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Analysis of Edgar A. Poe Through the Tell-Tale Heart

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    Discovering the Darkness: A Psychological Analysis of Edgar Allan Poe In every culture, in every nation around the world, there are those names which echo in the minds of the people. These names are bred into every individual from childhood as masters of their crafts, whether such a craft is in the arts, athletics, or academics. One such name in American history that must be agreed upon as one of the masters and shapers of American literature is a Mr. Edgar Allan Poe. This man brought to the American literary style a darkness that can be described as a reflection to Poe’s own life and mental state over the course of his lifetime. One such work, Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” mirrors its author’s deteriorating mental state through the use of the central character of the narrator.

    Who was this man, though? Edgar Allan Poe, born simply as Edgar Poe on 19 January 1809 in Boston, Massachusetts, was orphaned near the age of two after his mother died of consumption (now known as pulmonary tuberculosis) a year following his father’s abandonment of the family. Consequently, Poe was placed in the care of John Allan, a Scottish merchant in Richmond, Virginia. The Allan’s became a foster family for Poe, giving him the name “Edgar Allan Poe,” though never officially adopting the young man. Poe would attend the University of Virginia for a short period, studying ancient and modern language until he was forced to leave the institution for financial reasons. From his birth to his death in 1849 (at forty years of age), Poe would experience issues with both his mental and physical health, a fact easily seen through the darkness of his stories and mentally estranged characters he created to act in them.

    One such story is Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” which centers on a narrator who constantly claims to be a sane man, while his actions and thoughts prove otherwise. He (the narrator) constantly makes references to his mental state: “You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing. But you should have seen me” (Poe 53). This statement comments on the narrator’s belief that he is completely sane as he worked with absolute precision. The only thing that was wrong with him, and even the term “wrong” would be debated by the character, was his heightened sense of hearing, stating that the “disease had sharpened [his] senses – not destroyed – not dulled them” (Poe 52). By commenting on and accepting the presence of a “disease,” the narrator leads the reader to believe the man thinks himself completely sane. Poe’s life, including events of dropping out of school, enlisting in the army under a false name, and his deterioration as he pursued a living based solely on his writing, must have included justifying himself to the public, just as his narrator is doing to the reader, the jury, his inner thoughts, etc.

    On this note, the narrator never truly admits to whom he is addressing. One can assume that he speaks to the reader directly, or rather, he is thinking to himself, as his thoughts are clearly rapid and muddled, such as when he says, “True! – nervous – very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am” (Poe 52). Yet he appears to be telling his own story, feeling the need to use the second person (“you”) to address his audience directly, insinuating that this is possibly a story being told aloud. Or perhaps he speaks to himself, as if the entire story is an instance merely in his head, and he is simply justifying to himself that he is not an insane man like he has been told by society. This vague audience could quite possibly represent Poe’s feeling of loneliness during the point of writing the story, as his wife had contracted consumption just as his mother had, and her recovery was very minimal. The author began to consume more and more alcohol, leading to his apparent depression and lack of social acceptance even with his peers in the writing community. Poe would be known in some groups as purposely alienating himself from fellow writers after accusing Henry Wadsworth Longfellow of plagiarism. Poe never truly had an audience of his own to speak to, no following of his works – he was only paid $9 for one of his most famous poems, “The Raven,” proving that his works were not in high demand – that would cause him to write to popular desire, instead choosing to write for himself, which, for a lonely man with deteriorating mental health, could only be seen as a man choosing to exist in his own pain.

    Poe’s lack of a true paternal figure in his life (his father’s abandonment of the family and his estranged relationship with his foster father) confronts this pain, mirroring the narrator’s feeling toward the old man and the dreadful eye which gives him such distress. While the narrator says he loves the man (“I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult.”), he still commits a heinous murder because of the man’s eye which caused him such distress (Poe 52). The narrator’s sentiment mirrors a possible sentiment Poe would feel for older men in his personal life: while they may be good men at heart, there are aspects of them that caused Poe a great deal of distress, such as his biological father’s abandonment or John Allan’s strict disciplinarian style of parenting and habit for having affairs. By including an aspect of a man that causes mass amounts of distress to the narrator, Poe successfully reflects his own experience with fatherly figures and the desires and anger he must have felt toward them.

    This feeling of an absent father, along with an incredible amount of loss faced by the dark author, leads to an interesting point to be noted on the nature of names. The two central characters, the narrator and the old man, go without names; however, Poe’s other stories include named characters. The narrator not once feels it important enough to mention his name to whoever makes up his audience, nor the names of the old man and the officers. While some may believe this to be a point of storytelling on the author’s part, it may very well be that this subtle yet interesting lack of named characters could be an allusion to Poe’s possible feeling of being a nameless man, having taken so many different names in his lifetime: Edgar Poe as a birth name, Edgar Allan Poe in taking his foster family’s name, Edgar Perry as his name during his enlistment in the army, etc. An identity has been a common focal point many authors strive to achieve. After so many years of living with so many varied names, Poe sees the value of the nameless man, which may very well be the man he wishes to become.

    Works of literature often reflect their authors in one fashion or another. Through Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” one feels a closer connection with the author as his mental state is mirrored and paralleled by the narrator’s. The absolute darkness and misery included within the text, along with the obsession and distressed nature felt by the narrator, all indicate one thing: Edgar Allan Poe, born Edgar Poe on 19 January 1809, was not a well man. And from his mental pain and agony have come some of the greatest pieces of American fiction from the mid-1800s.

    Works Cited
    Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing. Eds. Kennedy, X.J., and Dana Gioia. 7th ed. New York: Pearson Longman, 2007. 52-54. Print.

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