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Why will you say I am Mad?

Edgar Allan Poe's story, "A Tell-Tale Heart," is a wonderful example of the egotism and self-importance of the madman. The narrator, when speaking of his actions, lifts himself upon a noble pedestal. He never deviates from the terror that the old man's cataract has upon him, but when he refers to himself it is always to speak of how wonderfully he handled the situation; that is until the end.
From the very beginning he speaks of his "disease" and how it "sharpened my senses"(199). So, already his ego-mania has taken control. I thought that this showed how the narrator saw himself. It is his inability to separate the irrational terror of the old man's eye and his own self indulgence. This only heightens when the transfer from sight to sound, the terror from the eye to the beating of the old man's heart, occurs. He speaks of his "fury," but again he refers to his own "over-acuteness of the senses"(200).
Throughout the entire text the narrator constantly refers to his own greatness:

- "you should have seen me"
-"You should have seen how wisely I proceeded-with what caution-with what foresight"
-"You would have laughed at how cunningly I..."
-"would a madman have been so wise as this?"
-"I went boldly... and spoke courageously"
-"Never before...had I felt the extent of my own powers"
-"You will think so no longer when I describe the wise precautions I took"
-"I then replaced the boards so cleverly, so cunningly"
-"In the enthusiasm of my own confidence..."
-"my perfect triumph"
-"My manner convinced them."

He tries to convince his audience, and perhaps himself, that he couldn't possibly be mad because of the greatness with which he conducted himself in the murder of the old man. His self-importance only fuels the terror he feels. It seems to me that he gets to the point where he must convince himself of his own superiority over the sights and sounds that are haunting him.
From the very first paragraph he establishes his own importance and how he can't possibly be insane. He states:
"I heard all things in heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell.
How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily-how calmly I can
tell you the whole story." (199)

With his claim to hear all things in heaven, on earth and in hell, he has put himself in a God-like position. He believes that his senses have become so acute that he sees and hears what no other mortal being can see or hear. I believe this not only amplifies his ego, but his terror as well. This god complex heightens as the story progresses. He gets more and more confident in his own wisdom and ability to combat the terror that is enveloping him. He even believes that he has powers, which allow him entrance into the old man's chambers.
I could say that madness wins over ego in the end, because he snaps and tells the officers that he is indeed the murderer, but since he is the one telling the story this doesn't ring true to me. His ego stays in tact. His ego disallows him to admit defeat. He blames the officers and the sound of the beating heart for his discovery. He has come to believe that the officers are taunting him with their own knowledge. They become the villians in his mind.
Does ego-mania equal madness? I believe it does to a certain extent, because to experience madness and psychotic behavior the individual comes to believe that he is more aware than others around him. The narrator in "The Tell-Tale Heart" is a prime example of this egotism of the psychotic.

Comments (1)

Fascinating topic, Mara...made me think of the psychoanalytic concept of "narcissism," which you might want to investigate a little bit, and consider how what psychologists say about this might also account for the narrator's behavior. Also: the power of the sound of the beating heart (in his mind) seems to suggest that his "superego" (that part of our identity that is composed of what we think others think of us) cannot be silenced so easily by the ego. Perhaps that's being too Freudian, but I think a lot of stories that feature "out of balance" characters often can illustrate some state of psychic imbalance where one element of the id, superego, and ego vies to dominate the others, with horrific results.

Anyway -- you got me thinking! Good first post for our class. Keep 'em coming. -- Dr. A.

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