The foremost reason why Allan Edgar Poe’s short story The Tell-Tale Heart continues to be referred to as such that represents a high literary value is that it does contain a number of in-depth insights into how the workings of one’s unconscious define the manner in which the concerned individual goes about addressing life-challenges. As a result, those who have been exposed to this particular story by Poe, are able to gain a psychoanalytical awareness of what accounts for the link between the essence of a particular person’s subliminal anxieties, on the one hand, and the specifics of his or her existential stance in life, on the other. In this paper, I will explore the validity of the above-stated at length.
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The plot of Poe’s short story is rather straightforward. It revolves around the story of the anonymous narrator reflecting upon what caused him to kill the old man (presumably the narrator’s landlord or father) and on what prevented him from being able to get away with the murder. According to the narrator, the reason why he ended up murdering this person is that the latter had a visually despicable and yet strangely fascinating eye: “I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me an insult. For his gold, I had no desire. I think it was his eye! Yes, it was this! One of his eyes resembled that of a vulture—a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold” (Poe 3). Within the methodological framework of the theory of psychoanalysis, the narrator’s above-quoted statement can be interpreted as follows.
For whatever the reason, the narrator never ceased being emotionally attached to the old man, which the narrator’s unconscious psyche could not help perceiving in terms of a fatherly figure. This, however, was simultaneously was causing the narrator to experience the so-called ‘Oedipal anxiety’ to break away with the old man’s ‘loving oppressiveness’, as such that the storyteller felt was making it impossible for him to realize his full existential potential. In other words, the provided quotation leaves only a few doubts that the story’s narrator can be best described as an ‘Oedipal individual’, who strived to suppress the unconscious longing of his id rationally. This provides us with the clue, as to the discursive significance of the old man’s eye, as one of the story’s foremost motifs.
While realizing that, as time went on, he was becoming ever more resentful of the old man, the narrator could not help experiencing the sensation of emotional discomfort, because, in the eyes of the narrator’s rational mind, the earlier mentioned transformation did not make any sense, whatsoever. This explains why, throughout the story’s entirety, the narrator continues to point out to the fact that he never disliked the old man, but quite on the contrary. Yet, the narrator’s unconscious id had a different ‘opinion’ of this person, as it continued to deem the old man in terms of a sexual competitor. Therefore, there is nothing odd about the sexually charged overtones to how the narrator expounds on his sneaky visit to the old man’s room: “I had made an opening sufficient for my head… and then I thrust in my head. Oh, you would have laughed to see how cunningly I thrust it in!” (3).
However, because the narrator was not capable of understanding where his resentment of the old man derived out of, he naturally strived to substantiate his feelings, in this respect, logically. What it means is that the narrator’s references to the old man’s ‘evil’ eye can be well discussed as the rationale-based extrapolation of his super-ego. In essence, the narrator simply needed to prove to himself that it was indeed fully appropriate, on his part, to grow ever more hateful of the old man – hence, the storyteller’s mental fixation on the old man’s ‘evil’ eye. As Volney pointed out: “The goal of (sexual) repression is ‘keeping something out of consciousness’. But that which was banished retains its attached effect; rather than fade away, that affect and the energy it represents continually press upward, attempting to return to consciousness” (154). As the story’s context implies, deep on an unconscious level, the narrator knew that there was something else to his resentment of the old man, besides the latter’s unsightliness.
The very fact that the narrator continued to spy on the old person for quite some time substantiates the validity of this statement. Simultaneously, the narrator’s obsession with the earlier mentioned ‘evil’ eye was causing him to suspect that, far from how he would like it to be the case, his pathological attraction, in this respect, had very little to do with the phenomena’s rationalistic explanations, produced by his super-ego. In its turn, this was causing the narrator to become progressively unstable, in the mental sense of this word. Eventually, the storyteller decided to address the situation radically, by the mean of killing the old man. In the narrator’s super-egoistic mind, this was meant to achieve two objectives: to free him of his ‘Oedipal’ anxiety and to prove to the world that, just as the narrator longed for it to be, he was indeed a rationally minded individual. This suggestion also helps us to understand the actual significance of why, throughout the story’s entirety, the narrator continued to praise himself on being thoroughly sane: “You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing. But you should have seen me. You should have seen how wisely I proceeded—with what caution— with what foresight—with what dissimulation I went to work!” (3).
This, of course, suggests that, in full accordance with the provisions of the Freudian theory of psychoanalysis, the narrator’s behavioural inadequateness was nothing else but the byproduct of his overly hypertrophied super-ego. Apparently, while being unconsciously aware of the sheer wickedness of what he did to the old man, the narrator’s nevertheless strived to justify the occurred murder, as such that correlated perfectly well with what happened to be the late 19th-century discourse of rationality. After all, as we are well aware of, it was named during the course of this historical period that the genocide of ‘primaeval savages’ in America, Africa and Australia, perpetrated by the Western colonial powers, continued to remain discursively legitimized, due to the assumption that being rationally-minded, Westerners did have the right to treat the irrationally-mined ‘savages’ cruelly.
This partially explains why the foremost motivation that drove the narrator to commit murder has been concerned with the fact that, while contemplating his murderous would-be-deed, he experienced the acute sensation of overwhelming empowerment. As the narrator mentioned: “Never before that night (of murder) had I felt the extent of my own powers – of my sagacity. I could scarcely contain my feelings of triumph” (4). Apparently, the manner in which the narrator went about addressing its deep-seated ‘Oedipal’ inadequateness reflected his willingness to suppress the intensity of the concerned sensation with the sheer joy of being in the position to inflict death on the subject of his subliminal fixation.
This, of course, suggests that while struggling with the feeling of an ‘Oedipal’ inferiority, in regards to the old man, the narrator has eventually grown into a sadomasochist. There are a few reasons to think that this indeed must have been the case with the narrator.
First, the narrator’s relationship with the old man presupposes that he had a number of mutually inconsistent feelings about the concerned ‘fatherly figure’. Yet, as the psychoanalysts know, one’s possession of this kind of feelings towards a particular fixation-subject creates objective preconditions for the individual in question to be set on the path of becoming fascinated with pain. While referring to the narrator in Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, Pritchard noted: “The narrator exists as a bipolar being, divided by his love for and desire to kill the same man… it is this coupling of love and hate that forms the basis for sadomasochism” (145). The earlier suggestion correlates perfectly well, with what Freud believed to account for the effects of one’s prolonged existence, as a perceptually ‘Oedipal’ individual.
Second, one of the sadomasochists’ main psychological traits is their tendency to derive pleasure out of imagining how it would feel ‘savouring’ the pain of the targeted victims. Hence, these individuals’ clearly defined taste for voyeurism. This explains the narrator’s voyeuristic inclinations: “And this (observing the old man sleep) I did for seven long nights—every night just at midnight” (4). While in the old man’s room, the narrator was experiencing the masochistic pleasure of being exposed to the very embodiment of his irrational fear.
Third, it is in the very nature of sadomasochists to strive to have their victims killed, in the end. The reason for this is quite apparent – sadomasochists experience the sensation of an utter shame/guilt for the fact that they cannot control their longing to derive pleasure out of experiencing pain, which is why they do not want to have anyone reminding them of this. Therefore, the narrator did not have even a hypothetical choice of not killing the old man – this person needed to be killed, so that the storyteller could restore the emotional equilibrium inside of its rational mind.
Thus, it will not be much of an exaggeration, on our part, to refer to the narrator’s clearly defined sadomasochism, as the consequence of the fact that, without knowing what the actual source of his anxieties about the old man’s eye was, he was predestined to become insane (Zimmerman 42).
The earlier suggestion brings us to discuss the significance of the narrator’s predisposition to hearing illusionary sounds in his mind – such as the unnaturally loud beating of the old man’s heart: “The noise steadily increased. Oh God! what could I do?… It grew louder – louder – louder! … Almighty God! – no, no! They (police officers) heard! – they suspected! – they knew!” (8). What is particularly noticeable, in this respect, is that under no circumstances may the concerned sound be thought of as such that reflected the main character’s ‘voice of conciseness’. After all, it was not the sheer evilness of the perpetrated murder that appears to have bothered the narrator the most, but the prospect for what he did to be eventually discovered.
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This could not be otherwise, because even though by murdering the old man, the narrator was indeed able to lessen the acuteness of its id-related anxieties for some time, it was only the manner of time before they would begin hunting him again. The reason for this is simple – this type of anxieties cannot be effectively suppressed, by definition. Quite on the contrary – by suppressing this type of anxieties consciously, as the mean of maintaining the legitimacy of their desire to attain a social prominence; people, in fact, grow ever more mentally unstable. In a similar manner with volcanoes, overfilled with magma, ‘Oedipal’ and simultaneously super-egoistically mined individuals periodically allow their subliminal fears to ‘burst out’. When this happens, the society is being put at certain risk, as the incidences of people’s ‘Oedipal’ anxieties finding their way out of the realm of the unconscious into the socially constructed reality, most commonly extrapolate into the concerned individuals’ taste for violence.
The discussed story’s themes and motifs can also be discussed within the Jungian theory of psychoanalysis. According to Jung, the way in which people tend to perceive the surrounding reality never ceases being affected by the particulars of these people’s endowment with the so-called ‘collective unconscious’. In its turn, the ‘collective unconscious’ is best defined as: “The most inaccessible level of the person that contains the ‘wisdom of the ages’ and serves as a potential guide for human development” (Jones and Butman 121). Given the fact that the mentioned ‘wisdom of ages’ derives out of the murky depths of people’s primevalness, it is most commonly concerned with how one goes about ensuring its physical survival. Therefore, there is nothing too odd about the fact that, deep on an unconscious level, middle-aged people commonly experience the feeling of an emotional discomfort with the prolonged existence of their senile co-citizens.
After all, the ‘wisdom of ages’, engraved in these people’s genes, tells them that taking care of senile individuals stands in the striking contradiction to the community/specie’s overall interests. The reason for this is that, in the eyes of nature, elderly people who have already succeeded in passing on their genes to the future generations are nothing but a burden. Without being able to contribute to the society’s well-being, they nevertheless require substantial amounts of different resources, in order to be able to continue leading an essentially pointless existence. This is exactly the reason why, as sociologists are well aware of, the duty of having to take care of their senile relatives, the majority of middle-aged people find utterly frustrating. Therefore, the murder of the old man by the narrator in Poe’s story can be well-referred to as being reflective of the main character’s emotional attunement with the basic laws of nature – by having murdered the old man, the narrator acted on behalf of his ‘collectively unconscious’ anxiety to free the society of the resource-consuming but useless ‘social-parasites’.
I believe that the earlier provided line of argumentation, as to what accounts for the psychoanalytical significance of the themes and motifs, contained in Poe’s short story The Tell-Tale Heart, is fully consistent with the paper’s initial thesis.
Jones, Stanton and Richard Butman. Modern Psychotherapies: A Comprehensive Christian Appraisal. Westmont: IVP Academic, 1991. Print.
Poe, Allan Edgar 1843. The Tell-Tale Heart. PDF file. Web.
Pritchard, Ilollie. “Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart.” The Explicator 61.3 (2003): 144-147. Print.
Volney, Gay. “Repression and Sublimation in Religious Personalities.” Journal of Religion and Health 21.2 (1982): 152-170. Print.
Zimmerman, Brett. “Moral Insanity” or Paranoid Schizophrenia: Poe’s ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’.” Mosaic 25.2 (1992): 39-48. Print.