The Theme of Moral Madness and Ego-Evil in "Tell-Talle Heart"

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Edgar Allan Poe’s stories are famous for their characteristics dark themes such as violence and characters with some mental disorders. In “The Tell-Tale Heart”, the narrator, an unknown one, kills a man who lives with him because this man has a blinded eye and the narrator feels angry when he sees this eye. This fact makes the narrator commits a murder, however, in the end, he admitted his crime due to his madness.

First of all, it could be a good idea to start with a definition of what “moral insanity” is: Prichard defines “moral insanity” as: “madness consisting in a morbid perversion of the natural feelings, affections, inclinations, temper, habits, moral dispositions, and natural impulses, without any remarkable disorder or defect of the interest or knowing and reasoning faculties, and particularly without any insane illusion or hallucinations.” (Prichard 312)

To sum up, a person who suffers from “moral insanity” demonstrate an emotional disorder but at a first sight seems as if he is rational or “normal”. Their intellectual abilities are not affected and they are improbable that they show some sign of evident illness such as delirious episodes. Someone can suffer from moral insanity but it may not show any serious delirium in their life. 'Moral insanity, hence, created a very vague line between what is sane and insane people (Prichard 23-24.). In “The Tell-Tale Heart', we can see how the narrator has hallucinations when he heard the heart of the old man being this one already dead. There, he is suffering a delirious episode that makes him confess the truth.

On the other hand, observing the beginning of the story, it is interesting how the narrator tries to make us understand that he is not mad, he said:

“TRUE! —nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses—not destroyed—not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in heaven and 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.” (Poe, par. 1)

It seems as if he tries to convince himself that he is not mad, along the story he repeats that he is not mad and he can prove it. In addition, he has admitted that he has nerve problems and he has auditory sensitivity, which can make him more sensitive to a nervous breakdown, and that can lead to some type of mental disorders.

Benjamin Rush created a new hypothesis of mental disorders based on associationism and faculty psychology by taking as a reference the Scottish school of mental philosophy, Rush proposed nine basic capacities of 'faculties' in the human mind, dividing these faculties into three groups:

  • The passion where included faith, the will, and the passion per se.
  • Intellectual faculties contained memory, reason or understanding, and imagination.
  • And finally, Moral faculties which encompassed conscience, sense of deity, and the moral faculty itself (Carlson, 1962, p. ix); (Bynum 141-142).

We can say that the narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart” fails in the reason/understanding and the moral faculty itself. The reason/understanding because its inability to empathize with the old man. The moral faculties because is incapable of diffdifferentiatings what is good and what is bad.

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Mental disorders had long been recognized as an illness affecting what Rush called the mental faculties. Rush broke with traditional psychiatric theory when he stated that madness not involve an intellect disorder necessarily, the moral faculties were the only ones to surrender to illness. As Phillippe Pinel found out a form of insanity may happen that corrupts the sense of moral responsibility, that is necessary to avoid committing a crime. Hence, a normal person, with an innate moral sense could warn the passions, whereas the intellect with composure determines the proper conduct. But if this control to identify between good and evil, were momentarily corrupted, the chance for a calm investigation would be rejected, and the individual’s wishes would become involved in a criminal act before his reason could condemn it. This person becomes a victim of an “irresistible impulse” forced above his wishes “Through the instrumentality of the passions”. In a modern concept, he could be emotionally troubled (Bynum 142).

The narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart”, shows that type of emotional trouble, as I said before, he is incapable of distinguishing between good and evil, his obsession with the poor old man does not let him think clearly. His insanity has corrupted his sense of moral responsibility, even though he passes an entire week trying to kill the man, however, the only reason he wants to kill the man is his blinded eye, and this is why he cannot kill him despite the old man is vulnerable when he sleeps because the narrator does not see the eye.

Poe’s stories have always appealed to the critics' attention. Following Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis. Critic Slavoj Zizek, in The Métastases of Enjoyment, determines Ego-Evil as follows, 'Ego-Evil refers to behavior motivated by selfish calculation and greed' (Zizek 70).

In “The Tell-Tale Heart”, the narrator observes the man for a week while the man sleeps. He enters the man’s bedroom in a calculated form, the narrator even says that how can a mad man do that in so precisely form.

Ego-Evil is distinct from Superego-Evil in the sense that the first one is about the rise of self-love whereas the second one embraces evilness due to some 'fanatical devotion' or an 'ideological ideal'. On the other hand, Id-Evil is about the wicked pleasure of meanness. In its purest form, Ego-Evil is about the self's over recognition with its point of view and interests, which easily guide to a narcissistic belittling of others and a violation of universal laws. Zizek proposes that Ego-Evil is 'The most common kind of evil' (Zizek 70).

In “The Tell-Tale Heart”, the operation of Ego-Evil is related to the visual dialectic: the eye subjectifies the 'I' to challenge the other; the gaze elevates the other to excite, frighten, and objectify 'me'; finally, the glare rouses the self to aggression, to put aside all feelings and eliminate the other. The glare thus captures the third stage of Ego-Evil: the self is quick to see the faults of the neighbor, but it has to orbit around and watch the neighbor. As a result, the glare implies the presence of three elements — the angry self, the eye's obsession with the neighbor, and a blatant rejection of the neighbor. It operates based on ressentiment and generates a powerful agency to scrutinize and hunt down the other. Glare — the act of 'watching you' — implies an 'identity war' between the self and the other, and the emphasis is not on restoring the self's unity but on condemning its enemy. The glare is always dangerous, for its very nature signifies hostility, malice, and evil (Wing-chi Ki 31).

As I cited before, in “The Tell-Tale Heart”, the narrator delights at the old man's awful look when he is awake and this is the reason why the narrator takes 'seven nights' to get the look considering that the old man is always sleeping. And that last night, the narrator, though feeling 'an uncontrollable terror' decided that the old man has to die. The narrator heard a drum that encourage him to kill the man and also that sound symbolize the heart of the old man, (Wing-chi Ki 32) that is another hallucinating episode.

When the old man was dead, the narrator seems happy and confident. After erasing the old man's presence in the house (cleaning the house and burying the corpse), the narrator sees himself in a narcissistic and satisfying way and said 'for what had I now to fear?'

Then, the police arrived and knock on the door, the narrator is confident in his job, secure in himself guides the police to register the entire house, even took them to the crime scene and seat there to talk with the police, showing, in addition, zero respect for the old man body.

To sum up, I believe that all the previous points lead to the Ego-Evil, which is the cause of the murder and the reason why the narrator finally confesses the murder of the old man. The important thing is that because of the narrator's supreme ego, he did not show any moment, of lament, or consideration for the human being. He had anger problems which avoids facing by blaming the old man's eye for it (Wing-chi Ki 35).


  1. Bynum, Paige Matthey. “‘Observe How Healthily–How Calmly I Can Tell You the Whole Story: Moral Insanity and Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Tell-Tale Heart.’” In Literature and Science as Modes of Expression, edited by Frederick Amrine, Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science, vol. 115. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1989. pp.141- 52.
  2. Carlson ET, DAIN N. “The meaning of moral insanity”. Bull Hist Med. Mar-Apr 1962; 36:130–140.
  3. Poe, Edgar Allan, The Works of Edgar Allan Poe. E-Book, Volume 2 of the Raven Edition, 2008.
  4. Prichard, James Cowles. “A Treatise on Insanity and Other Disorders Affecting the Mind”. London, Sherwood, Gilbert, and Piper,1835.
  5. Rush, Benjamin. Medical inquiries and observation upon the diseases of the mind. Philadelphia, Published by Kimber & Richardson, 1812.
  6. Wing-chi Ki, Magdalen. “Ego-Evil and “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Renascence, Vol. 61, Issue 1, Sept. 2008, pp. 25 - 36
  7. Zizek, Slavoj. in The Métastases of Enjoyment: On Women and Causality. London, Verso, 2006.
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