Edgar Allan Poe and Insanity
Edgar Allan Poe shows how subconscious fears and guilt can lead to insanity through the irrational behaviors shown by the narrators in “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Black Cat”. Both narrators have committed a crime due to their insanity in an attempt to relieve themselves from their fear and guilt, but instead ultimately cause their further decline of mental stability.
Edgar Allan Poe was orphaned at an early age, later being adopted by John Allan. In his early adulthood, he developed malignant habits of alcoholism and debt. During his time, activists in the temperance movement blamed alcohol for corruptions such as violence and the destruction of family life. People during this time also had a fascination with the dark side of human nature and mental illnesses, which was present in many of Poe’s works. People thought that mental illnesses were to be related to immoral behavior, and were the result of diseases like syphilis (“Tell Tale”).
In “The Tell-Tale Heart”, the narrator, tormented by the old man whom he lives with, ultimately murders the poor innocent man. The narrator has no real rational motive for killing the old man; actually, he confesses to loving the old man. The narrator admits that there was “no object” nor “passion” for killing the old man because he “had never wronged [him]. He had never given [him] insult” and “for his gold [he] had no desire” (Poe, “Tell-Tale” 445). The narrator is not even sure to what his motive was. He thinks it was the old man’s “pale blue eye, with the film over it” (Poe, “Tell-Tale” 445). The narrator detested the cloudy film over his pale blue eyes so much that when he saw it, his “ blood ran cold; and so by degrees--very gradually” that made him make “up [his] mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid [himself] of the eye forever” (Poe, “Tell-Tale” 445). He becomes obsessed with this old man’s vulture like eye, believing that the eye is cursed. The narrator describes the eye to be “a dull blue, with a hideous veil over it that chilled the very marrow in [his] bones” (Poe, “Tell-Tale” 447). He believes that if he kills the old man, he can get rid of the eye’s overpowering malignant force, freeing himself of the curse (“Tell Tale”). According to Alfred C. Ward, he is “a spectacle of a demented creature smothering his helpless old victim without reason or provocation, other than the instigation of his own mad obsession” (Ward). The narrator believes that it was the eye that instigated his need to kill because when he “found the eye always closed…it was impossible to do the work; for it was not the old man who vexed [him], but his Evil Eye” (Poe, “Tell-Tale” 446).
Similar to the narrator in “The Tell-Tale Heart”, the narrator in “The Black Cat” was led by pure obsession and insanity and did not have a rational motive for his murders. The narrator used to be kind and love animals. He was even “noted for the docility and humanity of [his] disposition” (Poe, “Black” 46). He and his wife were happily married with many pets, one being his favorite cat named Pluto. He blamed his new corrupt actions on “ the instrumentality of the Fiend Intemperance” which caused “a radical alteration for the worse” (Poe, “Black” 46-47). This caused him to become moody, irritable, and violent by maltreating his animals. He blamed alcohol for his abuse on his animals and on his wife (“The Black”). One night, he came home drunk, seized the cat, which then frightened, bit the narrator’s hand. He cut out the cat’s eye, and later on hanged the cat “because [he] knew that it had loved [him], and because [he] felt it had given [him] no reason of offence” (Poe, “Black” 48). He had no other motive than that he called “the spirit of perverseness” (Poe, “Black” 48) or committing a crime because “he knows he should not” (Amper, “Black” 151). The narrator has another motive as well when he kills his new cat. He could not stand the new cat because of his “former deed of...
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