Samantha Leifeste Dr. Whitehead English 1302-80 3 April, 2012 Berenice and the Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe: the role psychological disorders play in these stories Throughout literature, authors adapt instances from their own lives and integrate them into their works in order to manipulate the psychological aspects of their characters (Campbell 1). It is a rarity, however, for an author to produce a work that can be analyzed both biographically and psychologically. An excellent example of such writers is Edgar Allan Poe.
Poe is famous for his Gothic style writings and psychologically thrilling tales which examine the depths of the human psyche. At first glance, his works emit a dark vibe which instigates feelings of doom for the protagonists. (Campbell 1). Because Poe experienced a sequence of tragic events throughout his life, his own psychological health was strained. If one were to investigate the life of Poe, no questions should begin to arise about the underlying themes in his work. It becomes evident after reading his stories and poems that Poe relied heavily on occurrences in his life for inspiration.
The damage presents itself through his writings as a neurotic obsession with death and violence Throughout his literary works, Edgar Allen Poe mirrors his characters’ mental state to that of his own insanity. Two examples of such works are Berenice, and the Tell-Tale Heart. The protagonists in both tales share horrific congruencies, while at the same time remain unparalleled in nature. Psychological disorders are the driving force behind the heinous events that take place. To understand the actions of the protagonists, one must understand the mental illness from which they suffered.
Poe describes both characters as sufferers of monomania- a single pathological preoccupation in an otherwise sound mind (Webster’s Dictionary). Emotional monomania is that in which the patient is obsessed with only one emotion or several related to it; intellectual monomania is that which is related to only one kind of delirious idea or ideas. In 1880, monomania was one of the seven recognized categories of mental illness (American Psychiatric Society 1050). After the 1850’s, monomania faded as a diagnostic category in psychiatry (Cambridge University Press 426).
However a number of disorders once classified under monomania survive as impulse control disorders, conduct disorders or delusional disorders. The Tell-Tale Heart is a standard illustration of a psychological story in which the congruencies between the author and the narrator are flawlessly apparent (lit med. edu). The nervous diction of the narrator and his repeated pleas to the reader only reinforce the suspicion that he is mentally ill. Beyond his demented monologue, the narrator’s consuming obsession with the old man’s eye is further proof of lunacy (Appelbaum).
The terror on display is both internal (the mind of the narrator) and external (the grisly murder). This horror story is about the demise of two-men the narrator as well as the author. The Tell-Tale Heart is not only a masterful portrait of madness but an example of how guilt can make an already distraught man even more mad (Appelbaum). 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? Hearken! and observe how healthily –how calmly I can tell you the whole story (Poe 29). Poe writes in such a way that allows the reader to know what the narrator never suspects and is not meant to suspect—that the narrator is a victim of his own self-torturing obsessions (Gargano 177-81). One can assume that the narrator has been tortured by the particular feature attributed to the victim for quite some time. In this tale, the “vulture eye” consumes his thoughts and acts as a trigger forcing the narrator to kill.
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 (Poe 29).
In allowing his narrator to disburden himself through confession, Poe manipulates the reaction to murder; instead of freeing the narrator, his actions prove only to augment his agony and intensify his delusions. But anything was better than this agony! Anything was more tolerable than this derision! I could bear those hypocritical smiles no longer! 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! (Poe 29). Another work in which Poe’s subconscious strain is evidenced is Berenice. The narrator and protagonist, Egaeus, is a tormented recluse who also suffers from an acute monomania which sends him into periods of deep focus and obsession. Unlike the narrator in The Tell-Tale Heart, Egaeus recognizes he is mentally ill. As a child, he was “buried in gloom” and “addicted, body and soul, to the most intense and painful meditation. As his illness progresses, it grows into “the most incomprehensible ascendancy” over him, fixing his mind for hours on a single thought or on insignificant objects around him: a shadow, a flame, the smell of a flower, the print in a book. His most incapacitating obsession is the physical appearance of Berenice after her health declines (Cummings). In particular, he becomes fixated on her beautiful teeth. Their image occupies his thoughts constantly. The narrator says, They were here, and there, and everywhere . . . I had no thoughts but for the teeth . . . All other matters and all different interests became absorbed in their single contemplation. They—they alone were present to the mental eye, and they, in their sole individuality, became the essence of my mental life (Poe). Egaeus appears to suffer from what modern psychology calls obsessive-compulsive disorder, a chief symptom of which is the inability to banish a thought that repeatedly invades the mind. Some victims of this illness develop obsessions only; others develop obsessions and compulsions (Cummings). Typically, the compulsion rids the mind of an obsession temporarily or until another one takes its place.
For example, a sufferer obsessed with contamination from germs may wash his hands repeatedly and gain some relief (Cummings). To expel his thoughts of Berenice’s teeth, Egaeus removes them when she is in a catatonic state and appears dead. After Egaeus comes to his senses, a servant informs him that Berenice is in fact alive and her teeth are extracted. Until this point, Egaeus’ obsessions had not led to an extreme compulsion (Cummings). There came a light tap at the library door – and, pale as the tenant of a tomb, a menial entered upon tiptoe. His looks were wild with terror, and he spoke to me in a voice tremulous, husky, and very low.
What said he? – some broken sentences I heard. He told of a wild cry disturbing the silence of the night – of the gathering together of the household – of a search in the direction of the sound; and then his tones grew thrillingly distinct as he whispered me of a violated grave – of a disfigured body enshrouded, yet still breathing – still palpitating – still alive ! (Poe). Both stories share multiple congruencies and contradictions. The most dominate comparison is the strained mental health of the stories’ key characters. Poe portrays the protagonists in The Tell-Tale Heart and Bernice as sufferers of a psychological disease, “monomania”.
As evidenced in the text, this disorder is the driving force behind the heinous actions of the protagonists. The protagonists share similar final delusions, yet the victims do not share the same fate. Both the narrator and Egaeus are haunted by particular physical features of their victims. These features provoke the obsession which in time, leads to a grotesque compulsion. Also, verbal confession proves unnecessary in that the narrator has no reprieve from his delusions and Egaeus is left with bloodied clothes and a box of teeth to prove him guilty.
Although author Edgar Allen Poe never sought treatment, and therefore was not diagnosed with a specific mental disorder, the evidence of disorders is apparent. It is not until one examines Poe’s works that he must conclude his tales are the spawn of traumatic events which prove deleterious to Poe’s psychological health. The themes of death and insanity in his works are an indicia into the personal aspect of his life. One must conclude for Edgar Allen Poe to piece together tales containing such meticulous insight into the mind of a madman, he must, in some way and to some degree, be mad himself.