What is insanity? Stephen King a renowned writer of horror books said in his short story Why we Crave Horror Movies “I think that we’re all mentally ill; those of us outside the asylums only hide it a little better – and maybe not all that much better, after all.” Madness or mental illness is a prominent theme in both Lamb to the Slaughter a short story by Roald Dahl and in Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe. The insanity leads to murders in both short stories, and unjustified murders at that. Both protagonists commit murders as a result of their madness. Mary kills her husband in the heat of the moment after her husband notifies her he is leaving her, pregnant and jobless. The protagonist in Tell-Tale Heart kills his neighbour, an old man with an eye that the protagonist finds most unpleasant and made his blood run cold every time he looks at it. Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart and Dahl’s Lamb to the Slaughter reveal the state of mind of the character
Mary from Lamb to the Slaughter and the (nameless) narrator from Tell-Tal Heart both have a mental illness that allows them to justify murder. Mary is a manipulative sociopath who feels no remorse after murdering her husband. She has no difficulty lying to police to establish her innocence and in fact lies very convincingly, typical of a sociopath. The narrator at the beginning of the story acknowledges he has a “disease” which makes his senses, especially his hearing, very sensitive and to prove he isn’t insane the narrator tells this story. This disease the narrator has is paranoid schizophrenic which is as excessive concern about one’s own well-being like the narrator and the “evil” eye, also people with paranoia tend to believe that they have super sensitive hearing. They hear inanimate object taking to them or voices that don’t exist, that would be the beating heart of the old man buried underneath the floorboards. Than the narrator had the arrogant enough to go and bring the officers and sit right over top of the floorboards where he hid him. Similarly in Lamb to the Slaughter Mary was so overconfident in her lie and manipulations that she fed the officers, who were investigating her husband’s murder, the murder weapon, the leg of lamb. Her rash decision could have led to her arrest however, I think the narrator from Tell-Tale Heart couldn’t stand the guilt and confessed to the murder. Both Mary and the narrator from Tell-Tale Heart are crazy, this insanity prompts both characters to murder in cold blood.
Both characters commit murders in cold blood however; a major plot difference in both stories is guilt, and their response to the murders. Mary feels no guilt, no remorse for the atrocious crime she just perpetrated; Mary doesn’t even shed a tear for the father of her child. Instead of feeling guilt Mary acts more like a hardened criminal not like the housewife and begins right after the murder to fabricating her alibi. Mary begins to practice what she is to say to the grocer at the store practising “ ‘Hullo Sam’, she said brightly, aloud. The voice sounded peculiar too. ‘I want some potatoes please, Sam. Yes, and I think a can of peas.’ ” Mary was more consumed in creating her alibi than mourning her husband’s death. Unlike Mary the protagonist in Tell-Tale Heart feels guilt for what he has done, so much so that he begins to imagine he can still hear the old man’s heart still beating, reminding him of the murder he committed. His conscience is creating the heartbeat in his head because he feels guilty for the murdering the old man. The old man cries out “Villains!” I shrieked, “dissemble no more! I admit the deed! — tear up the planks! — here, here! — it is the beating of his hideous heart!” The old man could not stand to have the murder on his conscience and the guilt overcame him and he confessed to the murder of the old man. The narrator’s motive to kill the old man is because of his “evil” eye the old man described it as such, “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 for ever.” The narrator feared the eye and his paranoia led him to believe the eye was evil and he must eliminate it by killing the old man. Actually the narrator did not hate the old man; rather he had this to say about the old man whom he butchered “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!” The old man’s motives for murder were not based on self-defense but just because he didn’t like how his eye looked. On the other hand, Mary’s murder was a crime of passion, in the “heat of the moment” she lashed out and struck her husband with the leg of lamb but not with the intention to kill Mary says “At that point, Mary Maloney simply walked up behind him and without any pause she swung the big frozen leg of lamb high in the air and brought it down as hard as she could on the back of his head.” Mary had no idea she would kill him actually she was quite surprised she goes on to say “All right, she told herself. So I’ve killed him.” Mary’s motives were not to murder, rather it is just a response to her husband’s choice to divorce her; it was not pre-meditated. In both stories the character’s motives lead to guilt because Mary’s attack was in the moment but the old man’s murder was premeditated which therefore produced his guilty conscience.
Guilt is common in both short stories as is the use of symbols. Both authors use symbols in their writing to add deeper meaning to the topic and support the theme of the story. In Lamb to the Slaughter Margret Atwood uses the clock and time to indicate time and contributes to the depth and the changes that undergo in the story. There is a difference of time before and after the murder. Before the murder time was pleasant and tranquil she says “Now and again she would glance up a the clock, but without anxiety, merely to please herself with the thought that each minute gone by made it nearer the time (her husband) would come. For her this was a blissful time of day. When the clock said ten minutes to five, she began to listen, and a few moments later, punctually as always, she heard the tires on the gravel outside” Than after she murdered her husband time changed its meaning and everything started happening quickly she says “It was extraordinary, now, how quick her mind became clear. It was as if time stood still. She began thinking very fast.” Mary is so preoccupied with time, patiently knitting waiting for her husband to come home it doesn’t take her very long to forget him and move on. For a woman so cognisant about time should recognise the critical time of gestation and during the twenty minutes her husband was home she drank a glass of whisky. Similarly in Tell-Tale Heart time also plays a significant role in the theme. In the narrator’s madness he is so amalgamated with time he says “A watch’s minute hand moves more quickly than did mine.” The narrator in his madness perceives himself as a clock keeping the time, time left for the old man is in his hands. The narrator compares the ticking of a clock to a heartbeat when he says “I say, there came to my ears a low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton.” The narrator compares a heart to a clock; some even call our heart an eternal clock when it stops ticking the person dies. This leads me into another symbol the old man’s eye. It is referred to as evil and it looks like a vulture’s eye. Vultures are scavenger birds that prey on the dead, this may be because he has not died yet of his old age while he watches others die around him. The narrator also believes the eye has special powers he says “I replaced the boards so cleverly, that no eye not even (the old man’s) could have detected anything wrong.” Suggesting that the old man’s eye had special powers, such as the phrase “the eyes are the window to the soul.” Perhaps that is what the narrator has to fear, maybe believing the old man’s evil eye will steal his very soul. Similarly in Lamb to the Slaughter the lamb is a symbol of her meek status in the relationship it is also a biblical allusion to the Lamb of God. Lambs are weak animals and require the shepherd to protect it and guide it. In this story she is the lamb, and her working husband is the shepherd, taking care of her. Than when she slaughters her husband she breaks the chain and frees herself from the metaphorical shepherd. Mary does everything for her husband. She makes his dinner. She mixes his drinks. She cleans his house. She devotes herself to that man so much and what does she get in return? A divorce! So she fights back and kills him. Than in a very good use of dramatic irony the officers eat the murder weapon they have fruitlessly searched for. As the murder weapon is destroyed so is Mary being the weak lamb in this relationship. LAMB OF GOD?
In both of these stories point of view plays important roles in both novels. In Lamb to the Slaughter the story is portrayed in third person limited this is significant because the plot follows Mary and her thoughts but the other characters are presented externally, thus giving insight into only Mary’s thoughts and internal emotions. The author chose this point of view to present the crazy wife and what happens in the mind of a sociopath. Likewise in Tell-Tale heart the story is told in first person so the one character is telling the story of what’s happening. This point of view is significant because it gives the reader the biases and opinions of the narrator. In this case the bias is madness and the reader is given insights into the mind of a paranoid schizophrenic who tries to justify murdering his neighbour because of his eye. In the same way the reader is given knowledge of a woman who would kill her husband than feed the murder weapon to the police and giggle like a school-girl at their ironic statement “I bet the murder weapon is right under our noses.” The reader learns about the mind of a sociopath and how they can lie and manipulate others with ease. In both short stories the reader learns about the apparent madness of both characters and their thoughts and rationalizations about murder.
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