Insanity in “the Tell Tale Heart”

In “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe, the narrator does the inexcusable by killing an old man. One major question explored after reading the short story is if the narrator should be found guilty for murder or not guilty by reason of insanity. The narrator is fully aware of the crime he has committed. He was in the right state of mind and should therefore be found guilty for murder. One may argue that the narrator should be found not guilty by reason of insanity and may claim that he was not able to distinguish right from wrong. Although it is easy for one to mistake the narrator as insane, he is not and should be found guilty for many reasons.

In the legal definition of “insanity” it is stated that a person is “subject to uncontrollable impulsive behavior.” It is proven in the short story that the narrator is quite the opposite of impulsive. He had every little detail of what he was doing planned out. “You should have seen me. You should have seen how wisely I proceeded with what caution what foresight with what dissimulation I went to work!” (Page 3). The narrator makes it known he had everything planned and was very cautious. He goes on to tell the reader about how he was kind to the old man before he killed him, showing how he went about keeping away any suspicions there may have been. The narrator went to the old man’s room every night at exactly midnight. He was very controlling over how he played out the murder. When the narrator found the old man awake at night he wanted to attack him but he showed restraint. “But even yet I refrained and kept still.” (Page 6). A person suffering from insanity would not be able to show such restraint and impulsiveness would have taken over, yet this was not the case for the narrator. How can someone insane be so careful but still have an unsound mind? Many people might argue that the narrator was a psychopath which automatically makes him insane, but that is untrue. Legally, psychopaths are not insane. Psychopaths are looked at in different ways but the disorder is predominantly seen as a personality disorder. Psychopaths fail to feel any remorse or guilt. Doesn’t that mean the narrator didn’t know right from wrong? No. Although a psychopath doesn’t feel any remorse they still know the difference between right and wrong, but they just don’t care if what they are doing is wrong.

Another part of the legal definition of “insanity” states that the person did not know right from wrong and did not know what they were doing. The narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart” was fully aware of what he was doing and that it was wrong. He repeats multiple times throughout the short story “Is it not clear that I am not mad?” (Page 64). He wants it known that he knew what he was doing and that he was proud, so he tries to make it obvious he was completely sane. The narrator also has enough information to state that he is indeed not mad. If he knows this then he knows the difference between being sane and insane. This goes to show that he knew he was sane and there was no reason for him to be committing such a crime, yet he continues on to do so. The narrator also goes on to say, “I made up my mind to take the life of the old man…” (Page 1). He knew he was going to kill the old man. It was not a spur of the moment decision where he didn’t know what he was doing. He thought it over for days and knew it was wrong yet he did not alter his decisions. The narrator sought out to kill the old man even if it was wrong. At the end, the narrator was able to recount this whole ordeal verbatim once he revealed he killed the old man. An insane person would not be able to do so without mixing up details or trying to distort the story to make it seem as if they couldn’t control themselves, but the narrator did no such thing. Instead he showed how satisfied he was of himself and the way he planned out the whole murder.

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Insanity in "the tell tale heart". (2021, Mar 15). Retrieved August 10, 2022 , from

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