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Depiction Of Mental Illnesses In Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart And The Fall Of The House Of Usher

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Mental illness seems to be a common hidden or downright out in the open scenario in Edgar Allan Poe’s work. This is something Poe seemed to struggle with throughout his life with his alcoholism and possible depression. While this was an obvious struggle until his death, it certainly played a role in shaping his work in the utter darkness many of the characters he created portrayed. This is true for both the narrator in Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart as well as his character Roderick Usher in his story The Fall of The House of Usher. In The Tell-Tale Heart, the narrator suffers from paranoia and delusions similar to someone who is suffering from paranoid schizophrenia while the character Roderick Usher in The Fall of The House of Usher also has similar delusions much like schizophrenia in a way that he seems he cannot separate fantasy from reality. While the two characters share many similarities as well as some differences, their inevitable breakdown is their common downfall in the end.

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In The Fall of The House of Usher, the unnamed narrator, a childhood friend of Roderick Usher describes the mental state of Usher throughout his visit to his house. He describes Usher’s mental state by saying: “He was enchained by certain superstitious impressions in regard to the dwelling which he tenanted, and whence, for many years, he had never ventured forth in regard to an influence whose supposititious force… he said, obtained over his spirit — an effect which the physique of the gray walls and turrets, and of the dim tarn into which they all looked down, had, at length, brought about upon the morale of his existence”. Usher is described here as both paranoid regarding being overwhelmed with “superstitious” thoughts brought on by the darkness and evil he feels in his house as well as depression since they seem to control his mood in a way that he feels is taking over his entire “existence”. His paranoia plays into the idea that Usher is having distorted views on reality since it is taking over his whole being as well as the possibility of some degree of psychosis.

The narrator in The Tell-Tale Heart seems to be in a fragile mental state. The opening sentence is straight to the point in supporting this: “TRUE! – nervous – very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?”. Clearly the narrator is paranoid from the very beginning in that he wants the reader to believe him that he is not losing his mind. The way this sentence is structured shows that this person’s thoughts are rapid and as he says “nervous” in that it’s a lot of information spewed out in just one sentence. The narrator then continues to describe his condition as a “disease”: “The disease had sharpened my senses – not destroyed – not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the 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”.

When he says he hears all things like “heaven and in the earth” as well as “many things in hell”, this is the beginning of the character’s downfall. It’s almost as if he feels he is God-like with such an ability to be able to sense and especially hear so sensitively. However, he is afraid that the reader will see him as mad because he clearly wants to prove that he can tell the story to prove that he is not. He is very quick to defend his position but the way he expresses this is defensive and seems paranoid. Both Roderick Usher and the narrator in A Tell-Tale Heart feel anxious and fearful as well as having heightened senses. Usher’s childhood friend describes how his friend feels this way: “He suffered much from a sickly increase in the feeling of all the senses; he could eat only the most tasteless food; all flowers smelled too strongly for his nose; his eyes were hurt by even a little light; and there were few sounds which did not fill him with horror”.

Much like the narrator’s feelings of sensitivity in The Tell-Tale Heart, Roderick is feeling overwhelmed by his heightened senses. Roderick seems more fearful and arguably less confident than the narrator in The Tell-Tale Heart because he reaches out to his friend in this time of need as opposed to convincing himself that he is not “mad” and God-like. Although their cases are slightly different in this sense, both feel as if they have an illness which in both cases is clear they are mental illness. Roderick Usher feels aware that he is losing his mind, but he is slowly losing his grip on his life and becoming consumed with his delusions. He expresses this by saying: “I feel that the time will soon arrive when I must lose my life, and my mind, and my soul, together, in some last battle with that horrible enemy: FEAR!”. It seems that although Roderick addresses that he is struggling with his mental state and in turn losing control of his own mind. When he says he feels he “must” lose his life and soul, it seems as if he feels that something is after him and he can’t do anything about it. Roderick is feeling a sense of a loss of control over his life and is seemingly being sucked into his own tainted mindset. This part of the story shows strong evidence that Roderick is losing his grip on his own life and reality. The most arguably well-known symptoms of schizophrenia are visual and auditory hallucinations.

In The Tell-Tale Heart, the narrator suffers from auditory hallucinations, particularly towards the end of the story. The most profound evidence of this theory is after he murders the old man and hears his heart beating: “They knew! Now it was they who were playing a game with me. I was suffering more than I could bear, from their smiles, and from that sound. Louder, louder, louder!”. At this point in the story the narrator is spiraling into a full-on breakdown because he hears the heartbeat of the man he just murdered which is something that is clearly not reality. With a disease like paranoid schizophrenia, the paranoia of the possibility that he may get caught for the crime he committed could have possibly provoked these auditory hallucinations.

Poe’s characters Roderick Usher and the unnamed narrator in The Tell-Tale Heart both suffer from symptoms of delusions and paranoia which could be related to the mental illness schizophrenia. While this is not confirmed in the texts themselves there is some strong evidence that could back this theory up. That being, the symbolism of Roderick’s house making him paranoid and mentally drained and the narrator in The Tell-Tale Heart having auditory hallucinations of the dead man’s heart making this theory quite possible.

15 July 2020

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