The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe is a morbid story in which the character presents their murderous acts and blames their actions on madness. Though Poe’s work was set in the mid-nineteenth century, its ramifications are still relevant today. The story puts to the test the concepts of morality, culpability, and societal responsibility of psychopathic killers.
The story opens with the narrator stating that they are not insane and that they have maximum mental powers, as shown by their ability to plan a murder effectively. The narrator asks “Can you not see that I have full control of my mind?” (Poe 1). However, these considerations about the sanity of the narrator poke holes on the question of their morality. If the narrator is sane and is aware of their actions, then their murderous actions are due to gross immorality and disregard for the human life. By indicating how mentally capable they were in planning the death of the old man where they studied the old man for seven days, reveals that the narrator is both immoral and culpable for the murder. Additionally, the immorality of the murder is added weight by the fact that the narrator does not kill the victim due to any wrongdoings but due to the “vulture eye” which they perceive as stalking them.
Poe’s work underlines the complexities of criminal trials whose defense is mental illness, especially in the U.S.A. Takahashi notes that Poe presents the issue of madness as relative where “The boundary between sanity and insanity depends on the viewpoint of those who objectify “mad” people” (p. 8). The effect of this complex situation is a dilemma for the accountability of the society towards the victims and the accused in the pursuit of justice. Poe, through his work, sets the stage where this complicated discussion can occur. How does the society determine when suspects or even convicts can be exempted from punishments due to mental incapacitation or madness? Considering Poe’s narrative, questions linger of any mentally-ill people who openly accept they are mad and if madness can lead one to kill.
The role played by the police and neighbor in the story illustrates societal accountability in the justice system. The police have a role to play in investigating the truth about homicides and serving justice for the victims. Conversely, the communities represented by the neighbor need to be accountable for the actions and happenings in their vicinity. However, questions have been raised regarding the ability of other members of the society in their different capacities to determine criminal liability of insanity defenses in homicidal crimes. Such concerns are posed to jurors and judges who determine the liabilities of the accused persons and the influence that popular culture has in deciding different cases. Covey (1379) presents those reservations where he indicates “Countless scholars have observed that jurors’ preconceptions about mental illness, criminality, and their interplay are almost entirely a product of popular media imagery.” Consequently, the society at large is responsible for the differing views on the culpability of people accused of homicide crimes. Representation in the popular media about those conditions that make up insanity defense pre-empt the jurors and judges’ decision making process regarding the relationship between insanity and homicidal crimes. In the trial of the narrator in Poe’s’ story, societal views presented through popular media will play a significant role in influencing whether the ability to effectively plan a murder excuses the narrator from insanity defense or, whether the view that the old man had a vulture’s eye qualify them as insane.
Covey, Russell D. “Criminal Madness: Cultural Iconography and Insanity.” Stanford Law Review, 61(6), 2008, pp. 1375-1428.
Poe, Edgar Allan. The tell-tale heart. Bantam Classics, 2004.
Takahashi, Rumi. “Edgar Allan Poe’s Terror of the Relationship: ‘Madness’ in ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’.” Strata 20 (2011): 1-21.