“The Tell-Tale Heart” is a short story wherein Edgar Allan Poe exposes the quintessential conflict of humanity. That is, to surrender to the voice in our heads encouraging action deleterious to ourselves, or to muffle that voice in exchange for internal torment. Poe gives a name to this voice, the imp of the perverse, which causes men to do things they should or would not do otherwise. He exhibits this theory in the narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart” and his inner struggle after his murder of an old man. Poe illustrates the imp of the perverse as an inevitable aspect of human nature that even he himself cannot escape.
The narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart” is coerced into murdering the old man by his own imp of the perverse. At the beginning of the short story, the narrator explains how it was “impossible to say” exactly how the thought of killing the old man first came into his mind. He was not able to identify the source of his evil thoughts because the imp is an intangible feeling disguised among our own emotions. His thoughts had must have had a nonsensical source as the narrator “loved the old man” and had no economic reason to kill him. However, the narrator justifies the murder by explaining his hatred for the old man’s vulture-like eye. This “eye” has the same phonetic pronunciation of the letter “I” as in the self. This illustrates how the imp of the perverse, which is a characteristic of the self, is the cause of the narrator’s murderous thoughts. He is trapped within his own mind and needs to do something drastic in order to escape. This is similar to Edgar Allan Poe’s seclusion within his own mind due to the many deaths in his family, forcing him to feel powerless when not writing. While the narrator’s madness is exhibited in his actions, emotions, and thoughts, he endeavors to convince the audience of his sanity. Poe makes the narrator believe he is sane to articulate the idea that insanity, while seen as a disease or disability, is actually a social norm. Everyone has the imp in his/her head, tempting him/her to go against accepted traditions or practices by acting just a little “mad.”
The narrator’s imp of the perverse also acted to his detriment by provoking him to admit his crime to the police. As the police officers were spending time with him after he committed the murder, the narrator began to hear what he thought was the old man’s beating heart and felt he “must scream or die.” He so deeply felt the need to confess that it physically pained him. However, it was not guilt but the imp of the perverse that caused this. It is obvious the narrator felt no remorse for his actions because he describes the ingenious murder as a “triumph” and laughs when discussing exactly how careful he was in its planning and execution. Yet, the imp of the perverse caused him to turn himself in even though he most likely would have gotten away with the crime. The fact that he would have gotten away with the crime.
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