Unreliable Narrator

Poe's Stories


Edgar Allan Poe

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Poe's Stories: Unreliable Narrator 5 key examples

Manuscript Found in a Bottle
Explanation and Analysis—A Crude Imagination:

“Manuscript Found in a Bottle” begins with Poe’s unnamed narrator indirectly revealing his own lack of trustworthiness to the reader:

I have often been reproached with the aridity of my genius; a deficiency of imagination has been imputed to me as a crime; and the Pyrrhonism of my opinions has at all times rendered me notorious. [...] Upon the whole, no person could be less liable than myself to be led away from the severe precincts of truth by the ignes fatui of superstition. I have thought proper to premise thus much, lest the incredible tale I have to tell should be considered rather the raving of a crude imagination, than the positive experience of a mind to which the reveries of fancy have been a dead letter and a nullity. 

In the passage above, the narrator professes himself to be a man of reason whose words should be taken seriously. However, in the same breath, he acknowledges that the tale he is about to tell is incredible and therefore bears the risk of not being believed. Contrary to making the narrator more trustworthy, this honesty about the unbelievability of his tale puts the reader on the lookout for holes and inconsistencies in the story. Further, the narrator’s assertion of his own “genius” and intellect demonstrates a skewed favorable understanding of himself which throws the veracity of his words into question. 

Explanation and Analysis—A Vivid Imagination:

Edgar Allan Poe’s 1838 short story “Ligeia” is told from the perspective of the titular character’s former lover, whose grief and opium-addled mind slowly turns more and more insane, thereby rendering him an unreliable narrator. The longer he grieves for Ligeia, the more he begins to see her everywhere he turns:

But, as I stepped beneath the light of the censer, two circumstances of a startling nature attracted my attention. I had felt that some palpable although invisible object had passed lightly by my person; and I saw that there lay upon the golden carpet, in the very middle of the rich lustre thrown from the censer, a shadow—a faint, indefinite shadow of angelic aspect—such as might be fancied for the shadow of a shade. But I was wild with the excitement of an immoderate dose of opium, and heeded these things but little, nor spoke of them to Rowena.” 

Disconsolate at the loss of Ligeia, the narrator is unable to move on and enjoy marital bliss with his new wife Rowena. His constant confusion between his dead lover and his living wife makes the narrator’s account of events untrustworthy, especially as his hallucinations grow in their frequency and vivid strength. The narrator himself expresses a degree of awareness regarding the deterioration of his mind in the passage below:

If this I saw—not so Rowena. She swallowed the wine unhesitatingly, and I forbore to speak to her of a circumstance which must, after all, I considered, have been but the suggestion of a vivid imagination, rendered morbidly active by the terror of the lady, by the opium, and by the hour. 

The narrator’s decision to withhold the occurrences of his hallucinations from his wife and his ability to determine that their cause is likely rooted in his opioid use both demonstrate his self-awareness, but they also hint at his attempt to actively deny his declining mental state—that is, he knows he's not in a good place mentally, but he doesn't do anything about and, in fact, goes out of his way to hide his struggles from his wife. The question of whether Ligeia truly returns by the end of the story, or whether she is merely a figment of the narrator’s desperate, drug-addled grief and longing, is left for the reader to determine.

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William Wilson
Explanation and Analysis—Let Me Call Myself:

The narrator’s self-introduction at the start of “William Wilson” establishes his status as an unreliable narrator and foreshadows his tragic end: 

Let me call myself, for the present, William Wilson. The fair page now lying before me need not be sullied with my real appellation. This has been already too much an object for the scorn—for the horror—for the detestation of my race. 

The narrator’s reluctance to give the reader solid details (such as when he gives himself a false moniker rather than providing his real name) demonstrates his untrustworthiness. This initial quote also foreshadows the confusion between the narrator and his doppelgänger in the story, as well as his tragic demise. The narrator continues:

What chance—what one event brought this evil thing to pass, bear with me while I relate. Death approaches; and the shadow which foreruns him has thrown a softening influence over my spirit. 

The narrator’s awareness of his own impending death and the “softening influence” this knowledge has over him places the remainder of his account under scrutiny. The narrator’s double identity and his confusion about his own sense of self and identity over the course of the story likewise adds to the reader’s inability to fully trust the perspective laid out before them.

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The Tell-Tale Heart
Explanation and Analysis—How, Then, am I Mad?:

“The Tell-Tale Heart” is written in the past-tense from the first-person point of view of its unnamed narrator, and from the very first line, Poe makes it clear that this narrator is extremely unreliable: 

True!—nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses—not destroyed—not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily—how calmly I can tell you the whole story. 

Although the narrator asserts multiple times during the passage above that he is of sound mind, the entire remainder of the story proceeds to disprove this assertion. The very fact that he brings up his sanity so early in his recollection of the events of the story calls his state of mind into question, especially given how defensive his tone is. His grammar and syntax are choppy, bouncing from idea to idea with quick jolts and jumps that reflect his nervous and unstable disposition. The narrator’s grandiose language and assurance that he is healthy and calm, in conjunction with his uneven sentence structures, only underscore his mental instability.  

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The Black Cat
Explanation and Analysis—Mere Household Events:

“The Black Cat,” published in 1843, opens with the narrator providing a self-introduction full of heavy foreshadowing, as well as unintentional hints that his trustworthiness may not be the most reliable:

For the most wild, yet most homely narrative which I am about to pen, I neither expect nor solicit belief. Mad indeed would I be to expect it, in a case where my very senses reject their own evidence. Yet, mad am I not—and very surely do I not dream. But to-morrow I die, and to-day I would unburthen my soul. My immediate purpose is to place before the world, plainly, succinctly, and without comment, a series of mere household events.

The passage above sets up the fact that the main events of the story have already occurred and, furthermore, that they have had a terrible, tragic end—the ramifications of which are still ongoing, as the narrator is slated to die by execution. The narrator’s insistence that he is not mad and that the story he is about to tell consists of “mere household events,” even as he admits he does not expect to be believed, is extremely telling. Even more to the point, the narrator’s desire to “unburden” his soul before he dies certainly suggests that the events that led him to this point were more serious than mere trifles. His unwillingness to admit to this fact in the face of his imminent demise demonstrates an inability to own up to his actions and, by extension, an inability to relay this account truthfully.

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