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Delusions of reference are characterized by the attaching of significant, personal, and unrelated meaning to various actions, events, and/or objects (Susic). In "The Tell-Tale Heart," the narrator appears to have done this with the old man's eye. The narrator describes the old man's eye as "his Evil Eye," "the vulture eye," and "the damned spot." He even uses the eye as his motive for murdering the old man:
"Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye! yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture --a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees -- very gradually --I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever" (Poe).
This excerpt exemplifies a delusion of reference. Here, the narrator explains that the old man's vulture eye, despite the narrator's love for him, was the sole reason for murder. In reality, a glazed over eye is not a logical motive, but in the narrator's distorted perception, the eye is the only motive he needs.
The delusion of grandeur, a more common type, is marked by the individual's feeling of great empowerment (Susic). Someone suffering from a delusion of grandeur, for example, may believe he or she is a famous movie star or an otherwise powerful person (Weiten 419). In the story, the narrator does not believe he is someone he is not, but as he slowly moves to watch the old man on the eighth night, he believes that he has enormous power, at which point he exclaims: "Never before that night had I felt the extent of my own powers --of my sagacity. I could scarcely contain my feelings of triumph" (Poe). The elation and mania the narrator feels as he watches the old man through the cracked door, as well as the belief in his powers, defines his delusion of grandeur.
The most common delusion, the delusion of persecution, is characterized by paranoia. Typically the individual feels he or she is being plotted or conspired against, threatened, or victimized (Susic). Poe's narrator displays a perfect example of this delusion after the officers arrive. At this point, the narrator has hidden the body well and has already falsely explained the old man's whereabouts to the officers. However, the narrator's paranoia takes over as he thinks: "Almighty God! --no, no! They heard! --they suspected! --they knew! --they were making a mockery of my horror!" (Poe). This evident paranoia is uncalled for as the officers gave no sign of suspecting the murder and the men simply "chatted pleasantly" (Poe). There was one cue to this paranoia, but the cue happens to be a hallucination, another symptom of schizophrenia.
In addition to disturbed cognitive processes like delusions, schizophrenia is often characterized by distorted perception. Hallucinations are the primary examples of this distorted perception because they are, by definition, sensory perceptions that either distort a stimulus or occur without being stimulated at all (Weiten 419). The obvious hallucination in "The Tell-Tale Heart" is the beating of the old man's heart throughout the story, especially after the old man has been murdered. The narrator first hears the heart on the eighth night, after he mistakenly wakes the old man from his slumber: "there came to [his] ears a low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. I [the narrator] knew that sound well, too. It was the beating of the old man's heart." Initially, the narrator blames the "over acuteness of [his] senses"; later, as the officers are chatting in the old man's bedroom, the old man's dismembered body underneath the floor boards, the narrator again hears the beating: "No doubt I [the narrator] grew very paleâ€¦It was a low, dull, quick sound --much such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cottonâ€¦and yet the officers heard it not" (Poe). In fact the old man is dead and the narrator is suffering from an auditory hallucination. The officers do not hear the sound either, further confirming the narrator's delusion. According to some critics, this auditory hallucination could be irrelevant. John Chua, for instance, argues that "the narrator has hidden him [the old man] so well that the old man may exist only in the narrator's mind" (353). If this is true, however, the entire story is the narrator's hallucination.
The narrator's schizophrenic symptoms are essential for the story's success. The story is the narrator's recount of the murder, and several times throughout his tale, the narrator argues his sanity. Through his unsound logic, the narrator only convinces the audience of his insanity. Thus, sanity versus insanity becomes a central conflict in "The Tell-Tale Heart" (Wilson and Lazzari 346). The narrator's insanity and schizophrenic symptoms are meant to evoke uneasy emotions. Poe wanted his work to create certain moods for the reader and he thought that evoking emotion was the only way for a work to be successful (Wilson and Lazzari 348). Poe also believed that "the aim of literature is to reveal truth or elicit an emotional or psychological reaction" (Wilson and Lazzari 349). "The Tell-Tale Heart" elicits this psychological reaction in that readers feel disturbed by the narrator's actions and rationalization and the readers feel uncomfortable as they relate to the narrator.
Throughout the story, the narrator exhibits several symptoms of schizophrenia. The narrator's delusions and hallucinations contradict his arguments of sanity and further prove his insanity. The importance of Poe's accurate depiction of schizophrenia in "The Tell-Tale Heart" lies in the fact that the portrayal occurred long before the disorder's discovery. The symptoms also effectively elicit emotional and psychological responses from the audience, making the story a success by Poe's definition. As a result, the story's psychological theme and Poe's manipulation of readers' emotions greatly influence following generations of authors.