Unreliable Narrators in the Works of Poe
Delta Winds: A Magazine of Student Essays
A Publication of San Joaquin Delta College
Unreliable Narrators in the Works of Poe
With dozens of poems and over fifty short stories published, Edgar Allan Poe is one of the United States most prolific writers. In many ways, Poe's own dark and turbulent life mirrored the somber, gruesome, and melancholy tones that defined his works. Orphaned at a young age and addicted to both gambling and alcohol, Poe married his young cousin, but lost her to tuberculosis just a few years later (Baym 683-686). With such a dramatic life, is it any wonder that nearly all of Poe's writings had dark tones, often dealing with the loss of a beautiful woman?
Outlined in his work, "The Philosophy of Composition," Poe makes clear his desire to write for the maximum possible effect on the reader (Baym 687). Understanding and specifically tailoring his work for the audience, Poe "sought ways to gain its attention for stories that, aside from their shock value, regularly addressed compelling philosophical, cultural, and psychological issues: the place of irrationality, violence and repression in human consciousness and social institutions; the alienation and dislocations attending democratic mass culture and the modernizing forces of the time; the tug and pull of the material and corporeal; the absolutely terrifying dimensions of one's own mind" (Baym 687).
To achieve his goal of affecting the reader, Poe employed several tactics and techniques. In some stories, Poe used setting to create the desired effect on readers. In other stories, imagery is heavily used to create the feeling Poe intended. Poe was very clear in his belief that creating work of a specific length was also highly valuable in achieving the intended effect on the reader. In "The Philosophy of Composition," Poe states, "there is a distinct limit, as regards length, to all works of literary art-the limit of a single sitting" (qtd. In Baym 738). Using all of the tools-setting, plot, symbolism, and length, along with what I consider Poe's most distinctive tool, the narrator-Poe was able to create poems and short stories that still affect readers today.
The use of an unreliable narrator is one of Poe's favorite narrative techniques. Richard Walsh, in "Who Is the Narrator?" reminds us that "the need for a concept of unreliable narration arises when we wish to explain inconsistencies in the narrative without blaming the author" (505). However, the character of the narrator must have a logical and explainable reason to be inconsistent. Walsh states, "unreliability cannot simply be attributed to an impersonal narrator; it must be motivated in terms of the psychology of a narrating character" (505). Throughout many of Poe's works, the "narrators' confessions reveal the irrationality of their attacks on supposed adversaries" (Kennedy 541). It is the revelation of irrationality by a narrator who is rationalizing his actions that is most discomforting to readers. Poe is a master at creating narrators who force readers to question the nature of sanity, both their own and the narrators', by clearly demonstrating the mental and physical stresses upon the narrator while placing smaller mental and emotional stresses onto the reader.
James W. Gargano, in "The Question of Poe's Narrators," addresses critics who mistakenly hold Poe responsible for the actions of his narrators. Gargano feels that too much criticism of Poe "is based, ultimately, on the untenable and often unanalyzed assumption that Poe and his narrators are identical literary twins and that he must be held responsible for all their wild or perfervid utterances; their shrieks and groans are too often conceived as emanating from Poe himself" (177). Instead, Gargano argues, the narrators are unique individuals who have their own motivations, fears, consciousness, and "limited comprehension of their own problems and state of mind" (178). With limits on the mental state of the narrator come limits on their believability and reliability. Gargano points out that "there is often an aesthetic compatibility between his narrators' hypertrophic language and their psychic derangement; surely, the narrator in 'Ligeia,' whose life is consumed in a blind rage against his human limitations, cannot be expected to consider his dilemma in coolly rational prose" (178). The narrator in "Ligeia" is a raving madman who cannot express his feelings in his own words. As Gargano states, the narrator's "feverish futility of expression, however, cannot be attributed to Poe, who with an artistic 'control,' documents the stages of frustration and fantastic desire which end in the narrator's madness" (178). Thus, the completed action of "Ligeia," demonstrates the narrator's self-delusion and slip into madness (178).
Similarly, in "The Tale-Tell Heart," the narrator's insistence on proving his own sanity only reinforces the idea that he is afflicted with madness (179). In unburdening his actions via confession, the narrator is shown to be living in a "haunted and eerie world of his own making" (179). In this work, "a scrutiny of the structural unity of the tale reveals that what we have here is in effect the dénouement of dramatic irony with a signiﬁcant ethical dimension: the narrator-protagonist is the only hypocritical person in the tale, and it is his own dissimulation that leads to his ungrounded suspicion of the policemen's dissemblance, which in turn leads to his downfall" (Shen 329). This type of narrator can be found throughout the works of Poe. Shen quotes another critic, Paul Witherington, who states that readers act as an accomplice to the crime, after the fact (338). In participating with the story, rather than just reading it, the reader has a stronger connection to the tale. In the aforementioned tales, as well as "The Cask of Amontillado" and "The Black Cat," the narrator's confessions and explanations for actions "provide an unmistakable clue to his protagonist's psychic deterioration" (Gargano 180). Even in his newly created detective writing, Poe uses the tactic of unreliable narration. In "Murders in the Rue Morgue," Poe challenges readers to "untangle what the unreliable narrator has tangled for us" (Bryant 32). With narrators who cannot be believed at the end of their tale, what rationale exists for believing them at any point in their story?
In "The Pit and the Pendulum," another tortured and shocked narrator is found. Awaking after the shock of receiving a death sentence in the Spanish Inquisition, the narrator first seeks to gather his mental abilities before trying to gather his physical abilities (Ballengee 27). To create a sense of doubt in the reader, Poe never makes clear the "narrator's particular crime, nor is it indicated that he himself knows his crime" (Ballengee 30). Ballengee reinforces the unreliability of the narrator due to his mental and physical state; "isolated within his dungeon chamber, the narrator undergoes horrifying bodily discomfort and pain that simultaneously suggest and provoke an experience that eludes rational knowledge and communicability. Such a moribund state, of course, remains not far from the awareness of the narrator of the story. In fact, a close proximity to death opens 'The Pit and the Pendulum'-'I was sick-sick unto death with that long agony; and when they at length unbound me, and I was permitted to sit, I felt that my senses were leaving me' and then continues to recur, as the narrator experiences a series of swoons and awakenings over the course of the story" (30). After the multiple swoons and returns to consciousness, "what remains to him [the narrator] of this moment are merely lingering suggestions of what it might have been: a sense of horror and stillness" (31). As vivid recollection fades from the narrator, Poe introduces an experience that "falls into neither consciousness nor unconsciousness" (31). Ballengee feels that in the resolution of this particular tale, "the story teller, the narrator, moves forward to meet the danger, standing on the brink of the abyss; in his transgressive attempt to communicate this experience aesthetically, he occupies simultaneously the position of criminal and detective, tortured and torturer" (38). The narrator is not just being tortured, but in his actions, he is causing torture to the reader. In this example, it is the narrative style itself that creates a mood of dread as much as the threat of torture.
By creating these narrators, who are unreliable due to their own faults, often clearly stated within their respective story, Poe is able to force the reader to question the validity of everything within the story. In doing so, readers are left with a sense of uneasiness and a lingering need to question the physical world around them. After all, if seemingly normal people in Poe's works can be driven to madness, perhaps, we as readers are just as close to crossing the line between sane and insane. More than ravens, evil eyes, disfigured cats, and being walled alive, the idea that our own perception is flawed and that we may be seeing our own version of the world like Poe's narrators do, is the ultimate fear.
Ballengee, Jennifer R. "Torture, Modern Experience, and Beauty in Poe's 'The Pit and the Pendulum.'" Modern Language Studies 38.1 (2008): 26-43. Jstor. 20 Nov 2016 <http://www.jstor.org/stable/40346978>
Baym, Nina. The Norton Anthology American Literature. Shorter Eighth Edition. Vol. 1. New York: Norton, 2013. Print.
Bryant, John. "Poe's Ape of UnReason: Humor, Ritual, and Culture." Nineteenth-Century Literature 51.1 (1996): 16-52. Jstor. 3 Dec 2016. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/2933839>
Gargano, James W. "The Question of Poe's Narrators." College English 25.3 (1963): 177-181. Jstor. 20 Nov 2016. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/373684>
Kennedy, J. Gerald. "The Violence of Melancholy: Poe against Himself." American Literary History 8.3 (1996): 533-551. Jstor. 20 Nov 2016. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/490156>
Shen, Dan. "Edgar Allan Poe's Aesthetic Theory, the Insanity Debate, and the Ethically Oriented." Nineteenth-Century Literature 63.3 (2008): 321-345. Jstor. 20 Nov 2016. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/ncl.2008.63.3.321>
Walsh, Richard. "Who Is the Narrator?" Poetics Today 18.4 (1997): 495-513. Jstor. 20 Nov 2016. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/1773184>