Poe and Insanity: A Study of Character
By Charlotte Kartik
Many of Edgar Allan Poe’s characters in short stories such as, “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and “The Cask of Amontillado,” employ characters who are mentally disturbed. The character’s actions and appearances clearly indicate they are insane. Poe enhances this through use of setting. In Poe’s texts, characters are unnaturally connected to place, which becomes a reflection of their minds. While Roderick Usher shows his deranged thoughts through both his physical appearance and by burying his sister alive, the “tell-tale” narrator, in trying to prove his normalcy, just proves to the reader that he is a mad man; Montresor’s uncontrollable and irrational sense of revenge demonstrates his mental instability.
Outward actions often display the inward workings of a mind. No “normal” person would consider burying a sister alive or killing an older man because of an evil eye to be rational things to do. A person of a sound mind would also never consider walling up a person as revenge. These actions show that characters who go to such extremes are not psychologically stable. While a person may think about committing evil, only one possessed with no reason would actually go through with an outrageous wrongdoing. Therefore, Poe’s characters let their emotions rule them and do not think logically about they are doing, possibly because they do not know how.
The character of Roderick Usher displays how twisted the inner workings of his mind are in “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Throughout this story, Usher’s actions are described by the narrator. Most of these actions seem quite questionable and odd, almost as if Usher is knowingly holding back a part of himself. This part could be that of his insanity. In the beginning of the story, as the narrator beholds Usher, he comments, “His action was alternately vivacious and sullen. His voice varied rapidly from a tremulous indecision” (Poe 717). From this line, Usher seems to be depicted as having two personalities and is not sure which is acceptable to show. Should he act on the persona of a sane friend or exhibit that of the insane mastermind that he is?
The narrator, an unnamed friend, can sense that something is not entirely right with his friend. Upon encountering Roderick Usher, it is also discovered that he suffers from “a mysterious illness accompanied by an oppressive mental disorder” (Kaplan 49). This illness seems to effect Usher’s logic, as towards the end of the story, he sees nothing wrong with entombing his sister alive. The narrator, unlike Usher, does not know the full condition of the sister, Madeline. Usher uses this to his advantage as he informs the narrator that they will bury his “dead” sister in the cemetery after a fortnight. After Madeline has been entombed, the narrator starts to feel as if he is going insane, as if Usher’s condition is transferring to him as well. At the end, though, it is revealed that Usher knew his sister was alive through “I heard her first feeble movements in the hollow coffin. I heard them – many, many days ago – yet I dared not – I dared not speak!” (Poe 726). His insanity is magnified when it is discovered that Usher knew that his sister was alive yet decided it was best to keep quiet.
His speech also seems a little disturbing, as he expresses to the narrator, “I dread the events of the future, not in themselves, but in their results. I shudder at the thought of any, even the most trivial, incident, which may operate upon this intolerable agitation of soul” (Poe 717). Here, it seems as if Usher feels that he is not in control of his actions or that he already knows what he is about to do. Also, upon the narrator discovering Usher’s sister, Madeline, a change occurs in Usher. The narrator even expresses that a change comes over Usher after his sister seems to float through the room. He says:
For several days ensuring, her name was unmentioned by either Usher or myself; and, during this period, I was busied in earnest endeavors to alleviate the melancholy of my friend…the more bitterly did I perceive the futility of all attempt at cheering a mind from which darkness, as if an inherent positive quality, poured forth upon all objects of the moral and physical universe, in one unceasing radiation of gloom. (Poe 718)
The narrator here seems to sense that there is not something completely right in Usher’s mind, as he seems to wallow in the gloom that he feels he deserves; the gloom which will be the result of murdering his sister. In another sense, it almost seems as if Usher is already mourning for his sister because he feels that he will act on his impulse to murder her no matter what. Usher, then, feels that he is ruled by his actions or that his predetermined actions will rule the loss of his soul and his mind.
The unnamed narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart” shows his insanity through his actions before and after the murder of the old man. The motive behind the murder shows the insanity of the protagonist; “the eye becomes the narrator’s obsession, for what the narrator hates about his victim is his eye” (Pritchard 145). In other words, the old man’s “evil eye” is what drives the narrator to perform the murder. This apparently is the only thing that drives him to such a crime. The narrator sits up for eight nights watching the old man sleep until one night the old man opens his eyes. When this occurs, the narrator is driven to kill the old man. He expresses such a sentiment when he claims, “It was wide open – wide, wide open – and I grew furious as I gazed upon it. I saw it with perfect distinctness – all a dull blue, with a hideous veil over it that chilled the very marrow in my bones” (Poe 729). Upon seeing this eye, the narrator feels no pity for committing the murder of the beloved old man for he believes it is the victim’s fault. After all, “the vulture eye of the old man, not hatred or greed, is what compelled him to commit his atrocity” (Zimmerman 42).
As the unnamed narrator attempts to explain how his actions were not driven by insanity, it becomes apparent to the reader that the case is exactly the opposite. The whole point of the narrator’s story is to defend himself against being named “mad,” which he does by presenting, “not confession but self-defense, an attempt to provide a rational account of apparently irrational events and behavior…His aim is to refute [the] claim that he is insane” (Clemans 630). Throughout the story he makes a point to express that he is not insane because of how well he handled something or why he did something in a certain way. An example of this can be seen when the narrator says, “If, still, you think me mad, you will think so no longer when I describe the wise precautions I took for the concealment of the body” (Poe 729). The narrator then goes into specific details on how he is able to cut up the body and place it under the floor boards “so cleverly, so cunningly, that no human eye – not even his – could have detected anything wrong” (Poe 730). Since he is able to do such actions with ease, the reader must certainly be able to conclude that the narrator is not insane at all. What madman could perform such a task so easily anyway? Or at least this is what the narrator hopes to invoke in one’s mind even though, “the actions of the narrator, combined with his insistence that he is not mad, lead readers to determine that he must suffer from some psychological disorder” (Prichard 144). Overall, the combined actions and persuasion used by the narrator draw the logical conclusion: the narrator is not psychologically healthy.
His actions can further be construed as demented as the narrator brags about how well he carried out his crimes. Throughout the story, he gives examples of how well he handles each situation and even presents each event in a way as if to say that he is proud of how he handled the murder of the old man. In other words, “the narrator seems proud of carrying out his crime. He brags about ‘how healthily – how calmly [he] can tell you the whole story’” (Prichard 145). Although he can recall the events calmly at the beginning of the story, at the end there is a turn of events. When the police officers arrive at his house, he tells them a made up story which causes him to feel “singularly at ease” (Poe 730). After this story, though, he begins hearing a ringing in his ears that he concludes is the beating of the old man’s heart, just one more hint of his own insanity. For a while he can withstand the beating in his ears, which he feels is really in the room, but soon he reacts with “specifically a violent mood swing comprised of anger and anxiety” (Zimmerman 41). This is shown as the sound gets louder, and when he takes action and shrieks, “I admit the deed! – tear up the planks! – here, here! – it is the beating of his hideous heart!” (Poe 730). The reader can conclude, though, that the beating of the heart was not that of the old man, but the narrator’s, who became restless at almost getting away with the crime. Again, the fact that the narrator can not decipher his own heart beat from that of the dead man’s can help the reader assume that the narrator is indeed, insane.
Montressor in “The Cask of Amontillado” presents his insanity in his actions of walling up his friend, Fortunato, simply for revenge. Because Fortunato has insulted him, he feels that action needs to be taken in the form of vengeance to right these wrongs. This causes him to feel “that his act of revenge is completely justified in the light of the ‘thousand injuries’ he has suffered” (Reynold 106). Montressor is able to carry through with his crime through careful planning. He is able to convince Fortunato to venture into the wine cellar to taste the amontillado while ensuring that none of his servants will be present. He also has all of the supplies that he needs to build a strong wall that Fortunato can not escape from. Because of all of his planning and the overall carrying out of the crime, it can be concluded that “Montressor [is] an unrepentant, pathological killer whose crime is a source of power for him and a source of vicarious satisfaction for Poe and the reader” (Reynold 107). No sane person would consider walling up a person under any circumstances. It would certainly not be an equivalent form of revenge for a wrongdoing or insult.
Montressor’s insanity is also shown through his dialogue. As he is performing the crime and leading Fortunato down the stairs, he is able to keep his calm and even present a false sense of concern. This is seen when Fortunato begins coughing. In response to this coughing fit, Montressor says to his companion, “we will go back; your health is precious. You are rich, respected, admired, beloved; you are happy, as once I was. You are a man to be missed. For me it is no matter. We will go back; you will be ill, and I can not be responsible” (Poe 745). This phony concern is what encourages Fortunato to continue on, which is just what Montressor has planned. He also uses ironic phrases to present the image that he is still a friend to Fortunato, especially when each toasts the other. While Fortunato drinks “to the buried repose around us” (Baym 745), Montressor adds a sort of sarcasm by toasting to “your long life” (Poe 746). This specific toast gives Fortunato a feeling of safety where one is certainly not present.
Even Montressor’s last words can be interpreted as ones lead by insanity. When Fortunato begins to realize the realness of the situation, he begins to express a concern to return to the village or at least out of the cellar. Montressor, at this point, seems to mimic everything that Fortunato says, specifically when he repeats, “Yes, for the love of God!” (Poe 748); “they could be interpreted as a sign of insanity, in that Montressor is by now echoing everything that Fortunado says and does” (Stott 85). Montressor realizes what he has done and is shocked by his actions, so shocked that he can not function but instead mimic what Fortunato says and does; a clear sign of his insanity that he was able to mask during the crime, yet is not able to maintain after the crime.
The idea of appearance is another concept in Poe’s stories that help the reader realize that the insanity of the characters is present. Appearance can be something slight, something readily apparent, or a trigger that provokes the madman to perform a specific deed. Appearance is also often connected to the setting in which the story takes place. Somehow events occur to show the connectedness of the character to his or her setting. A direct or indirect connection to a place may signify an explanation or reason behind the insanity.
Roderick Usher almost directly connects with the house in accordance with his appearance. When the narrator, the friend of Usher, first lays eyes on the mansion of Usher, he describes it with, “I looked upon the scene before me – upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain – upon the bleak walls – upon the vacant eye-like windows – upon a few rank sedges – and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees” (Poe 714). To him, the house seems almost like a ghost; eerie with an almost gloomy feel brought upon the observer. Upon viewing his old friend, Usher, he presents almost the same feelings. He describes Usher with “The now ghastly pallor of the skin, and the now miraculous lustre of the eye, above all things started and even awed me. The silken hair, too, had been suffered to grow all unheeded, and as, in its wild gossamer texture, it floated rather than fell about the face” (Poe 717). Usher himself almost looks like he is already dead, much like the rundown house. There is a feeling that something is not quite right, with both the setting and the mind of Usher. The house, much like Usher, is in ruin, and “the setting’s decay has paralleled a decline in the mental abilities of its inhabitants…a darkened, once-paradisal setting is presented in conjunction with increasing doubts about human mental capabilities” (Hardt 256). In other words, the appearance of Usher and the house are connected; through this connection the reader can sense that something is not quite right in the overall setting and the mind of Roderick Usher.
Not only does appearance relate to the house but events that occur at the end of the story regarding Usher also relate to the house, or overall setting. On the night that Madeline, whom Usher knowingly entombs alive, rises from her grave, the overall setting is a “sternly beautiful night, and one wildly singular in its terror and its beauty…there were frequent and violent alterations in the direction of the wind” (Poe 724). Usher is presented in a similar fashion by the narrator as he describes Usher’s appearance and actions with, “there can a strong shudder over his frame; a sickly smile quivered about his lips; and I saw that he spoke in a low, hurried, and gibbering murmur, as if unconscious of my presence” (Poe 726). Usher seems to be presented as frightening in his appearance much like the mansion. Usher also seems to talk to himself as if to say that “Roderick is inside (and never leaves) the house that reflects his psyche; at the story’s end the storm outside reflects the tumult within the house” (Peeples 183). The setting comes into play as the storm signifies that something askew is occurring within the house. When Madeline violently jumps upon Usher in a mad rage, the narrator flees as to not see the fate of either character. When the narrator finally escapes the house, he expresses that “there was a long tumultuous shouting sound like the voice of a thousand waters – and the deep tarn at my feet closed sullenly and silently over the fragements of the ‘House of Usher’” (Poe 727). The house has collapsed which signifies “the decayed House mirroring Usher’s mind so that ‘the sinking of the house into the reflecting pool dramatizes the sinking of the rational part of his mind’” (Timmerman 229). The action of Madeline escaping her early entombment and his experience of seeing her alive again causes Usher to go over the edge. When the house collapses so does his mind, as they seem to be connected. Usher and the house in this way are directly connected through describing such aspects of the house in accordance to Usher; it seems as if Poe uses the overall setting to reflect the disturbance in Usher’s mind.
The use of appearance is also used in “The Tell-Tale Heart,” but is not connected to the unnamed narrator but to the old man instead. This appearance is the signature “evil eye” of the old man which serves as the trigger for the narrator’s manic episodes; the episodes which cause him to realize the only way to overcome his anguish at seeing the eye is to destroy the owner of it. The connection of madness and appearance is first seen when the narrator expresses his feelings toward the old man’s eyes and the actions he will take to rid himself of such torment; “He has the eye of a vulture – a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so, by degrees – very gradually – I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever” (Poe 727). The appearance of the victim, then, rather than the appearance of the insane character reflects the mental instability of the unnamed narrator; the old man’s appearance is what drives the narrator insane and “makes” him commit such an act.
The setting also plays a somewhat key component in the story and definition of the madness that the narrator possesses. As the narrator tells the reader, he has hidden the body of the old man underneath the floorboards of the house, where he is sure no one will find him. When he lets the policemen into his house, he expresses that, “in the wild audacity of my perfect triumph, placed my own seat upon the very spot beneath which reposed the corpse of the victim” (Poe 730). If the narrator had expressed that he placed his chair over this spot to ensure that he would not be discovered one would not think he was as insane. But, he places his chair over the spot to show his sheer glory in successfully committing the crime. Such a placement in this setting lets the reader know the mental state of this character. The setting and placement of his chair then seems to backfire. It is at this point when he starts to hear the so-called beating of the old man’s heart. To compress this sound, “I swung the chair upon which I had sat, and grated it upon the boards; - but the noise arose over all and continually increased” (Poe 730). His guilt seems to be coming forth which is expressed through the setting. He is so far gone in his insanity that he does not realize that the beating of the heart is his own in response to the anxiety and guilt that he feels for killing the old man. Finally, when he can not take it anymore, he confesses to the crime and demands that the floor boards be removed. It is in this moment that it is apparent to the reader that he almost seems to accept his insanity through this request; the floorboards, or setting of the room, reveal the death that has occurred and the discovery of the insanity within himself.
Appearance is not as clearly connected to insanity in “The Cask of Amontillado” as it instead is used as a mask. Throughout this story, Montresor is able to adopt the mask of a caring friend towards Fortunato. He masks his insanity and master plan through his caring demeanor and normal appearance. Ironically, Fortunato is dressed almost like a mad man, as he is dressed in his carnival garb as that of a fool, as expressed in “He had on a tight-fitting parti-stripped dress, and his head was surmounted by the conical cap and bells” (Poe 744). In this aspect, it seems that appearances have been reversed; while Fortunato is dressed like the fool he is, Montresor is dressed like the rational individual, not the madman. The dress of each character, therefore, seems as if it should be switched to fit the persona and motives of each character. But, by masking his true intentions, Montresor is able to hide his insanity through his appearance.
Setting plays a role in this story as well. Montresor’s house is conveniently deserted, which adds for an eerie and almost predictable outcome: the plan will succeed. Montresor is also able to use the setting to his advantage as Montresor confesses, “The vaults are insufferably damp. They are encrusted with nitre” (Poe 745). Through such a dark and damp setting, there is a feeling of dread. There are also many opportunities for Montresor to “comfort” and “worry” about the health of his companion to, again, mask his real motives. At the end, the setting ends up being the method of revenge, as Montresor begins “vigorously to wall up the entrance of the niche” (Poe 747). In this way, Montresor is finally able to “wall up” the person who he despises and his insanity. He is able to escape all of the responsibly of Fortunato’s death by walling him up in the basement where no one will find him or hear him. The setting then, is the means to the end; it serves as a tool to accomplish the task of the madman.
Through these three stories, “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and “The Cask of Amontillado,” insanity is displayed by the characters. By incorporating the effects of madness through characters’ actions, appearances, and connection to the setting, Poe is able to effectively convey to the reader that insanity is apparent in these specific characters. While the insanity may be questionable at first, all of the aspects of the story combine to leave the reader with a sense that something terribly wrong has occurred by those of unsound minds.
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© Charlotte Kartik