Insanity is a theme that is recurrent in classical literature, and many writers of the 19th century have written stories, poems, and novels encompassing psychological insight in the context of criminality. In this type of literature known as a Dark Romanticism, it can be observed that madness is represented as an obsession with an object or person specifically. In addition, Anne Boothman explains in her article that madness is a state that “is characterized by an unrestrained behavior; by an extravagant pursuit of something real or imaginary, to the ruin of himself, or the annoyance of his friend; and ultimately leads him, if opposed in his wishes, to acts of extreme violence. This is what many physicians call mania or madness.”(Boothman,2012)
In American literature there are several writers who use insanity and obsessive thinking in their works, one of them being Edgar Allan Poe, who is in fact one of the best. Poe is well known for his poems, and short horror stories encrypted with psychological depth and craziness. Poe’s inspiration is probably related to his personal life. Poe’s parents die when he is just three years old, and in his adult life his wife dies. Pain and loneliness make him a literary genius who creates a collection of masterpieces. In his works, reality and conscience mix with horror and death while insanity is the main characteristic of his characters.
One example in Poe’s works that reflect insanity is “The Tell-Tale Heart” , a short story written from the perspective of the narrator, in which he tells how he obsesses with a particular eye of the old man with whom he lives. In addition, this obsession impels him to plan and kill the man. From the beginning of the story the insanity of the narrator is evident. He says that he is very nervous but assures that he is not crazy, and instead is trying to convince the reader that he is perfectly sane. On the contrary, he says that his illness sharpens his senses and he hears everything “all things in the heaven and in the earth.” In these first lines Poe reveals that the narrator experiences a certain paranoia. Later the narrator says “How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily –how calmly I can tell you the whole story.” repeatedly clarifying that he is not crazy. Although, the narrator explains that there is no reason to kill the old man the irrationality and madness of the narrator obsessed with the “evil eye” leads him to commit a murder.
Another point of insanity in “The Tell-Tale-Heart” is the way in which he ruthlessly and coldly tells how he dismembers and hides the body on the floor. Relieved that the eye can no longer bother him his mental illness and persecution re-invade him when the police arrive. Poe puts in evidence again the instability of the narrator when he begins to listen the old man’s heartbeat. He assumes that the police can hear it and his despair and mental condition drive him to confess to the crime. What he probably hears is his own heartbeat increased by guilt and in his madness and instability he confuses it with the heartbeat of the old man.
Another work of Poe that points to the same theme and reflects the lack of sanity of the narrator is “The Cask of Amontillado.” Insanity drives the main character Montresor to murder Fortunato, a famous wine taster. The narrator feels insulted by his secret enemy and tired of him makes a plan to kill Fortunato and take revenge. Montresor, manages to convince Fortunato to descend to the cave of his palace, with the pretext of collecting his opinion about a certain wine amontillado. He introduces him finally into a narrow entrance crypt without any other exit, and there, with alacrity, he passes a chain around his waist, holding him to the wall. Fortunato thinks it’s a joke but, his enemy, using stones of construction that he prepared in advance, begins to cover that kind of niche. Finally, the vengeful narrator finishes building the wall, throws the torch into the crypt where Fortunato remains chained and places the last stone and moves away. The anger of Montresor transcends the limit and leads him to become ruthless, insane and unstable. In addition, he feels no guilt. In fact he feels relief, letting the audience know that he is not an emotionally balanced person. What gives away Montresor’s insanity is the constant contradiction between his words and his actions. Throughout the story he refers to Fortuanto as his friend. There is an obvious contradiction as somebody who was sane would not kill anybody but nevertheless their friend. He also shows concern for Fortunato, even though he feels no mercy or guilt about the fact that he is going to kill him later. When Montresor asks Fortunato a question Fortunato begins to cough non-stop Montresor then remarks “My poor friend found it impossible to reply for many minutes.” This shows the lack of rationale behind his thoughts and actions. He feels badly for his cough but no remorse for his death. He once again makes another statement in which he ironically states “your health is precious” although his life is nothing to Montresor since he finds it so easy to kill him. Additionally, the narrator’s insanity becomes increasingly evident during the killing in which simply killing Fortunato isn’t enough instead beforehand he tortures him mentally and waits to hear him beg for mercy. This is a huge sign of madness as it implies that Montresor gets an extra kick out of hearing Fortunato’s tone and screams of helplessness.
Poe also has written “The Black Cat” another twisted tale where the narrator shows a psychotic and insane profile. The story begins by the narrator clarifying that he is sane. Although, he does not expect to be believed. The narrator considers that he is not mad and that several events of “cause and effect” led him to be confined and to die the next day. In addition, he shows that he is an ordinary, docile person, who loves animals and who has married young. Among all the animals that he has “Pluto,” the cat, who is his favorite. However, the narrator begins to show changes in his character related to alcohol intake. “The fury of a demon instantly possessed me.” he says, referring to the alcoholism that interferes with his grasp on reality and produces mood swings. In effect, this leads him to get the eye out of the cat with a knife and later kill Pluto. He hangs the cat and kills him “in cold blood” ” hung it because I knew that it had loved me, and because I felt it had given me no reason of offence.” To be insane is to be extremely irrational and Poe’s constant use of concurrent love and hate is exemplary of that. The narrator obviously seems to be unable to understand the feeling of love and therefore, fears it leading him to kill the things that love him. Again it is recurring that he assures that he is not insane. In fact, he makes excuses for all the actions that a rational man would obviously know no explanation could suffice. When killing the animal “He blames the “spirit of perverseness” (Poe 720) for his murder of the same animal, which in truth he uses to cover and rationalize his madness as something experienced by all human beings. He skews this action, though, in order to garner sympathy and reasonable responses to his story, asking “Who has not, a hundred times, found himself committing a vile or a silly action, for no other reason than because he knows he should not” (Poe 720). He uses the bandwagon effect to make his story believable, strongly reinforcing the idea that he is not mad. Doing this, the narrator attempts to connect with his readership, or the person he is confessing to, in order to conceal or overpower the idea he may be under the influence of madness and tilt the listener’s beliefs toward the unexplainable and out of the fault of the narrator (Elswick, 2015).” As the story continues, the narrator comes across another cat which he loves at first but soon start to grow hate towards. He realized the cat has a scar exactly where he had hit Pluto when he killed him. One day he trips over the cat and grabs an axe and tries to kills the cat and his wife who attempts to intrude the act. This again highlights the narrator’s mental illness since something as small as tripping over the cat has led him to attempt to murder it. Most shockingly however, he effortlessly killed his wife without feeling no remorse. When the police show up the narrator nonchalantly shows the police around the home showing that he feels no compunction or fear for the punishment he will face if caught. This unconcerned attitude highlights his insanity and disregard for human life.