Edgar Allen Poe ends his thrilling story, "The Tell-Tale Heart," with a madman's confession, a plot device that provides the story with appropriate closure: the murderer is caught and justice can take place. At its endpoint, the story no longer holds secrets, for we can imagine the rest. The "dreadfully nervous" narrator will be tried in court for killing an old man because of the old man's "pale blue eye, with a film over it" (555). He had "loved" the old man (555), but the "vulture eye" had made the narrator "furious" and had "chilled the very marrow in [his] bones" (557). The confession and the dismembered body beneath the planks will provide the jury with incontrovertible proof of the narrator's guilt, and he will be sentenced to the gallows.
Yet, even in fiction, a confession is not as simple as it may appear. The downfall of Poe's narrator is a "tell-tale" heart, literally the heart of the old man, which continued to beat after death. But in addition to this supernatural explanation, two psychological phenomena could also explain how the narrator's "confidence" and "enthusiasm" as he chatted up the investigating policemen at the scene of the crime turned into unrelenting terror and ultimate confession (559). The first psychological explanation is insanity: the narrator suffered from an auditory hallucination. The second explanation is guilt: the "tell-tale" heart the narrator heard beating was his own guilty heart struggling to reveal the truth. Regardless of the explanation, the narrator's psychological state was aggravated by the presence of the police who, he felt, could hear the beating heart, and knew of his guilt, but chose to remain silent with "hypocritical smiles" (559). This "mockery" and "derision," and the beating heart getting louder, pushed the narrator over the edge and into confession (559). In the end, we can't know if the narrator confessed because of hallucination or guilt, nor can we know if without the police coming to him he would have gone to the police.
This ambiguity of the climatic confession of the "The Tell-Tale Heart" brings into sharp focus the complicated dynamics of criminal confessions by mentally ill suspects. This paper discusses confessions generally, the "tell-tale" hearts and minds which produce them, and the settings in which they take place. The purpose of this general inquiry is to answer the specific question of what the law's response should be to "tell-tale" hearts and minds afflicted by mental illness.
"The Case for Excluding the Criminal Confessions of the Mentally Ill,"
Yale Journal of Law & the Humanities: Vol. 16
, Article 7.
Available at: https://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/yjlh/vol16/iss1/7