Psychoanalysis Criticism

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“The Tell-Tale Heart” was published in 1843. The narrative is a psychological thriller bringing the reader into the realm of the madness of the author. So, while Poe’s works show a strong interest in empirical science, his writings often discuss the emotionally unfathomable aspects of the human experience and the universe’s mysterious elements. “The Tell-Tale Heart” is an example of the psychological effect of his writing. While his contemporaries generally considered the moral or philosophical function of a story to be significant, Poe believed that the purpose of literature was to reveal truth or evoke an emotional or psychological response.

The Tell-Tale Heart ‘exemplifies Poe’s willingness to reveal humanity’s dark side and is a harbinger for psychological realism-related novels and movies. Poe’s work inspired styles as diverse as French symbolist literature and horror films in Hollywood, and authors as diverse as Ambrose Bierce and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

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Author’s Background

Edgar Allan Poe was born on January 19, 1809, into a theatrical family. His father, David Poe, was a lawyer-turned-actor, and an English actress was his mother, Elizabeth Arnold. When Poe turned 3 years old, both his parents died, and John Allan, a wealthy businessman, raised him in Richmond, Virginia. Allan never legally adopted Poe, and after Poe entered his teenage years their relationship became a stormy one.

While Allan spent five years funding Poe’s education at a private school in England, when he attended West Point at the University of Virginia and the U.S. Military Academy, he failed to support him. Conscious of never inheriting much from his wealthy foster father, at the age of twenty-one, Poe embarked on a literary career.

He published some works, including “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym” in 1838, “The Fall of the House of Usher” in 1839, and “The Tell-Tale Heart” in 1843.

Nevertheless, most critics argue that there is nothing to indicate that Poe physically influenced any of his fictitious characters, both emotionally and mentally ill. In reality, in his ‘tales of ratiocination’ he was able to show his keen intellect. Poe was one of the first to construct a distinctly American literature. In particular, he sought to fashion terror stories based on mood and language in his short stories. He also helped popularize the form of the short story, and soon several magazines were published that provided new stories each month for their audiences. The magazines became an important part of popular life, and Poe published many stories in them, though few brought him solid popularity. Through his short stories, especially ‘Murders in the Rue Morgue,’ Poe became one of the detective story’s first practitioners, presenting a mystery that must be solved by an observant inspector, whose point of view is also that of the reader.

Historians note that Poe’s writings highlighting the dark side of humanity and nature challenged the American spirit of optimism and confidence.


This Edgar Allan Poe story appears to be a bragging confession of a man who has committed a crime. He keeps insisting that he’s not crazy, which makes him seem moreso. He explains how he had to kill his neighbor because of the old man’s evil eye, which bothered him. Each night for a week, he would slowly open the door to the old man’s apartment and look in on him sleeping. Since he didn’t see the eye, he didn’t kill him.

On the eighth night as he was peering in at midnight, the narrator chuckled at the thought of the man not knowing what he was doing, and perhaps the old man heard it because he startled awake. He asked if anyone was there. The narrator froze. After waiting a long while, he decided to open the lantern a tiny bit, and a single ray fell upon the old man’s eye. The narrator could hear the old man’s heart beating in fear. The beating became louder until the narrator feared the neighbors would hear it, so he decided that he would take this moment to attack. The old man shrieked once before the narrator pulled him to the floor and pulled the bed on top of him. He waited until the beating heart stopped, then pulled off the bed, and examined the body. The old man was dead.

Very carefully, he dismembered the body in a tub to collect the blood, then buried the pieces under the floorboards. He washed everything carefully and finished around four in the morning. A knock came at the door, and he found three policemen who had been called due to a strange shriek overheard by some neighbors wondering if foul play were involved. The narrator calmly invited the policemen inside and encouraged them to search the place. He explained that the old man was off in the country, and that he was the one who had screamed due to a bad dream. In his supreme confidence, the narrator even brought chairs into the room on top of the floorboards where he had buried the man and invited them to sit down and rest. His own chair was placed directly over the body.

As they talked, the narrator began to hear a noise coming from the floorboards. He recognized it as the beating heart of the old man. He tried to talk louder to cover it up and wondered if the policemen could hear it too. He knew they must hear it, and they had to suspect what he had done. Finally, he couldn’t take it anymore and told them to tear up the floorboards to find the dead body.

Theoretical Framework

Introduction of Theory

The psychoanalytic personality theory of Sigmund Freud argues that human behavior is the result of the interactions between the three component parts of the mind: id, ego, and superego. This theory, known as the structural personality theory of Freud, places great emphasis on the role of unconscious psychological conflicts in shaping behavior and personality. Dynamic interactions are thought to progress through five distinct psychosexual stages of development between these fundamental parts of the mind. However, Freud’s ideas have since been met with criticism over the past century, partly due to his unique focus on sexuality as the main driver of the development of human personality.

The unconscious sense of guilt is an ego state that is the result of conflict between the superego’s objectives and those of the ego. As a psychoanalytical term, the ‘unconscious sense of guilt’ developed over time, according to Jean Laplanche and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis (1973), a more specific meaning than when it was first used merely to describe a feeling in the unconscious aroused by an act considered reprehensible. The present meaning means an implicit relationship between ego and superego reflected in subjective occurrences from which any conscious sense of guilt is completely absent in extreme circumstances.

The concept itself appeared in the essay ‘Obsessive Behavior and Religious Practices’ (1907b) by Sigmund Freud for the first time. ‘We can conclude that the sufferer of compulsions and prohibitions acts as if he were dominated by a sense of guilt, of which, though, he understands little, such that we must consider it an implicit sense of guilt, in view of the obvious contradiction in terms’ (p. 123). However, in the second part of Freud’s ‘The Neuro-Psychoses of Defence’ (1894a), the basic idea had been adumbrated much earlier.

In accepting the hypothesis that the sense of guilt arises at the same time as the superego’s gradual development, it is important to emphasize that both imply social dimension, and that the superego also owes its existence to external factors and represents the ego’s demands of society. Furthermore, the superego not only frustrates some of the ego’s impulses but can also divert resentment from it.

It manifests as a repetitive sense of guilt and atonement. However, as Freud noted in The Ego and the Id (1923b), ‘One may go further and propose the idea that a great part of the sense of guilt will usually remain subconscious, because the root of conscience is intimately connected with the Oedipus complex, which belongs to the unconscious’ (p. 52).

The sense of guilt seems to dominate instinctual life not only by acting to deny gratification, but also by leading to an increase in libido and, hence, masochistic pleasure provocation. Psychoanalysts see spiritual masochism as an act of expression of an unconscious sense of guilt.

The concept of unconscious is one of the Freud and Jung’s most significant key differences. The unconscious for Freud is the epicenter of oppressed experiences, traumatic memories, fears, thoughts, sexual desires, and aggression. He saw the unconscious mind as a place for accumulating hidden desires that could lead to neurosis.

On the opposite, Jung divided the psyche into three key parts, including the self, the subconscious collective, and the unconscious personal. Jung saw ego as the conscious part and personal consciousness that gathers memories suppressed and remembered. Knowledge and impressions are preserved in our collective unconscious (A Guide to Psychoanalytic Criticism, n.d.).

Overall, psychoanalysis criticism has an interesting facet used by literary critics to validate literature’s significance. Its approaches and theories have been used to decode unresolved emotions, guilt, psychological conflicts and the author’s life’s ambivalence. The disciplined helped critics trace the traumas, fixations and sexual conflicts of the author’s childhood within the literary work behavior of his character (A Guide to Psychoanalytic Criticism, n.d.).


The Tell-Tale Heart, one of Edgar Allan’s works, is to be criticized using the literary criticism psychoanalysis. Use literary criticism of the short story The Tell-Tale Heart to seek answer to the questions of human ego-evil relationship and associated psychological justifications. The literary criticism of the short story aims to determine what type of psychological approach are fit to be used in analyzing the short story.

Research Questions

  1. Are there any oedipal dynamics or any other family dynamics part in the story that could strengthen the Psychoanalytic approach used in this literary criticism?
  2. Does the short story manifests unconscious psychological conflicts that may be associated to human ego-evil relationship and psychological justifications?
  3. What type of psychological approach does the narrator of the short story The Tell-Tale Heart exhibits?

Application of Theory

Carl Jung presents to us archetypes which are instinct’s psychic counterpart, derived from models, and universal patterns and images that are suggested to be part of the collective unconscious, believed to be a psychological inheritance that is a component of the human psyche (Cherry, 2019). This Jungian Archetype is exhibited in the story of Edgar Alan Poe, The Tell Tale Heart, where the main character murdered an old man; in the beginning of the short story, the ‘shadow’ of the mad man is already manifested with him showing aggression: “When the old man looked at me with his vulture eye a cold feeling went up and down my back; even my blood became cold. And so, I finally decided I had to kill the old man and close that eye forever”. Aside from that, the presence of shadow was also observed through his exhibition of hate, where he said: “And as the sound grew louder my anger became greater and more painful.”.

“Why do you say that I am mad? Can you not see that I have full control of my mind? Is it not clear that I am not mad?”, this is another psychological idea established by a friend of Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud, which is repression. Repression is the act of subduing or pushing inwards an individual’s desire or thought thus this desire is redirected through pleasures and goes to the unconscious causing the person to become unaware of this said desire (Repression, 2015). To add to that, the Freudian Psychoanalytic Theory of Personality suggests that human behavior is a result of the interactions of the components of the mind and is shaped by the unconscious conflicts among these parts of the mind (Boundless Psychology, n.d.). This Psychoanalytic Theory of Personality is observed with the mad man as he claims to not hate the old man and to have loved him in the third paragraph but at the same time is conflictingly showing intense anger towards him as well.

The short story is narrated in a first person point of view as it started with the protagonist using “I” in the first paragraph until the end, claiming that he may have been ill but is far from being mad as in his defense, a mad man could not have planned meticulously a murder like his. In the story, he explained his every feeling towards the man and the excitement of killing him. The main character was obviously delusional as he was hearing voices and has a disturbed perception, a sign of psychosis (What is Psychosis?, n.d.). “The old man’s terror must have been extreme!”; with this exclamation of the main character, it can be assumed that the man’s aggression was a repression of his fear and his thirst to kill the old man was his response and defense mechanism so to be comforted from this fear by instilling fear to the man (Cherry, 2019). When the policemen came to investigate what might have happened in the household with the main character was extremely cautious with how he will execute his murder, his ego caused him to admit to the crime. With that being said, we could also note that from the beginning of the story, the man’s ego was taking over and is playing a great role in the narration, and it is manifested with him saying: “Hearken! and observe how healthily—how calmly I can tell you the whole story.”.


In conclusion, the question whether the man is insane or not is answered with the theories that we presented in this study where it is assumed that the man was suffering from a psychotic disorder which is caused by the triggered repressions from his unconscious that may have been a result of a trauma from his experiences during his developing stages. The man is also observed to be egocentric, a claim that is established and supported by the narration itself which is in his view point where he proudly spoke of himself and his deed throughout the story. This display of egocentrism is a trait explained in Jean Piaget’s theory of Cognitive Development, a trait which falls under the preoperational stage which is claimed to be experienced by children aged 2-7 years old which suggests that the mad man may have been fixated on his preoperational stage self, a stage where one is illogical and becomes unable to see things from another’s perspective besides his own, stuck in a belief that what he is hearing and experiencing is or should be the same as what others are too (Mcleod, 2018). In this we see that the man and his perception of reality is depraved As the story is primarily rooted with his ego, in the end it is also the same thing that has caused his capture.


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