Copyright 2018 by Gary L. Pullman
Despite the assurances of the narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart” to the contrary, readers are not deceived: he is a madman. In fact, he has been “diagnosed” as suffering from schizophrenia. This finding isn't surprising. His bizarre behavior matches the symptoms of this malady, as they are listed in Diagnostic and Statistics Manual 5 (DSM-5), the current edition of the Bible of psychiatric and psychological profession (professions?).
To be diagnosed as paranoid, an individual must experience at least two of these three symptoms: hallucinations, delusions, and/or disorganized speech. “Schizophrenia subtypes” have been eliminated from the DSM-5. The previous edition of the DSM (DSM-IV) included, as subtypes of schizophrenia, “paranoid, disorganized, catatonic, undifferentiated, and residual.”
Therefore, in the past, the narrator would have been diagnosed as suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, rather than just schizophrenia in general. Mental disorders, including the psychotic type, are easy to cure; the members of the American Psychological Association (APA) just vote them in or out of existence as seems best to them.
Such fine distinctions don't necessarily matter as far as “The Tell-TaleHeart” itself is concerned: the “auditory hallucinations” the narrator experiences “may suggest paranoid schizophrenia,” the editor of The Annotated Poe allows, “but the disease need not be pinpointed so precisely.” It's enough that the murderous villain is mad as a hatter.
He also seems obsessed by the eye of the old man whom he decides to kill; in fact, the old man's eye is the reason he is murdered:
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! One of his eyes resembled that 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.
Throughout the tale, the narrator repeats his references to the “vulture eye” that he loathes; it continues to motivate the madman to murder his sleeping victim. Nevertheless, there is no mention of a diagnosis of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Perhaps, again, it may not be important to diagnose the exact nature of the narrator's psychosis. It's enough, perhaps, to say simply that he is schizophrenic, having exhibited two of the three symptoms of this malady: hallucinations (he hears the beating of the old man's heart as he creeps into his room, just as, after the old man is dead and has been dismembered, the narrator continues to hear his victim's heartbeat). The madman also suffers from the delusion that the old man has an “evil eye,” which means, according to folklore, that he has “the power to harm or even kill another person simply by looking at” him or her, whether or not the individual in possession of the evil eye is malevolent.
Is it possible to shade the meaning of “psychosis” too finely? If one is hallucinating and delusional, must he or she also speak in a “disorganized” manner? Is it necessary to tack on a “subtype” of psychosis, such as paranoia or catatonia and to determine whether such an affliction is “undifferentiated” or “residual”? Clearly, the APA no longer thinks so, any more than does the editor of The Annotated Poe.
Personally, I am inclined to agree with them. In fact, I would go even further. I would contend that, except as a sort of character sketch, a verbal portrait of what Theophrastus might call “The Schizophrenic Man,” citing specific examples of the conduct of such a person as a model of the type, the DSM's account of schizophrenia is insignificant for writers, at least. As a resource pertaining to character types, though, yes, it has its benefits.
Next, we'll take a gander at Roderick Usher.