisting that he is sane. In fact, he seems to be telling, or writing, this story specifically in order to prove his sanity. In doing this, however, he gives more and more evidence that he is insane. Evidently he has been arrested and is being held in custody. He has apparently been examined and declared to be insane. He says, "...but why will you say that I am mad?" and "You fancy me mad." It would seem that his best course under the circumstances would be to let his keepers think he is mad. Otherwise he would be tried and found guilty of premeditated murder and executed. The fact that he is trying to prove he is sane seems to offer proof to the contrary, because he would only be hurting himself by succeeding in proving he is not mad. The strongest proof that he is insane is in his hearing the victim's heart beating after he has not only killed him but "...cut off the head and the arms and the legs." Poe seems to have described this dismemberment in order to make the reader feel perfectly certain that the heart could not possibly be really beating. The murderer/narrator had been mad all along but had succeeded in concealing it from everybody until the officers came and he began imagining he was hearing that heart beating louder and louder. It might have been his own heart he could hear beating. He begins his story by saying that he is "...very, very dreadfully nervous."

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