Human Psychology In The Works The Cask Of Amontillado, The Fall Of The House Of Usher, The Tell Tale Heart And The Raven

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Edgar Allan Poe lived a life full of trauma, loss, and substance abuse. In his 40 years, Poe endured an unimaginable stream of deaths of loved ones, professional disruption, and alcoholism, which contributed to his untimely death. Ultimately, his experiences produced one of the most recognized, albeit posthumously, American authors of the 19th century. In the Sanglap: Journal of Literacy and Cultural Inquiry, Maria A. Lima calls Poe “one of the first writers to explore the mysteries hidden in the psychotic mind, a mind always troubled by the guilt of certain past actions.” (Lima 63) In stories and poems like “The Cask of Amontillado”, “The Fall of the House of Usher”, “The Tell-Tale Heart”, and “The Raven”, Poe set a dark, ominous tone and incorporated “the human psychology of dying and mourning” (Rizzo 149) as a theme.

Poe was born in 1809 in Boston. Before he was three, he was placed in a foster home due to the death of his parents. As an adolescent, a close acquaintance suddenly passed away, leaving Poe extremely depressed. After his foster parents were unwilling to financially support his education, Poe joined the Army. He purposefully sabotaged a West Point education by drinking excessively and refusing to participate in the required activities. Poe moved in with a relative, living in poverty, and eventually married the family’s young daughter, Virginia. Poe and his wife struggled financially until “The Raven” was published in 1845; however, their fortune was short-lived, as Virginia succumbed to tuberculosis in 1847. Poe died in 1949 after “a three day drinking binge.” (Litfinder)

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While Poe’s life was tragic, the characters in his poems and stories often morphed into mentally deranged individuals, whose stories were wound together with one common factor, death. One persona was driven mad by loss. His depression lent to his own suffering. With the others however, madness was already present. The readers witnessed their journey and delved into the severity of their mental incapacity. These characters inflicted a sadistic and gruesome demise to other characters, and their depravity peaked.

In “The Raven” the only human character was morning the loss of his love. The poem began with a man displaying “sorrow for the lost Lenore!” (Poe, “The Raven” Line 10) He foreshadowed an unknown terror as taps increased on his bedroom door. The tempo of the poem increased as his paranoia escalated. His grief sparked a hallucination of a raven who spoke one word to him, “Nevermore.” (Poe, “The Raven” Line 48) The raven’s appearance and refrain agitated the man and escalated his mood into a frenzy until he begged for “respite – respite and nepenthe for thy memories of Lenore!” (Poe, “The Raven” Line 82) The man complained of the continued presence of the raven, “never flitting, still is sitting” (Poe, “The Raven” Line 103) and bemoaned his continuous and permanent depression by stating, “And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor/ Shall be lifted – nevermore!” (Poe, “The Raven” Lines 107-108) In this example, death caused internal pain and depression; however, in several of Poe’s other works, death is the consequence of insanity, not the cause.

The narrator in “The Fall of the House of Usher” was an individual who possessed his mental faculties. The person experiencing madness in this story was Roderick Usher, the narrator’s friend. Poe creates an ominous tone using creative imagery as the narrator approaches the house. “Its principal feature seemed to be that of an excessive antiquity.” (Poe, “The Fall of the House of Usher” 237) The narrator’s description of Roderick Usher indicated obvious mental instability, presently consistent with bipolar disorder. Usher had glassy eyes and disheveled hair. “His action was alternately vivacious and sullen”, and he cycled from rapid speech to speech resembling someone drunk or stoned. (Poe, “The Fall of the House of Usher” 239-240) The narrator also encountered Lady Madeline, Usher’s sickly sister and commented on the lack of branches in the family tree. This indicated that both of their illnesses, both mental and physical, might be caused by traits inherited through an incestual ancestry.

Usher abruptly informed the narrator of his sister’s passing and recruited the narrator to assist him in placing her coffin in a vault in the house. (Poe, “The Fall of the House of Usher” 246) The true revelation into the depravity of Usher’s psyche came when readers discover that he had buried his sister alive, and she escaped her tomb. The sounds of her exiting the tomb, whipped Usher into a frenzy of terror. He shrieked, “Madman, I tell you she now stands without the door!” (Poe, “The Fall of the House of Usher” 252) A bloodied Lady Madeline stood in the doorway and collapsed on her brother, both dead. (Poe, “The Fall of the House of Usher” 253) The reader was not able to determine why Usher buried Madeline, which lent to the mystery behind his psychiatric illness. Timothy Jones offered a limited glimpse in “Affairs of the Tell-Tale Heart.” He stated, “Poe is often read as offering psychological insight, just as often his fiction seems to suggest that the psyche is close to unreadable, offering perverse blanks that readers must struggle to interpret.” (Jones 19)

In “The Cask of Amontillado”, the narrator, Montresor, initially vowed revenge against his enemy, Fortunato. Poe includes the reader on the plot from the first paragraph. He led Fortunato into the catacombs on a sadistic folly to seek his opinion on a cask of rare wine. During the walk, Montresor acts concerned for his health by saying, “we will go back; your health is precious. You are rich, respected, admired and beloved; you are happy, as once I was.” (Poe, “The Cask of Amontillado” 84) After chaining Fortunato to the wall, Montresor plastered him into the catacombs, ignoring his cries, “For the love of God, Montresor!” (Poe, “The Cask of Amontillado” 86) knowing that he was luring him to his death. Montresor’s parting words were “In pace reuiescat!” which translates to “May he rest in peace.” (Poe, “The Cask of Amontillado” 87)

A text steeped in irony helped the reader appreciate the swing from a cheery, concerned Montresor to a brutal, callous murderer. “Fortunato’s body is laid to rest in a cold, dark, and dank spot where no one can find him or memorialize his existence” (Rizzo 145) and is Montresor’s final returned insult. The joy Montresor exhibited in the slow, miserable torture and death of Fortunato is nothing short of psychopathic.

The narrator in “The Tell-Tale Heart” denied serious psychosis even though his condition was evident. He tried to convince the reader by saying, “observe how healthily – how calmly I can tell you the whole story.” The narrator claimed the old man he lived with had “the eye of a vulture” and decided to kill the man because of his eye. (Poe, “The Tell-Tale Heart” 461) The description of the eye would currently lend itself to cataracts, glaucoma, or possible blindness. The narrator takes great pride that he had been nice to the old man while plotting his murder and laughed about his own cunning. After he has killed the man, the narrator also patted himself on the back for his deception to the police. (Poe, “The Tell-Tale Heart” 462-465) Ultimately, his psychosis prevailed, the narrator was driven to murder, and then confession, by “the beating of his hideous heart!” (Poe, “The Tell-Tale Heart” 466)

“The Tell-Tale Heart” was also rich with irony. Irony helped Poe create a sharp contrast between sanity and insanity. A noise made by the narrator, who was so impressed by his own stealth, leads to the old man’s murder, even though a plot was afoot. The narrator was driven to madness by the eye looking at him, but the old man’s vision was probably significantly impaired. It was also very ironic that in spite of his efforts to conceal his crime, his own hallucinations pushed the narrator to confess to the police and tell them were the man’s body was interred.

Edgar Allan Poe has been “the master of the macabre” (Lima 63) and the father of American Gothic literature. “Obsessions, paranoia, wilful acts of self-destruction surround us constantly. Though we age we still hear the cries of those for whom the attraction to mournful chaos is monumental.” (Lima 62) Poe relied heavily on irony and symbolism to create a theme of death and psychosis in many of his works, and his madness, whether fictional or based in experience, has engrossed generations of readers and critics.

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Human Psychology In The Works The Cask Of Amontillado, The Fall Of The House Of Usher, The Tell Tale Heart And The Raven. (2021, September 21). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 12, 2024, from
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