“Yes, I have been ill, very ill, But why do you say that I have lost control of my mind, why do you say that I am mad?”
‘The Telltale Heart’, by Edgar Allan Poe is a gothic short story exploring the mind of an old man who delves deeper into insanity and through his eyes we realize just how out of control his mind has become. He murders a man whom he believes has an ‘evil eye’, and as a result alerts the authorities and in the end, causes him to confess his sins, leaving the reader with the question ‘is he really mad?’. I believe the protagonist of this story holds the traits of a gothic protagonist, one of the elements of a gothic fiction novel, and I will be explaining why in this report.
Five of the six traits apply to this particular gothic protagonist. In this report I will be discussing how the protagonist meets two of these descriptors, contrasting qualities and having an air of mystery and will explain how the author has effectively applied these traits to the protagonist, why I can relate this protagonist and the descriptors to myself and society.
The first descriptor displayed by this gothic protagonist is having distinct contrasting qualities (meaning the character holds one trait and another which is the complete opposite). The protagonist confesses “I did not hate the old man; I even loved him,” meaning that although the protagonist loved and cared for the old man, this theory revolving around fear for this ‘evil eye’ overpowered this love, forcing him to act against this loving nature, by murdering the old man in such a cold and brutal way, thus displaying two contrasting qualities, loving and cruel. The author effectively applies the trait in order to interest the reader and become intrigued as to how one could commit such a brutal and bloody murder against someone that they love and care for and yet be so calm and careful whilst cleaning the body. I think that being human we can all relate to this descriptor, as we aren’t all one sided and can display traits on opposite sides of the spectrum. What makes a character interesting is that they hold a diverse range of traits, as people are attracted to real personalities which are not always nasty and pessimistic and not always happy and optimistic, being able to have both tough and good times with. This is a descriptor that we can all relate to because we can understand that we cannot always be loving and nice to everyone all the time and can sometimes be awful to others and have grudges. I personally can relate to this trait, though not to the extent of this particular protagonist, as I have two contrasting qualities, being both diligent and lethargic. During school I display diligence as I often stay in class over intervals to carry on working because I am stuck in the mood to work. Though at home I am the complete opposite, often I don’t feel motivated to get out of bed in the morning or go outside and exercise and end up not being productive and accomplishing much at the end of the day displaying the trait of being lethargic.
The second descriptor which this gothic protagonist holds is that they are generally secretive (hold dark secrets from their past that they would prefer to remain a mystery). The creator intentionally displays secrecy by choosing to have the protagonist’s gender to remain unknown, suggesting that a woman or a man could be experiencing such insanity and this character isn’t subjective to one gender (though the word ‘madman’ does come up, the term can apply to both genders). This leaves a general secretive and mysterious nature to the protagonist, along with the fact that we don’t know why he is looking after this old man and how he came into this position with these abnormal beliefs. In society, many people choose to hide certain ‘unappealing’ features to the public eye, such as homosexuality, body issues and mental illness, leaving others to guess the truth themselves until these secrets are revealed. This time period of the 1840s was a particularly discriminating time for mental illness, with asylums being the solitude to contain mentally ill individuals, religious beliefs also believing that mental illness is a result of sin, whilst others believe something is physically disorderly about those with mental illness. This likely results in the protagonist preferring to withhold his mental conflicts, not wishing to be viewed and treated as a madman. I can relate to having to withhold dark secrets and be fearful of negative repercussions if anyone were to find out similar to the protagonist in this story as I too have struggled with mental illness and prefer not to be thought of as mad or ill. Towards the end, the protagonist chooses to reveal the body’s whereabouts to the police due to guilt, “Suddenly I could bear it no longer. I pointed at the boards and cried, “Yes! Yes, I killed him. Pull up the boards and you shall see! I killed him. But why does his heart not stop beating?! Why does it not stop!?” The protagonist is displaying some level of sanity by making the rational decision to reveal the dark and twisted truth. Though he reveals that he had murdered the old man, the heart continues beating, suggesting that the guilt will still continue to torment him even with this enormous burden being released he can make a step in the right direction. I can relate to this, as I was forced to open up to people and reveal some dark and abnormal thoughts, just like the protagonist, and although by revealing the thoughts did not go away, it released a weight off my shoulders so I could walk in the right direction.
I admire that Edgar Allen- Poe clearly indicates that he has applied the gothic protagonist element to the narrator, as well as effectively use other gothic fiction elements such as tone, mood and the possible supernatural presence of this ‘evil eye’ to give the reader an intense discomfort. As explained before, I believe we all hold some of the descriptors of a gothic protagonist in some shape or form (though not likely to the extremes of the protagonist in this story) and therefore can relate and sympathize with the narrator in the story. I believe this because we can all hold contrasting qualities, being benevolent sometimes and malevolent during others, and also have an air of mystery, choosing to hide certain features from the eyes of society.