Unreliable Narrators

Category: Literature
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“Edgar Allan Poe uses unreliable narrators throughout many of his writings. Whether he uses this unreliability through willful deception, mental instability, or drugs, the protagonist can not be dependable to accurately tell the events of the story. The author has the narrator purposefully lacks this credibility, because it can make the story more compelling to the reader, hooking them in. This narrative technique, is also used to oblige the reader to make a choice of either rejecting or accepting the version of the event given to them by the narrator. Making this choice, without the ability to confirm its integrity, with the help of multiple perspectives. Works by Poe, such as, “The Cask of Amontillado,” “Black Cat,” and “The Fall of the House of Usher,” all utilize an unreliable narrator as a technique to enhance itself.

In Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado,” the story is recounted by Montresor, meaning it is first person narrative. He begins by explaining that Fortunato inflicted unnamed injuries to him, and that Montresor sought revenge. Not only did he want to hurt Fortunato, but he wanted Fortunato to know that it was him, Montressor, who was doing the punishing. Montresor’s unreliability can be found in the very first paragraph of the short story.

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“The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could; but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge… I must not only punish, but punish with impunity. A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser. It is equally unredressed when the avenge fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong” (Poe 161).

Montresor sounds deranged and unstable, as he feels the need to make someone hurt, and for them to know why it is happening. To feel angry enough, to a point of seeking some sort of retribution, for the pain that was inflicted upon oneself, may not be that uncommon. However, commiting a murder for revenge is, and as the reader knows, this is what Montresor’s vengeance was. The reader doesn’t know why Fortunato was killed, as Montresor never informed the reader of the “injuries” Fortunato inflicted to him. With this lack of information, evaluating Montresor’s actions become very difficult. His unjustified and insufficient story line, may not convince the reader that Fortunato’s unnamed crime, fit his punishment. Montresor may be willingly trying to deceit the reader by not providing proof of a past conflict, or he just may be mentally unstable and overly aggressive.

Another reason Montresor may be unreliable is simply because he is villainous and malevolent, and trusting in someone like that becomes challenging. Plotting such a detailed murder, and figuring out how to draw someone to their place of death, makes the reader question his mental state. “He had a weak point—this Fortunato—although in other regards he was a man to be respected and even feared. He prided himself on his connoisseurship in wine” (Poe 161). Montresor finds Fortunato’s vulnerability (which is alcohol), and uses that to lure him into the catacombs, so he could lock Fortunato onto a wall, and brick him in, to ensure his death. Montresor makes sure nobody is home to witness this crime. He knew that if he told the caretakers of the house that he was gone and that they are not to leave, they would leave… and he was correct. “I had told them that I should not return until the morning, and had given them explicit orders not to stir from the house. These orders were sufficient, I well knew, to insure their immediate disappearance, one and all, as soon as my back was turned” (Poe 164).

Montresor appears to be deranged, belligerent, and flat out evil, to so meticulously plan this murder. This intricate plan wasn’t the only evil act, Montresor also found much amusement in the pain of his friend. Not only did Montresor murder his friend, but he sat back, and listened to his cries. “The noise lasted for several minutes, during which, that I might hearken to it with the more satisfaction, I ceased my labors and sat down upon the bones” (Poe 163). This man appears to be psychotic, by sitting back and listening to someone’s pain, and then finding satisfaction through it. Montresor is not a reliable narrator, as proven through his mental state, erratic actions, and evil doings. However, there is one more piece of evidence that may change one’s opinion about that really happened, and that is that this story was told a very long time after it really happened. Montresor could possibly be on his deathbed. Old, crazy, and spiteful. “For the half of a century no mortal has disturbed them. In pace requiescat” (Poe 166). Nearly 50 years after his murder, Montresor is telling this story. The narrator could be withholding the events of the whole story because may not have wanted the reader to know, or he may not be able to recall all of the events. Montresor’s unreliability is eminently constant throughout this short story.

Unreliability is constant throughout many of Poe’s short stories. Another story in which he uses this type of narrator is “The Black Cat.” This story firstly starts out by the narrator explaining he is on his deathbed, confessing his past crime to cleanse his soul. “To-morrow I die, and to-day I would unburden my soul. My immediate purpose is to place before the world, plainly, succinctly, and without comment, a series of mere household events. In their consequences, these events have terrified—have tortured—have destroyed me” (Poe 115). With these confessions brought about by the protagonist himself, the reader begins to question his reliability. For example, why is the narrator dying, could it be old age, or death because of his crimes? Especially because this question is never answered throughout the story, the narrator’s unreliability becomes evident. He calls his murders and cover ups “mere house hold events,” proving what he thinks he has done isn’t bad at all. More evidence of unreliability can be found again, in the introduction paragraph of the story in the very first few lines. “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” (Poe 115). Insisting upon one’s sanity is a sign that they themselves may not be very sane. Not only is the narrator trying to convince the reader that he is sane, but he is also trying to convince himself.

The narrator’s insistence apun sanity and his death confessions, are not the only things that show his unreliability. An unprovoked attack, as well as a meticulous and calculated concealment of evidence will show his unreliability too. After the narrator cut out his beloved cat’s eye, he then decided to kill it.

“One morning, in cold blood, I slipped a noose about its neck and hung it to the limb of a tree;—hung it with the tears streaming from my eyes, and with the bitterest remorse at my heart;—hung it because I knew that it had loved me, and because I felt it had give me no reason of offence;—hung it because I knew that in so doing I was committing a sin” (Poe 118).

The narrator admits to killing the cat but his explanation for why is vague and confusing. HIn his mind, he kills the cat because he felt bad for hurting it. Killing the cat doesn’t quite fix that problem. This confusion shows the narrator’s mental state, and acts of abrupt violence, proving his unreliability to the reader. Not only did the narrator kill his cat, but he also killed wife with an axe. He took too much pride in hiding her body, and the concealing the evidence.

“But this blow was arrested by the hand of my wife. Goaded by the interference into a rage more than demoniacal, I withdrew my arm from her grasp and buried the axe in her brain… This hideous murder accomplished, I set myself forthwith, and with entire deliberation, to the task of concealing the body” (Poe 119).

This narrator happily killed his wife, and killed his cat for a very peculiar reason, a reason that doesn’t make much sense to the reader. Insisting on sanity, lying on his deathbed, the reader understands that this narrator is very unreliable, due his mental state and his sudden acts of violence.

The mental state of the narrator in “The Fall of the house of Usher” is also very scattered and unreliable. After the story the readers are left wondering if any of the narrated facts were actually real. As everything that was read could have easily had been a fabrication of the narrator’s deranged mind, especially since he mentioned the use of Opium two times. At first he contrasts his “depression of soul” to the “afterdream of the reveller upon Opium” (Poe 12). The narrator is reminded of this drug when he hears Roderick’s voice, as he calls his voice one of a “lost drunkard, or the irreclaimable eater of Opium,” (Poe 17) during the times when Roderick was overly excited. These descriptions the are very detailed and sound like he personally knew the effects of Opium. This expresses the impression that the narrator probably has experimented with this drug, or could have even been addicted to it. Symptoms of doing particular drugs can lead to hilusionations, cognitive restrictions, and so much more. The narrator often even voices his restrictions such like: “I shuddered knowing not why,” (Poe 21) and in the beginning of the story, when stands looking at the House of Usher, the narrator cannot “grapple with the shadowy fancies that crowd upon me as I pondered” (Poe 12). If he cannot even grasp his own condition, how is he supposed to comprehend what really happens at the House of Usher.

Besides the use of drugs the narrator’s mental state is at question, as it seems he may have suffered from depression, and therefore was without difficulty influenced by the gothic setting. Before the narrator even reaches Roderick’s house, the narrator calls the day “dark, dull, and soundless” (Poe 12). He then describes the clouds and how they “hung oppressively low”(Poe 12). Once he encounters the House of Usher, he describes it as “melancholy.” He then begins by explaining his emotions once viewing the house, “I know not how it was—but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable” (Poe 12). This narrator even expresses his “utter depression of soul.” Taking all of this into consideration, the reader can assume that the narrator arrives depressed and melancholy, and the gothic and dark setting influenced him even more. Whether it was the narrator’s depression, or the use of drugs, it is clear to the reader that the narrator can’t be trusted to tell the events of the story accurately.

Inaccuracy is unreliability, and whether it is used through willful deception, mental instability, depression, or drugs, the narrator just cannot be trusted. Deception is the center of this unreliability, as Poe uses it for all of these kind of narrators. Their lack of credibility is only gradually hinted at, but never explicitly mentioned, so it is up to the reader to trust the narrator or not. Poe uses this narrative technique often and very well, as it enhances his stories. The “Cask of Amontillado”, “Black Cat”, and “The Fall of the House of Usher”, are all great example of how Poe uses this technique of an unreliable narrator to enhance itself and hook the reader in.”

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Unreliable Narrators. (2021, Jun 26). Retrieved from https://papersowl.com/examples/unreliable-narrators/