Sadism in the Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe

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The tell-tale Sadist:

Sadism and Masochism in “The tell-tale heart”

Many of Poe’s tales portray characters which intently harm other creatures or people and enjoy the process of doing so. This tendency which Poe himself called “the spirit of perverseness”(Poe 10) in The Black Cat is described as the need to cause pain to other being without any reason, evil per se. However, from a psychological point of view, this spirit of perverseness would be labeled as sadism and its source may be traced by making a deep analysis of the character’s psyche. It will be posed that the character participant narrator in the tell-tale heart does not kill the old man as an act of pure evilness or spirit of perverseness, but rather the source of his/her sadistic drive comes from an unfilled sexual desire towards the old man and the guilt caused by his/her crime leads him/her to masochist behaviour.

On Three Essays on Sexuality, Freud describes sadism as “The desire to cause pain to the sexual object.”(Freud, 1914) Although, there are not any explicit evidence of a sexual relation between the old man and the narrator, whose gender is actually unknown, we may say that the bond was a close one because the narrator says “I loved the old man.”(Poe 3) In addition, the descriptions in which the narrator describes his seven days of surveillance include metonymic references to the sexual act:

"I undid the lantern cautiously-oh, so cautiously (for the hinges creaked)- I undid it just so much that a single thing ray fell upon the vulture eye"(Poe 4)

This action of undoing the lantern and observing the eye as a source of arousal resembles the act of undressing a person slowly and cautiously during the sexual act and being aroused by the sight of his/her anatomy[1]. Also, the narrator observes the old man sleeping which seems to be a classical behaviour of lovers. This is plainly stated by the narrator himself: “I looked in upon him while he slept” [2](Poe 4). Another instance of this resemblance between his/her descriptions of the crime and the sexual act can be seen when he is actually about to perform the crime on the eighth night. “It was the beating of the old man” (Poe 5) which compelled him to perform his objective, and in this point the heart begins to be the main motif in the tale and symbolizes many things. First of all, the beating of the heart symbolizes the old man’s fear, as shown in this quote: “The old man’s terror must have been extreme! It grew louder, I say, louder every moment!” (Poe 5) Secondly, his heart beating in crescendo fed the narrator’s sadism. This is probably so because the heart beating indicates a shot of adrenalin and strong feelings similar to the ones involved in sexual excitement. It can also be perceived that the narrator felt elated by the man’s “mortal” fear and therefore the heart also becomes an equivalent of pleasure and later on displeasure. The narrator’s acuteness of the senses is, as well, a feature of sexual arousal. Hearing becomes an essential part of feeling pleasure through torturing the old man; the narrator can just get evidence of this by hearing the heat beating and seeing him restless.

Furthermore, during the seconds prior to the murdering of the old man, the narrator uses the word “refrained” (Poe 6), which may be considered part of the behaviour of lovers since refrain prolongs the pleasure and this is what actually seems to provoke on the narrator. The murdering itself also appears to connote eroticism as “he (the old man) shrieked once” (Poe 6), while the narrator “smiled gaily, to find the deed so far done.” (Poe 6) Again the narrator’s pleasure seems to play an important role as part of the act of murdering. Therefore, murdering and physical pleasure are linked by the ecstatic exclamations of the narrator and his/her description reassembling the sexual act.

An analysis of the narrator’s psyche also requires an analysis of his/her gender, which is not explicitly...
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