In literature, narrators serve as the voices of the story who tell it to the readers. Often, narrators are confused with the authors of literary works, which is incorrect. In many cases, the author and the narrator are not the same person. Commonly, the main protagonist of the story acts as the narrator. In that way, the perspective of this character is taken as the most important even though the perception and views of this person may be biased or flawed. Consequently, this kind of a narrator is regarded as unreliable as their judgments are not objective and can be affected by a variety of factors. In the stories of Edgar Allan Poe, many narrators can be characterized as unreliable due to their biased perceptions and clouded judgment. By reviewing and comparing several narrators from Poe’s short stories, it is possible to conclude that the narrator in The Pit and the Pendulum is unreliable due to his delusional state of mind, a high level of stress, and poor health.
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Reliable and Unreliable Narrators
In literature, narrators can be reliable or unreliable. The term “unreliable narrator” was first introduced by Wayne Booth who described the unreliability of a narrator as based on the differences between the views of the speaker in the story and the reader (Olson 93). Most often, it is up to the reader to decide whether or not judgments and thought processes of a particular narrator can be trusted. Practically, readers are the ones to determine how they feel about the narrator (Nünning 83-85). It can happen that the same narrator would seem completely reliable to one reader and quite the opposite – to another. Furthermore, a reader who perceived the narrator as a reliable speaker is more likely to take their statements and conclusions for granted without questioning them. At the same time, a reader who deems the narrator unreliable will question their actions and even the course of the story itself. With an unreliable narrator, the reader is welcome to become an active participant in the story helping to decipher its message, meaning, and course of events because the narrator is unable to do it (Monnet n.p.).
Narrators in Edgar Allan Poe’s Stories
The Pit and the Pendulum
In The Pit and the Pendulum, the unreliability of the narrator can be noticed starting from the first lines as he says, “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” (Poe 3). In this statement, the readers are informed about the delusional state of the narrator who underwent a torturous and shocking experience. By pointing out that his senses left him, the narrator emphasizes that his perception could not be trusted. Further, the narrator adds to his unreliability by describing a brief series of hallucinations. At first, he saw the candles on the table as “white slender angels”, and then his ailed imagination turned them into “meaningless spectres, with heads of flame” (Poe 4).
In William Wilson, the narrator proves his unreliability in the opening lines as well. By letting the readers understand that he is hiding his identity, the narrator immediately transforms into an untrustworthy stranger who has many secrets (Hartmann 92). In The Fall of the House of Usher, the narrator is suspiciously familiar with the effects of opium, which is obvious from his detailed descriptions of one’s sensations and feelings while being under the effect of this substance (Hinzpeter 3). This aspect of his personality and the inclination to compare regular events and phenomena to the experiences of drug consumption make this storyteller rather unreliable to the reader.
In The Tell-Tail Heart, the ultimately unreliable narrator can be found. Compared to the shady liar from Will Wilson and the drug user from The Fall of the House of Usher, the narrator of The Tell-Tail Heart begins to doubt his own sanity as the story progresses, which makes him more self-aware than other two narrators. At the same time, according to the level of self-awareness and introspection, the speakers from The Tell-Tail Heart and The Pit and the Pendulum are quite similar. Following the actions and thought processes of these narrators, it is possible to notice that, over the course of their respective stories, they become more and more self-absorbed trying to distinguish between the tricks their minds play on them and the actual reality. This state of confusion and frustration inflicted by the narrators’ inability to tell apart their delusions and the reality calls for the readers’ doubt in their competence as storytellers.
The presence of an unreliable narrator is rather engaging for the readers. Such speaker encourages the readers to attempt to decode the events and the development of the story independently because the narrator’s conclusions and perspectives cannot always be trusted. In turn, this phenomenon can create a more captivating story and produce a strong emotional effect on the reader. The latter gets to experience the point of view of an extremely confused narrator thus becoming a part of his personal mindset.
In particular, in The Pit and the Pendulum, a reader becomes a witness of the speaker’s hallucinations, fears, and delusions and, as a result, is forced to read into the narrative presented via a highly limited set of means and available information. For instance, the narrator’s perception is distorted by his state of shock and exhaustion. In addition, he is locked in a dark cell where the sense of touch is the only way to learn about the setting. In that way, the unreliable narrator whose view of the world around is limited by various factors serves as the ultimate force driving the reader to become more involved in the story attempting to make their way through its course without giving in to the narrator’s flawed or imperfect interpretation of events.
Edgar Allan Poe is well-known for his unique style of storytelling and presentation. One of the artistic means on which he relied quite often in his works is the introduction of the unreliable narrator. The latter is the kind of speaker whose perception is distinctively flawed in some way making this person untrustworthy as a storyteller. This technique helps the writer to create the conditions forcing the readers to engage with the story in a more focused and concentrated manner. In The Pit and the Pendulum, the narrator is delusional due to poor health, exhaustion, and shock. He hallucinates, and his vision is impaired by pitch darkness in his cell. Consequently, the reader becomes encouraged to try to decipher the course of events independently.
Hartmann, Jonathan. The Marketing of Edgar Allan Poe. Routledge, 2008.
Hinzpeter, Kristen. Unreliable Narration in Poe’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ – The Narrative Creation of Horror. GRIN Verlag, 2012.
Monnet, Agnieszka Soltysik. The Poetics and Politics of the American Gothic: Gender and Slavery in Nineteenth-Century American Literature. Routledge, 2016.
Nünning, Ansgar. “”But why will you say that I am mad?” On the Theory, History, and Signals of Unreliable Narration in British Fiction.” AAA: Arbeiten aus Anglistik und Amerikanistik, vol. 22, no. 1, 1997, pp. 83-95.
Olson, Greta. “Reconsidering Unreliability: Fallible and Untrustworthy Narrators.” Narrative, vol. 1, no. 1, 2003, pp. 93-109.
Poe, Edgar Allan. The Pit and the Pendulum. n.d. Web.