Insanity in Edgar Allan Poe’s Stories
In both of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories, The Tell-Tale Heart and The Cask of Amontillado, Poe demonstrates elements of insanity which can cause one to believe that both narrators can be viewed as unreliable. This unreliable trait is common within gothic tropes. A narrator is considered unreliable when the narrator’s words do not hold much value to it. The narrator can either be deliberately lying or they can just be delusional and actually believe what they are trying to convey to the readers. In Gothic fiction, many narrators can be considered unreliable because of elements of insanity. Insanity is defined as a severely disordered state of the mind and unsoundness of mind or lack of the ability to understand that prevents one from having the mental capacity required by law to enter into a particular relationship, status, or transaction or that releases one from criminal or civil responsibility according to Merriam Webster dictionary. Unreliable narrators are usually features of literary works written in the first person, and they are defined by their lack of credibility regarding plot events depicted in the narrative. (Greene 1)
Sometimes lack of credibility may be immediately apparent and others times it surfaces gradually as the reader gains additional information that contradicts earlier statements made by the narrator. In popular fiction, unreliable narrators are frequently employed as sources of misdirection, guiding and shaping the reader’s incomplete and inaccurate understanding of the plot for the purposes of creating effective twists that upend audience expectations (Greene 1). An unreliable narrator lies, omits or misrepresents important information, or presents inaccurate interpretations of events as objective truth. In general, unreliable narrators can be divided into two categories: unintentionally unreliable narrators and intentionally unreliable narrators (Greene 1). Unintentionally unreliable narrators often present events from a skewed and undependable point of view due to factors such as age, lack of experience or understanding, or outsider status.
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As a literary device, unintentionally unreliable narrators are often deployed as an implicit means through which the author challenges the reader to think critically about the narrator and the world he or she inhabits (Greene). Intentionally unreliable narrators often have secret or sinister reasons for presenting inaccurate representations of story events. In this case, both the narrators from Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart and The Cask of Amontillado are unintentional unreliable narrators because they are naive to the fact that they are not sane or rational. In popular fiction, unreliable narrators have been prominently featured in mystery, suspense, and crime stories. Authors working in these genres frequently use unreliable narrators to deliberately muddle and confuse the reader or to create a misdirected set of expectations that will be toppled when the truth, or something close to it, is later revealed. Gothic literature arose during the romantic period in the late eighteenth century. In contrast to the Enlightenment, gothic literature dwells on darkness, embracing the ghastly and ghoulish (Campbell 1).
The gothic plot frequently involves murder, captivity, torture (physical or psychological), and a presence seeking revenge from beyond the grave. Regarding The Tell-Tale Heart and The Cask of Amontillado, these plots involve murder and specifically in The Cask of Amontillado it entails revenge. The setting and even architecture are crucial to gothic fiction. Much action takes place in dark and gloomy areas. Flawed heroes, fervently religious characters, insanity, and foolish servants are also commonly found in gothic novels (Campbell 1). For all their focus on the supernatural and unexplained, many gothic novels are grounded in reality. Authors often reveal the mundane truth behind the cries in the night and creaking stairs. The terror lies in the moments when these things are presented and experienced by the hero or heroine but are as yet unexplained (Campbell 1).
Poe used many of these standard properties of Gothic but turned these into an exploration of extreme psychological states regarding The Tell-Tale Heart and The Cask of Amontillado. In the story, The Tell-Tale Heart, the narrator begins by dictating to the reader that he is not mad, or in other words, insane. On page 5 it states, “True! –nervous –very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?” (Poe). Right from the beginning, the narrator seems to suffer from some sort of paranoia. You can sense the nervousness. The narrator says that he is not “mad” and intends to prove he’s healthy by showing how calmly he can tell you the whole story. Though he repeatedly states that he is sane, the reader suspects otherwise from his nervous behavior, speech and illogical reasoning. You can see Poe’s use of insanity here because anxiety is a common symptom of insanity. It is clear that the reader is not meant to follow the narrator’s suspicious logic. The narrator’s fake calm demeanor is also an indication of insanity.
As the story progresses, the narrator describes his plot to kill the old man insisting all along that he is as sane as can be. He is unreliable as a narrator because he suffers from hallucinations and his obsession with the old man’s eye which results from insanity. “The Tell-Tale Heart” is characterized by the first person narrators gloating over his own dissemblance. He begins to tell the murdering process with the topic sentence, “You should have seen how wisely I proceeded — with what caution — with what foresight — with what dissimulation I went to work!” (Shen 320). The narrator is insane because he wants to kill the old man for simply not liking his eye. The narrator also hears his heartbeat before and after the murder which leads the reader to believe that he is not a credible source. The heartbeat is an element of insanity because acute hearing can be an element of clear madness. Some critics take the noise either as the sound of an insect in the wall, as the beating heart of the narrator himself, associated with his conscience of guilt, or as a matter of the mad narrator’s auditory hallucinations (Shen 332). It would have been impossible for him to hear such a noise unless his ear was against the old man’s chest.
The narrator’s over-acuteness of the senses is a typical symptom of insanity. Poe used this gothic element of insanity to create an impression of horror. The Tell-Tale Heart is about a neurotic man’s murder of an old man living in the same house because he finds the old man’s “vulture eye” unbearable to him (Shen 327). An example of Poe using insanity to create an impression of horror is when the narrator abnormally watches the old man in his sleep. He spies on the old man for a week with the intention to kill him, specifically at midnight, which hints at more insanity. The narrator states, “I could scarcely contain my feelings of triumph. To think that there I was, opening the door, little by little, and he not even to dream of my secret deeds or thoughts”(Poe).
Finally, he murders the old man by dismembering his body and burying it under the floor. He states, “In an instant, I dragged him to the floor, and pulled the heavy bed over him. I then smiled gaily, to find the deed so far done” (Poe). Then the narrator continues to tell the reader that he is not mad which is ironic after killing an old man the way he did. How is the reader supposed to rely on the events of this character that is clearly insane after saying such things like, “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”( Poe). All of these gothic elements of insanity creates the horror that Poe is trying to convey.
The narrator’s insanity in The Tell-Tale heart is what actually leads to his demise and what leads him to get caught. Firstly you can see elements of insanity by his deluded state when he calls the police villains instead of himself. Any rational person would disagree with the narrator which leads him to be portrayed as more unreliable. He sees himself as a sane righteous person. He finds the dissembling of the policemen unbearable and the scrutiny is what causes the narrator to admit that he did the crime. His ungrounded suspicion of the policemen’s dissemblance leads to his downfall (Shen 327). The Cask of Amontillado is a story about a man who committed a horrible crime half a century ago. Montresor lures Fortunato into a vault, retrains him into a wall and then bricks him in (Baraban 47). This already seems insane. Readers are perplexed by an absence of the motive for this crime. Unable to find a logical explanation of Montresor’s hatred for Fortunato, most commentators conclude that Montresor is insane (Baraban 47). There is no investigation of the crime but instead, the criminal explains how he committed the murder. This is the set up for an unreliable narrator.
The absence of the figure of a detective compels the reader to perform an intellectual act of detection themselves. At this point, the reader is not relying on the narrator because the narrator has not given out enough details. This leads the reader to form to a conclusion that the narrator is unreliable so they have to rely on themselves for information. Now any sane person may feel some type of remorse or guilt after murdering someone but of course, Montresor didn’t feel this. Would an insane person feel these emotions; not likely. “Fifty years later, he still remembers his heart’s growing sick–on account of the dampness of the dampness of the catacombs” (Baraban 48). The dash in the middle of the sentence, “My heart grew sick–on account of the dampness of the catacombs” indicates a pause. When Montresor pronounces the first part of the phrase, the reader may believe that Montresor begins to feel sorry for Fortunato. But when the narrator concludes that his heart is growing sick “on account of the dampness of the catacombs,” it becomes clear that he feels pleasure and contentment about his monstrous deed even after fifty years. (Baraban 49 Poe uses the dark tone and manner of this story to make it clear that the narrator has satisfaction from his murder.
Poe further uses gothic traits to further the elements of insanity. Montresor recollects how after laying in the masonry, he stepped back to listen to “The noise lasted for several minutes, during which, that I might hearken to it with more satisfaction, I ceased my labors and sat down upon the bones. When at last the clanking subsided, I resumed my trowel” (Baraban 49). Montresor appears to be perfectly calm with his murder. In the essay “Forms of Time and Chronotope in the Novel” Mikhail Bakhtin describes Montresor’s tone as “calm, matter-of-fact, and dry” (Baraban 49). This pitiless tone adds the feeling of horror that Poe is displaying using gothic elements and insanity to show how unreliable the narrator is. A coherent story — must be discernible within even the wildest ramblings of an insane narrator (Mcgrath 1). Madness is never random in its manifestations. The reader is enlisted as a kind of psychiatric detective and they are engaged to minds blind to their own dysfunction, such as the narrator of Cask of Amontillado and The Tell-Tale Heart which makes them as rich in complexity as any in our literature (Mcgrath 1). In the mid-19th century, the gothic genre had been largely surrounded by supernatural phenomena but turned its attention to psychological dysfunction (Mcgrath 1). In this case, insanity, which is why “The Cask of Amontillado” is also a superb early example of the unreliable narrator at work (Mcgrath 1).
Edgar Allan Poe displayed many elements of insanity using the maniacal character Montresor in the short story The Cask of Amontillado. Some might say that the narrator, Montresor, suffered from schizophrenia because the definition of schizophrenia according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary is “A very serious mental illness in which someone cannot think or behave normally and often experience delusions.” Like the narrator in The Tell-Tale Heart, Montresor also had multiple of these symptoms. The start of the story opens up with paranoia and a threat. “The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge” (Mcgrath 1). Montresor’s insanity caused added aggression and irrational thinking to believe that killing Fortunato was the only valid option. Now honestly speaking can a narrator with schizophrenia really be reliable? Is their recollection of events clear or in order? Montresor states “I must not only punish but punish with impunity” (Poe 149). This shows how much rage and how extra Montresor is willing to go. He begins to plan out his revenge and during this time he was careful not to arouse Fortunato’s suspicions. “Neither by word or by deed had I given Fortunato cause to doubt my good will. I continued to smile in his face, and he did not perceive that my smile now was at the thought of his immolation (Poe 149). This shows how unreliable Montresor is because he lies and fakes so easily.
How is the reader supposed to take his word as the truth when it is clearly biased? The reader is not given a valid explanation or any good reasoning as to why Montresor would want to give Fortunato as a slow and painful death. This is an unreliable narrator because he gives no details for his revenge so the reader cannot make a judgment call for themselves. Poe uses insanity to show an unreliable narrator and to render the chaos of psychosis within the frame of the narrative, without either misrepresenting the illness or obscuring the story (Mcgrath 1). Poe’s narrators in The Cask of Amontillado and The Tell-Tale Heart, are both portrayed as madmen and unreliable. In The Tell-Tale Heart the narrator kills an innocent victim because he believes that his eye is evil, he hears voices and has irrational thoughts.
In The Cask of Amontillado the narrator, Montresor, retaliates against seen or imagined threats which leads him to revenge. Both of these individuals have some sort of unexplained irrationality. The actions of these characters are too insane to deem the narrators reliable. Both of these characters show obsessive tendencies and as the stories continue the readers are able to see the downfall of the narrators as they descend further into madness. As you can see, Poe uses insanity and madness, from gothic tropes, as a recurring theme within his two texts, The Tell-Tale Heart and The Cask of Amontillado which presents the narrator as unreliable. On a regular day, a person would not take the words and retelling of an insane person as a reliable or credible source. Same thing for the readers of these texts. They are more likely to begin reading these text and then form a conclusion that the narrators are unreliable. Their stories have too many inconsistencies and abnormalities.