Freudian Uncanny in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart

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“I think it was his eye!”: In Search of the Freudian Uncanny in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart

by – Siddhartha Sankar Bhagawati, Vol. III, Issue. XXXIII, October 2017



The Freudian ideas of psychoanalysis form an integral part of today’s literary studies. The Psychoanalytical interpretation of the minds of the characters does help in the comprehension of certain traits of the characters. The uncanny is one of the most important things that Sigmund Freud tried to explain in his literature. The idea was given shape more or less by a story by a great Prussian author. In this paper, a psychoanalytical discussion will be attempted of one particular story by another writer. Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart is among his most famous creations. This paper will try to talk about this story from the psychoanalytic point of view and will aim at establishing the Freudian uncanny as being prevalent in the story. This is done in order to bring new light to certain aspects of this story which has baffled and troubled scholars and readers alike for over a hundred and sixty years.

Keywords: Sigmund Freud, Uncanny, Edgar Allan Poe, The Tell-Tale Heart, Psychoanalysis, The Eye.


In day to day usage, the word or more precisely, the term ‘uncanny’ is usually used as a synonym for being ‘mysterious’ or simply ‘scary’. We find in everyday mundane conversation a person using the term to describe a particular incident or thing which was strange, unnatural or frightening. It won’t be wrong to use the word in order to describe such things. However, when dealing with the principles of psychoanalysis, the meaning of the word should be accepted in the Freudian terms.  The Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud [1856-1939], who was among the founding fathers of psychoanalysis, produced several works in print which deal with his exceptional ideas about the hidden aspects of the human mind, its mysterious nature which echoes in the certain unusual human characteristics and the existence of the repressed ‘unconscious’. He produced an excellent essay called Das Unheimliche in 1919. This essay is called ‘The Uncanny’ in various English translations for the German word ‘unheimlich’ is closest to the English word ‘uncanny’. Freud discussed in this essay what the particular word really connotes in the German language and what the world’s counterparts in other languages do. His discussion is a formal continuation of the things talked about in an earlier essay by the German psychiatrist Ernst Jentsch [1867-1919]. Both Jentsch and Freud accepted the Prussian writer E.T.A Hoffmann’s fictional writings as a remarkable platform for their discussion. However, the centre of attraction for both is not the entire body of Hoffmann’s works, but one particular story, Der Sandmann. The tale is amongst the most widely read works of the author. Available in English as The Sandman, the story presents with a world where certain incidents of the normal and the supernatural coexist. The story deals with a university student named Nathanael whose childhood fear and fixation with an imaginary creature go on to decide his ultimate fate. The imaginary ‘sandman’ who takes away children’s eyes becomes real for a child after he starts to identify it with a mysterious visitor. One such visit from this person ends with the violent death of Nathanael’s father. The story also presents the reader with another situation. Years later, Nathanael develops an attraction for a supposed daughter of a professor who turns out to be an automaton [can be called a robot or a cyborg in the present age.] The ‘doll’ named Olimpia is a focus of attention for both Jentsch and Freud. Human features reflected through non-human entities result in an uncomfortable feeling in many a person which is described in modern times as the ‘uncanny valley’effect. However, the focus of attention in the particular paper will shift from Hoffmann’s story and will aim at presenting a Freudian pen picture of the American literary giant Edgar Allan Poe’s famous story, The Tell-Tale Heart [1843]. The Freudian uncanny will be discussed in the paper with regards to this story.

Edgar Allan Poe [1809-1849], one of the noteworthy figures of the American Renaissance, lived a short life. This particular short life, which was plagued by the deaths of his biological parents, poverty and alcoholism, ended in 1849 owing to circumstances which have never been properly explained. Although never a prosperous literary celebrity during his own lifetime, Poe’s posthumous recognition and success have been immense. His works which include poems, short stories [often called ‘tales’], literary criticisms and at least one novel [his unfinished masterpiece, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket] are read by the common reader and scholars alike. Much of his fiction and poetry deals with the eerie or the mysterious, the unworldly, the disturbing human behaviour and hence we can call them ‘uncanny’. Although Poe wrote more than sixty short stories, there are several of them which stand out among the rest. Among them are The Pit and the Pendulum, MS. Found in a Bottle, The Fall of the House of Usher, The Black Cat, Berenice, The Masque of the Red Death and The Tell-Tale Heart. The subject matter of most of these stories deals with the unusual and the unexplained. The common themes of these include psychological trauma and suffering, distortion of time and memory, paranormal, being buried alive, madness and hallucination. The paper will try to look not into all the major stories but only into one of them, namely The Tell-Tale Heart.

The Tell-Tale Heart is one of the author’s enduringly popular tales. Almost all editions of Poe’s tales contain this story. Also frequently collected in anthologies of horror stories by various writers, this story is not what a stereotypical horror story might look like. This one is not about ghosts or monsters. The story is narrated by a narrator whose sanity is distinctly doubtful. Although the narrator’s gender is not mentioned in the story, the tale’s development and the manner of narration makes the reader accept a man as the narrator, for once he does say that ‘madmen’ know nothing while trying to exhibit his mental stability and saying thus he may mean to say that he is also a man but not a mad one. Poe creates a gothic atmosphere in this story through the element of uncertainty and mystery that is abundant in it. The narrator talks of an old man but not of his relation to the person. He talks about his love for this man and his indifference to this person’s earthly belongings. But he contemplates killing this man as it is beyond his tolerance to feel the man’s stare. He talks of the man’s “pale blue eye with a film over it”. Then, one day, he goes on to kill the man. He then mutilates the body and hides them under the floorboards. The unexpected arrival of the police takes the story to another angle. Although the police do not find any traces of his nefarious act, his own personal qualms and his guilty conscience forced him to confess his heinous act. He hallucinates that the torn heart of the old man continues to beat even beneath the wooden boards. His fear that the policemen too can hear the beating scares him which leads to his doom.

This story has been read and discussed millions of times from its first appearance over a hundred and sixty years ago. Some have talked about the gothic elements in the story; discussions have also centred upon the victim’s relation to the killer; some have even tried to explain the story putting forth the proposition that the narrator is actually a woman who has been somehow wronged by the old man. This paper will try to talk about the ‘Freudian uncanny’ which is so beautifully present in it.

Freud is his 1919 essay talked about the meaning of the German word ‘unheimlich’. The word does not mean ‘scary’ or ‘mysterious’ but its meaning can be seen as something which is ‘un-homely’. Anything which is familiar and mysterious at the same time is what actually is uncanny. To hear a knock on the door at midnight might be something that can be called ‘uncanny’. It is this definition of Freud that is strikingly acceptable as far as Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart is concerned. The narrator is not at a place he is scared to be. The novels of Radcliffe and Walpole dealt with mysterious mansions for the cultivation of the gothic. Here, the gothic is bred at home. The narrator knows the place and the man. There is nothing for him to be scared of. He has known the man all his life. But why does he fear the man’s eye? This takes us to Hoffmann’s story, The Sandman. This story was also about the eye as the eponymous mythical beast is said to throw sand into the eyes of mischievous children. This causes the eyes to pop out of their sockets, which the creature takes away with him as food for its own young ones. Fear of losing one’s eye becomes the central element of the story. Poe was a reader of Hoffmann for sure and the dark Romanticism prevalent in most of Hoffmann’s work had a conspicuous effect upon Poe. The common uncanny eye in both the stories might have something in common for a reader.

Humankind has always given special importance to the eye. Some believe that looking into someone’s eyes means looking into his soul. For a man so much obsessed with the sexuality in humans as Freud, the loss of something as important as the eyes might refer to castration. The power which the eyes hold can be compared to potency when talked about in Freudian terms. Hence, coming back to Poe’s story, can the old man’s eye or eyes be symbolic of the man’s supposed dominance upon the narrator? This will be seen as whenever the man looked at this insane narrator, he felt some sort of repulsion. The stare of the man was what was abhorrent to the narrator, not the man himself. The Freudian uncanny is thus established. The old man was both a subject of affection and loathing. The narrator both knew the man and did not. He did not gain from the man’s death, but this death freed him from the fear of the ‘eye’ forever. The man was thus strangely familiar to the narrator.

Apart from the story itself, the manner of narration is also what Poe laid stress upon, not only in this particular story but in several others as well. What Poe calls the ‘unity of effect’ is prevalent in most of his stories. What this means is that everything in a story, all described activities and occurrences, should contribute to the effect of the story upon the minds of the reader. One of the good stories of Poe, The Masque of the Red Death, deals with the personification of a plague. The reader, however, can never forget a particular clock from the story. Although the clock has nothing to contribute to the plot itself, the reader’s mind is fascinated by the manner in which this clock is dealt with. Here we have a ‘unity of effect’ as the clock was also used by Poe for his purpose of cultivating terror. But The Tell-Tale Heart is different in its exclusive atmosphere which is only the narrator and the old man.

Talking about Poe from the Freudian perspective is never an easy thing to do as Poe died much before the ideas of psychoanalysis were born. Poe could never have dreamt of all that has happened in the twentieth century. Freud himself was born after Poe’s untimely death. But we can never negate the fact that what Poe has, in most of his writings, far surpassed his age and times. His understanding of the human mind was beyond his contemporaries as evident from his stories.

 This paper was just a humble but sincere attempt to posit Poe upon a psychoanalytic discussion and hence contribute to a clearer comprehension of his work. Poe’s wrings are brilliant in themselves owing to their nature that they leave a lot to the imagination of the reader. Their adaptability is unquestionable. Whether the reader was a contemporary of Poe or a person from the 21st Century, he always feels the story he reads. The Tell-Tale Heart will never be out of circulation as long as humankind exists and the story’s in-depth study of a criminal’s mind will continue to strike the Freudians scholars.


Introduction to the Author: 

Siddhartha Sankar Bhagawati [born: 1991] is a former student of the Department of English, Gauhati University. He was a part of the Class of 2012-2014. His specialization is American Literature. He lives in Golaghat, a small town in Assam, India.


Select Bibliography:

Botting, Fred, Gothic, New York: Routledge, 1996

Freud Sigmund, The Uncanny [Trans. By David McLintock], London: Penguin Modern Classics, 2003

Hoffmann, E.T.A., The Golden Pot and Other Tales [Trans. By Ritchie Robertson], Oxford: OUP, 1992

Jentsch, Ernst, On the psychology of the Uncanny [Trans. By Roy Sellers], 2010

Poe, Edgar Allan, The Dover Reader: Edgar Allan Poe, New York: Dover Publications, inc., 2014

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