Have you repeated yourself, used a variety of sentence starters?
“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 which explores the mind of an old man who delves deeper and deeper into insanity. Through the first-person narrative, the reader realizes just how out of control his mind slowly becomes. He murders a man whom he believes has an ‘evil eye’, and as a result alerts the authorities, which, in the end, causes him to confess his sins, displaying some level of sanity and leaving me with the question, ‘is he really mad?’. Five of the six common traits of a Gothic protagonist apply to this particular protagonist. In this report, I will be discussing how the author effectively applies two of these common traits to the protagonist: contrasting qualities and having an air of mystery. I will also be explaining how I related to this protagonist and the common traits to myself and society and how the text made me feel.
The first common trait displayed by this Gothic protagonist is having distinct contrasting qualities (meaning the character holds one quality and another which is the complete opposite). The protagonist confesses that “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, leaving me feeling interested and 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. Being human, I think we can all relate to this trait, as we aren’t all one-sided and can display character qualities on opposite sides of the spectrum. What makes a character interesting is that they hold a diverse range of qualities, 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. All of us should understand that we cannot always be loving and nice to everyone all the time and can sometimes be awful to others and have grudges. By having the protagonist hold contrasting qualities, Poe made me sympathies with such a cold-hearted character because it must be torture experiencing such an endless back and forth conflict between good and bad. It made me understand how distraught he must have felt to have experienced this moral dilemma, and suffer through struggling to fend off the dark side of his diseased mind. He was helpless, and this made me feel heart-broken to see an otherwise kind and caring man become consumed by darkness and insanity. This being said, I can personally 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 due to my anxiety and depression and end up not being productive and accomplishing much at the end of the day displaying the trait of being lethargic.
The second trait 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). Poe intentionally has the protagonist display secrecy, choosing to have the protagonist’s gender remain unknown. This suggests 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 suggest he is male, the term can apply to both genders). However, despite the ambiguity, for simplicity, I decided to just address him as male. Also aiding in the general secretive and mysterious nature of the protagonist is 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. This made me feel disoriented and confused as to how the events of the story came about. To relate this idea of mystery and secretiveness to society, many people choose to hide certain ‘unappealing’ features to the public eye, such as homosexuality, body issues and mental illness. Similar to how Poe left the reader to guess the protagonist’s backstory, people tend to leave others to guess the truths hidden behind our secrets until they’re chosen to be revealed. This time period of the 1840s was a particularly discriminating time for the mentally ill, with asylums essentially being solitary prisons to confine mentally ill individuals in cells and receive treatment as bad, if not worse, than criminals who have committed crimes. Religion lead society to believe that mental illness was a result of sin, whilst science suggested something was physically wrong with those with mental illness, leading to electroconvulsive therapy and lobotomies. These false beliefs, which in time were proven as unethical and false, resulted in the protagonist to prefer to hide his mental illness, not wishing to be viewed and treated as a madman. I can relate to having to withhold dark secrets and feeling fearful of the negative repercussions if anyone were know about some of the dark thoughts that infest my mind on an everyday basis because I don’t want people to believe I am crazy. This being said, I do sympathies and understand how the protagonist feels because, similar to him, 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 agonizing guilt he soon feels. Hitting a breaking point he asserts that “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. However, even 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. Though to me, I felt relieved, because he manages to take a step in the right direction and make the righteous decision. 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 applies these two common traits to the narrator, as well as effectively using other Gothic fiction elements such as tone, mood and the possible supernatural presence of this ‘evil eye’ to give me an intense discomfort. As explained before, I believe we all hold some of the common traits of a Gothic protagonist in some shape or form (though not likely to the extremes of the protagonist in this story) and can therefore relate and sympathize with the narrator in some way, like I did. I believe this because we can all hold contrasting qualities, we are all benevolent sometimes and malevolent during others, and it’s in human nature to have an air of mystery and choose to hide certain features from the vigilant eyes of society.