Conscience vs. Insanity

“William Wilson” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” are both works of Edgar Allan Poe that depict stories of conscience and madness.

In the short story “William Wilson”, the narrator starts to tell his story by telling the reader William Wilson is not his real name. In relation to this, he doesn’t want his name or title to be dishonored by this story. He also describes himself as an “outcast among outcasts”. The depressed man recounts his childhood and life as a student. When he entered a school, he met a boy who looked exactly like him and had the same name, birthday, and mannerisms. However, they have very different characters. They have opposing beliefs and values.

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All the schoolchildren respected him and acknowledged his supremacy among them. But his double was an exception. Eventually, the two William Wilson developed hatred towards each other.

After many years, the narrator became very busy engaging in deceiving card games. Whenever this happen, the second William Wilson unexpectedly came out of nowhere and exposed the first William’s scam to everybody in that game. Afterward, from time to time, this anti-Wilson came into scene and ruined Wilson’s dark plans whenever he was about to execute something evil.

One time, during Carnival at Rome, Wilson tried to seduce a married woman. When he was about to do it, his double arrived and smother the affair happening. Because of his rage, he ran to his nemesis and killed him. To his surprise, what he had stabbed was a mirror. As he watched the image dies, his double told him that he was also dead – to the world, hope and heaven. The image also whispered to him how he quite killed himself.

In this story of two-selves, the existing William Wilson is an epitome of man without morality. His bothersome double, who always got in the way with Wilson’s plans, symbolizes the good or pleasing side of his personality. Edgar Allan Poe exposes the tussle that happens inside a person. At last, virtue surrenders to vice. However, in killing his conscience, Wilson failed to attain the freedom he was seeking. Instead, “his life turned into a living death”. (Coulehan)

The short story “The Tell-Tale Heart” also talks about almost the same plot as that of William Wilson. A narrator who has no name begins the story by telling the reader and claiming that he is not mad, he is just nervous. He says that the story he is going to narrate will stand for his sanity but will admit that he have killed an old man. What pushed him to do that was not the passion or desire for money, but his fear of the pale blue eyes of the old man. Once in a while, he insists that he is not insane because his actions are measured and cool, even if they were a criminal’s act. Night after night, he went to the apartment of the old man. There, he furtively watched the man sleeping. During the morning, he would act as if nothing unusual happens. A week after his sneak observations, the narrator decides that it is the right time to kill the old man.

On the eighth night, the narrator came late. Unfortunately, the old man was awakened and called out. But, the narrator remains quiet, watching the old man as he stayed awake and alarmed. Shortly, the narrator heard a dull throbbing that he deciphered as the frightened heartbeat of the old man. He was nervous that a neighbor might hear the piercing pounding. Immediately, he attacked and murdered the old man. He then cut the body into pieces and hid them under the floorboards of the bedroom. He was so cautious not to allow even a single drop of blood on the floor. When he was finished with his activity, he heard a knock at the door. The police arrived. They told the narrator that a neighbor heard the old man screamed. The narrator sees to it that he was chatty to look like everything is normal. He accompanied the officers while looking all over the house, of course, without acting doubtfully. At the peak of his boldness, he even brought them in the old man’s bedroom. They sat down and talk. He succeeded to hide the crime because the policemen did not suppose anything. At first, the narrator was at ease. But later on, he started to hear a low beating sound. He identified it as the heart of the old man. He assumed that it was pounding away underneath the floorboards. He panicked that the officers might also hear the sound and find out the crime he did. The narrator was driven mad by the thought that they were ridiculing his distress with their amiable talk. Consequently, he confessed to the misdeed and yelled at the men to rupture the floorboards. (“Poe’s Short Stories”)

The two short stories almost have the same characters. Their narrators are both somehow became insane because of their conscience. However, the narrator of The Tell-Tale Heart is more insane than the narrator of William Wilson. The narrator of William Wilson was not totally insane. He was just always being bothered by his superego or his conscience. This was portrayed by his double, who seems to be following him wherever he goes. Poe used his double to represent the conscience, a psychological assessing half who brings to realization the disbanding agent of perversity by reprimanding the William’s mischief. In this story, the inevitable conscience of the narrator led him to intemperance and insanity.  The character William Wilson fumed against this ghost, and in his mental illness became his outlet. In this story, Poe described the probable cost for the man who prefers something or someone difficult to change. These are aggravation, fear, insanity, and finally, the eradication of conscience. This, in result, comprises spiritual death.

On the contrary, the narrator’s spirit of The Tell-Tale Heart formed a negative image which deceived the initiator of the act. Because of his insanity, he had made a crime. Even if it was against his will, he could not control it anymore because he was not aware of the real things happening. And after doing the crime, his conscience deceived him. It didn’t leave him alone. Hence, he admitted the crime he did, and that was his edge from the narrator of the William Wilson. He listened to his conscience and let it rule his system. The narrator of William Wilson is tough enough that he did not want to give his conscience a chance to interfere with his plans. That what made him lost his sanity.