A Murderer's Journey Through The Works of Dostoyevsky and Poe
Some people believe that most murderers have a mental illness which
causes them to commit their crime. This belief is strongly disagreed with by
the authors Edgar Allan Poe and Fyodor Dostoevsky. Crime and Punishment, "The
Tell-Tale Heart", "The Black Cat",and "The Cask of Amontillado" are very similar
in this contradiction. Each murderer takes a specific journey that has been
illustrated in each case. The psychological make-up of each murderer shows that
he is a normal person up to the point at which something compels him to commit
this horrible crime, and after that his conscience usually leads to his own
Before the murder has been committed the character is a regular human
being. In most cases the characters that end up carrying through with this
crime are above average people. Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment is "...
quite an extraordinarily handsome young man..." (Crime and Punishment, pg.21)
Raskolnikov is a very gifted university student, with a very good talent for
figuring people out. Raskolinikov takes great pride and care for his family. On
receiving a letter from his mother
...he quickly raised the letter to his lips and kissed it; then he spent
a long time poring over the handwriting on the envelope, over the small,
slanting handwriting, so familiar and dear to him, of his mother who had once
taught him to read and write. (Crime and Punishment, pg.47)
Raskolnikov's mother, who taught him how to read and write did this job quite
well. This resulted in a very gifted and brilliant university student. This
point is illustrated throughout the novel from the planning and carrying out of
the murder, to interactions with the police.
The narrator from the short story "The Black Cat" describes his
"tenderness of heart was even so conspicuous as to make me the jest of his
companions." ("The Black Cat", pg.390) He is quite a regular human being who is
"...especially fond of animals..." ("The Black Cat", pg.390) The narrator also
has a great wife whom he describes as being quite similar to himself, which
shows that he must be quite normal if a good woman chooses to marry him. Much
alike is the narrator from the short story "The Tell-Tale Heart". Again this
character is full of love. The victim of his crime had done no wrong and for
that the narrator "...loved the old man." ("The Tell-Tale Heart", pg.384) The
narrator shows the same brilliance in planning the crime that Raskolnikov
exhibits. People with great intelligence, great lives, possessions and friends
must be normal people. This seems to hold true in the short story "The Cask of
Amontillado". The narrator is a man with great wealth. He has many friends
which would signify that he is quite a normal character. He lives in a nice
house with servants and fine wine. This all seems to show that his mind is
intact, if he obtains and keeps these symbols of success. It seems as if each
and every character discussed is quite a normal human being. In most cases the
wealth, knowledge, or love of others is far above average than most other human
The normal psychological make-up of a murderer has to change before the
crime is committed. Something must happen in the character's life that causes
them to alter their reasoning ability into something that maybe considered as
insanity. It is seen quite clear that the loving character from "The Black Cat"
"experienced a radical alteration for the worse." ("The Black Cat", pg.391) The
turning point in his mind was explained by the narrator. "But my disease grew
upon me - for what disease is like Alcohol!" ("The Black Cat, pg.392) This
problem with alcohol is clearly the point at which the reasoning of the
In Raskolnikov's case this change is also quite clear. For an above
average university student it would be devastating to see education slip through
his fingers beyond control. "He was crushed by poverty, but even straitened
circumstances had ceased to worry him lately." (Crime and Punishment, pg.19)
The poverty causes Raskolnikov to leave university. Upon leaving university he
is left alone with his thoughts. "At that moment he was fully aware that his
thoughts were at times confused and that he was very weak: for two days now he
had had hardly anything to eat." (Crime and Punishment, pg.20) Poverty is
clearly what changes Raskolnikov's psyche.
The narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart" has a bizarre reason for this
change to occur.
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! He had the eye of a vulture - a pale blue eye with a film
over it. ("The Tell-Tale Heart", pg.384)
This figurative meaning of the old man's eye can be interpreted in the broad
view that the narrator dislikes the old man's personality. The narrators change
stems from the selfishness and uncaring of the old man. The narrator of "The
Cask of Amontillado" takes a change that occurs for the plain reason of revenge.
it is evident that the character has passed a certain point at which his
thoughts have changed as to compel him to carry through with this crime.
In each work the murder has been committed it certainly takes a great
psychological effect on each character. The narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart"
experiences this as he is conversing with the police.
"The ringing became more distinct: - it continued and became more
distinct: I talked more freely to get rid of the feeling: but it continued and
gained definitiveness - until, at length , I found that the noise was not within
my ears." ("The Tell-Tale Heart", pg.389)
It is shown that the narrator's conscience is ringing and it is driving him
insane. He gets more insane as time passes "It grew louder - louder - louder!"
("The Tell-Tale Heart, pg.389) This seems to be how his mind alters and is being
punished for this alteration for the worse. The sound imagery is also used
within the story "The Black Cat". After the first murder of his cat, the
narrator's feeling of guilt grows with every passing day. "...I longed to
destroy it with one blow, I was yet withheld from doing so, partly by a memory
of my former crime." ("The Black Cat", pg.396) It seems as if his conscience of
his former crime is restricting him from choices he once might have made. The
narrator's feeling of guilt is eased by the discovery of a new cat. This turns
out to be too much for him to take. As the narrator is trying to kill the
second cat, his wife gets in the way and he kills her instead of the cat. After
this happens his guilt is very unnoticeable. A cry is heard as the police are
searching hi house and eventually reach the tomb in which his wife is hidden.
It was "Quickly swelling into one long , loud, and continuous scream... a
wailing shriek, half horror and half triumph..." ("The Black Cat", pg.400) Again
this scream signifies the triumph of the conscience or of good over the evil
deed that the character has attempted to conceal.
The novel Crime and Punishment deals with this same idea of the role
that guilt plays in the downfall of a murder. Raskolnikov begins his dealings
with his conscience very soon after the crime. Raskolnikov leaves clues around "
...because all his mental faculties were weakened and shaken - his mind was
clouded." (Crime and Punishment, pg.109) This cloud of judgment causes
Raskolnikov to attempt to avoid his conscience. He explains "What is it? Am I
still delirious or is it all real? I think it's real?... oh I remember now I
must run." (Crime and Punishment, pg.146) Raskolnikov continues to sway back and
forth between admitting his guilt, and trying to escape it. It is shown through
several events that Raskolnikov's crime has led him to the solitude of delirium
and it gradually eats him away inside. The realization is finally made that he
is not the extraordinary man that he thought he was. He states,
I am a louse', he added, grinding his teeth, "because I myself am
perhaps worse and nastier than the louse I killed, and I knew beforehand that I
would say that after killing her!" (Crime and Punishment, pg.292)
As the Raskolnikov's deterioration continues, he finally comes to the
realization that his conscience cannot deal with this any longer. "It was I who
killed the old woman money-lender and her sister Lisaveta with a hatchet and
robbed them." (Crime and Punishment, pg.542) The confession given at to end his
ordeal is a direct relation to his conscience.
This is much like "The Tell-Tale Heart" in which the narrator also
confesses, ""Villians!" I shrieked, "dissemble no more! I admit the deed - tear
up the planks! - here, here! - it is the beating of his hideous heart!" ("The
Tell-Tale Heart", pg.389) It is not stated that the narrator admits his guilt
but is certainly is symbolized by the scream. This also leads to the downfall
of this character, much like the others. It is truly obvious that each
characters conscience leads them to insanity which in turn leads to their own
A murderer's journey includes several distinct stages. These stages:
being a normal human being, taking a turning point to cause the murder, and
dealing with his conscience are all followed in each and every case of study.
The character that has committed the murder travels through this process. This
journey is a process that is happening in everyday society, and is clearly
illustrated through each piece of literature.
Dostoevsky, Fyodor Milchailovich. Crime and Punishment. Markham: Penguin
Poe, Edgar Allan. "The Black Cat". Great Short Works of Edgar-Allan Poe. G. R.
Thompson. New York. Perennial Library, 1970. 390-401.
Poe, Edgar Allan. "The Cask of Amontillado". Great Short Works of Edgar-Allan
Poe. G. R. Thompson. New York. Perennial Library, 1970. 496-503.
Poe, Edgar Allan. "The Tell-Tale Heart". Great Short Works of Edgar-Allan Poe. G.
R. Thompson. New York. Perennial Library, 1970. 384-390.