Edgar Allan Poe’s Reliable Unreliable Narrator

by William Rand, Ph.D.
26 January 2013

As odd as it may seem, character development should rank highest in a fiction writer’s toolbox of techniques: higher than gore in horror, punch-lines in comedy and orgasms in erotica. Unfortunately, too many writers now are neglecting the buildup of a story to jump straight to the money shot, showing readers along the way just the political correctness they want to hear and avoiding what they do not want to hear, regardless of the truth. That is sort of like skipping foreplay to go right to the nipple.

Audience preferences are important considerations, of course (short paragraphs in website articles, for instance), but I see no need to present such mediocrity as scant story details and poor character development simply because readers will accept it, unless it is okay for readers to skip ahead in your novel from sex scene to sex scene, getting the obligatory one orgasm per chapter. Writers have too often forgotten that slow, careful, full development of all literary details, including those of character, intensifies the shock, laughs, sex, suspense and climax of any story. You are probably thinking that Romantic Era writers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) or Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) (straight, white men, horror of horrors) overdid the development a bit, particularly in descriptive detail, and that is a valid point in light of current literary tastes. Nevertheless, there are valuable lessons to be learned from them, and not exclusively in terms of technical development.

It seems that political correctness currently taught and demanded in university English departments, as well as pushed by publishers, accounts for at least some of the current technical decline of the written art as well as the rise in popularity of some genres. Lately, it seems that gay erotica is more acceptable on university campuses than horror novels, erotica for and about straight men and women or—the worst crime—straight porn.

In a manner disturbingly similar to the Cultural Revolutionist China of Chairman Mao Zedong (1893-1976), political content is emphasized more than craft or academic research and understanding. I recall a feminist student whom I endured in a creative writing course that I taught a few years ago. Her only contribution to the class discussion was to ask when we were going to cover a woman writer. Today in English, especially in the United States, literary masters such as Edgar Allan Poe, the eventual focus of this humble article, are ignored as models simply because they are straight white men or, increasingly, just because they are men or women, such as the great Harlem Renaissance author Jessie Redmon Fauset (1882-1961), who are positive toward men and don’t push man-bashing feminism.

In addition, writers seem to think of quantity and paychecks more than in quality. I have seen websites challenging writers to finish a story in a week or a novel in three months. I can get a sloppy, rough draft out in that amount of time, and that is how a lot of fiction published now looks. Aside from talent, well-crafted stories take time, practice and education to write. A significant aspect of education involves the close study of model writers like Poe, Hawthorne or Fauset, regardless of their sex, heterosexual preferences or fair-minded social politics.

Edgar Allan Poe, who wrote nonfiction articles, book reviews, poems and stories in the genres of horror and comedy, indulged in the double sin of being heterosexual and male. In addition to being straight, he committed a third terrible sin, by today’s standards anyway, of marrying his thirteen year old cousin Virginia Clemm. It is no wonder that Poe has dropped off the screen in favor of man-bashing pioneers Zora Neal Hurston and Alice Walker.

Regardless of those male, social transgressions, however—not problems in his day—Poe was thought insane by some because he wrote horror stories. Yet, upon rational examination, it seems that the presumption of insanity actually serves as a credit to his talent, hard work and craftsmanship.

Writing horror stories is, of course, part of it; people have called me crazy just because I write horror and perverted because I write straight erotica. Gay erotica does not illicit the same reaction of perversion, however, no matter how kinky it may be, probably because women write and read most of it. The problem seems to reflect an attack on men and men’s issues rather than the nature of the genre. Poe, at least, did not have to deal with that.

What he did have to deal with, along with authors of his era such as Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797-1851), arguably the founder of modern science fiction, was the challenge of making the fantastic seem credible to the reader, at least for the duration of the story. Poe and Shelley, as well as Hawthorne in The House of the Seven Gables and The Marble Faun, met the challenge with technical details, story development—craftsmanship. Such tactics may be seen as reader manipulation, but it is a willing manipulation in the world of fiction and nothing like the social indoctrination we have now.

In “The Tell-Tale Heart,” Edgar Allan Poe’s manipulation of the reader relies not so much on deception and unreliability as on his handling of a different reality. This is no attempt at a philosophical argument to rationalize a tenuous position. It is a matter of technique and viewpoint, and so, the lesson begins.

Every piece of fiction is essentially “a deception–a lie about life–which means that the writer must be an expert prevaricator, able to create the illusion that this . . . universe he or she spreads before the reader is real” (Knott 13).

Poe’s success at influencing the reader’s thought processes to the point of convincing him to trust whatever it is that Poe wants him to believe hinges on his ability to make the reader identify with the situation presented in the story while at the same time indulging him in the illusion that he is totally removed from it. (Saliba 66-67) Like any good writer, Poe accomplishes this reader manipulation or “influence” through character development and the fictional universe he creates.

If, however, the character seems needlessly inconsistent or this fictional universe does not in some way match the reader’s reality, some suspicion of deception may result. Poe avoids the potential problems in the only way possible: choosing to present his protagonist through the first person point of view. The reader is then presented with and limited to the fictional narrator’s view of reality. In this different reality, “everything external to the narrator serves to reflect his state of mind” (Ketterer 198). The reader capable of suspending disbelief will accept this because “the reader expects situation and characters to match” (Jason and Lefcowitz 185). That “match” is not compelling enough alone, however, without strong characterization.

“The intended function of Poe’s narrator is to captivate the reader’s conscious mind and mesmerize his senses to the extent that he cannot help identifying with the narrator to some degree” (Saliba 70). This can be called manipulation, but any good writer knows that many willingly manipulated readers are also quite demanding. Flat characters will mesmerize no one’s senses, despite the numbing effects of political correctness and social indoctrination. Philip K. Jason and Allan B. Lefcowitz say, “individuality, consistency, and complexity are the goals of successful characterization” (189); and a successful character will draw a reader into a story. Poe achieves complexity by giving his narrator a calm, logical, rational voice to contrast with his insanity: “Hearken! and observe how healthily–how calmly I can tell you the whole story.” Yet the narrator seems to be working to maintain his demeanor. He becomes, then, unique, an individual. But readers will still demand consistency with individuality. Poe achieves character consistency and justified access to a different reality because his unreliable, insane protagonist in “The Tell-Tale Heart” fits nearly perfectly the classic psychodiagnosis of schizophrenia.

Although readers would demand consistency of character, they would not, of course, be expected to believe as fact everything the protagonist reports. Even someone unfamiliar with the illness of schizophrenia would suspect hallucination in the protagonist’s early remark: “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.” And Poe’s audience would not have recognized the mental illness for what it was because the concept of dementia praecox was not clearly delineated until 1893 by Emil Kraepelin and its modern term, schizophrenia, was not coined until 1911 by Eugen (sic) Bleuler (Neale and Oltmanns 90-91).

Nevertheless, through the use of experience and/or observation, Poe created a character who behaved in a consistent, reliable manner, experiencing clearly schizophrenic hallucinations in the opening and closing scenes of the story; and Poe’s readers would have responded favorably to that consistency of character behavior.

This consistent albeit unreliable first person narrator was precisely what Poe sought. It gave him the opportunity to target a different reality in his stories. Poe’s audience would simply have accepted the alternate reality perceived through the protagonist’s insanity; however, John M. Neale and Thomas F. Oltmanns now explain more precisely: “Delusions and hallucinations are labeled as ‘self-protective’ and viewed as due to a disturbance in concept formation which in turn produced misinterpretations of reality” (99). Poe seems to have done his research, and his choice of character is not surprising.

Poe’s interest in the medical field and in mental illness, along with his tendency toward self-analysis frequently inspired him to create protagonists exhibiting forms of the mental illness then loosely termed “monomania.” Poe did his research, and any good fiction writer knows that thorough research is a crucial aspect of overall consistency and reliability in a story.

Poe’s use of the medical concepts of his time to describe his own conditions in letters and his references to medical books in his work suggest that as a writer he also exploited scientific sources in some of the subjects of the horror tales central to the controversies that pervade judgments of him as a literary figure. (Phillips 115)

If Poe’s narrator in “The Tell-Tale Heart” is consistent and accurately portrayed, then Poe has given us a key to the supposed unreliability of the character through his very nature. A clear understanding of the character’s type of insanity will provide an accurate view of his reality, allowing us to judge with reasonable certainty that which is accurate and reliable in his reports of the crime and that which is unreliable. We must, therefore, examine Poe’s protagonist for accuracy and consistency. Already mentioned are his hallucinations, showing consistency in the first and last scenes of the story; and “[t]he first three symptoms [of schizophrenia] are types of auditory hallucinations” (Neale and Oltmanns 95). Schizophrenia is not diagnosed through a single symptom, however. Another important element is change.

Mental illness is generally believed to be a condition that develops over time (Phillips 121). The length of time of the disease’s growth defines two types of schizophrenics: process and reactive. “The process schizophrenic shows a slow, insidiously developing deterioration. The reactive, in contrast, shows a rapid onset, typically preceded by some environmental stress” (Neale and Oltmanns 94). Poe’s narrator is a process schizophrenic, as revealed in the second paragraph of the story. “It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain; but once conceived, it haunted me day and night. . . . Whenever [the eye] fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees–very gradually—I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye for ever.”

But can the entry be accepted as reliable? It is, after all, delivered by an insane, unreliable narrator. Yes, because of the narrative hook: “ . . . but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses—not destroyed—not dulled them”. There are exceptions, but creative writing convention generally maintains that, unless shown clearly to be an obvious flashback or dream sequence, a narrative hook can be taken as reliable fact by the reader. “Thus the narrator—whom Poe evidently wishes to show as mad or, at least, the victim of the Imp of the Perverse—begins by denying his madness like the “logical” lunatic he is” (Bonaparte 491). The narrative hook presents a seemingly rational yet obviously insane narrator, comprehensible as such to any average reader.

It is only logical, then, to look first for symptoms of the “disease” and to at least tentatively accept those symptoms as genuine. Poe lends further support through the things he chooses to emphasize: “why will you say that I am mad” stated in the hook with italics and then rephrased again at the head of the third paragraph, “You fancy me mad”; the time element, “by degrees—very gradually—I made up my mind” with the added emphasis on “very gradually”; finally, the triviality of the protagonist’s motivation. Given the nature of the insanity, then, the astute reader will understand that the unreliable elements should occur through the narrator’s perceptions of himself and his physical environment, as affected by the schizophrenia.

This interpretation favors insanity over the supernatural (sometimes a debatable point in horror fiction) and would therefore discount the narrator’s claim to supernaturally acute hearing. His love for the old man can be believed, however, since it is a reported emotion and not a perception of his physical environment (his reality). However, the old man’s eye is part of the narrator’s perceived physical environment.

The eye also brings the narrator’s and the reader’s realities into their first true conflict. Is the narrator reliable in his assertion that something as trivial as an unattractive eye could drive him to murder? Is Poe attempting a form of manipulation beyond the norm of the fiction writer? The nature of the narrator’s illness suggests an answer. “Schizophrenia is characterized by a detachment from reality . . . and detachment from reality is basically a malfunctioning of the perceptual processes” (Weiner 103).

In addition, clinical testing has shown in diagnosed schizophrenics an “open expression and failure to repress aggressive urges . . . [as well as] aggressive preoccupation” (Weiner 180). The narrator’s line, “once conceived, it haunted me day and night,” certainly seems to fit the term, “aggressive preoccupation.” The old man’s eye, the object of the narrator’s aggressive urges, is also significant in light of the disease because a paranoid preoccupation with the organs of the body “frequently characterizes schizophrenia” (Weiner 181).

“Among the specific content indicators of paranoid orientation that have been examined experimentally are eye, ear, and reinforced body contour [sic] emphases” (Weiner 322). Within those parameters, higher than normal instances and degrees of eye fixation were noted among paranoid schizophrenics (Weiner 323). Poe seems not to have chosen the eye at random. Not only does the eye fixation work well within the disease symptoms, it also proves effective as a fictional device. “Eyes can be the conductor that orchestrates the emotional or psychic energy between characters . . . in a scene or scenes” (Orlofsky 25). It is no secret that emotional effect was always Poe’s primary goal in his fictional stories. Therefore, the narrator’s motivation to murder can be seen as genuine; only his perception of the physical attributes of the eye (“that of a vulture”) is questionable in terms of reliability.

Paragraph three in “The Tell-Tale Heart” presents one of the two instances of social interaction in which the protagonist engages in the story. “I was never kinder to the old man than during the whole week before I killed him,” introduces one scene. The second occurs at the end of the story between the narrator and the investigating police officers. Taken at his word, the narrator’s actions seem to conflict with schizophrenic symptoms. “Limited social skill and interpersonal aversion . . . are sides of the same coin, and experimental indices of both have been associated with schizophrenia” (Weiner 150). It seems unlikely that a writer as thorough as Poe would have overlooked so obvious a symptom in what was then termed dementia praecox.

The narrator does seem manic in his euphoria concerning his interaction with the old man and, especially, early on with the police, but the symptom may indicate manic psychosis rather than schizophrenia. Or the narrator may simply be overly emotional, as are many of Poe’s protagonists (as well as those of other Romantic era writers). This emotional urgency in the narrator does work as a tool of manipulation to draw the reader into the story. The urgency of the narrator’s efforts eventually leads the reader to the point of believing that in spite of the narrator’s insanity there must be an element of truth in what he says. (Saliba 67) Yet, would Poe favor such a transparent and unnecessary technique of manipulation over easily researchable facts?

The manic tendencies inherent in schizophrenia explain the apparent discrepancy. It is in fact “the manic response pattern with elements of primary disturbances of reasoning and reality testing [italics added] that differentiates schizo-affective disorder from manic psychosis” (Weiner 434). Weiner explains:
[M]anic tendencies are usually reflected in fantasy productions associated with excessive reliance on the mechanism of denial. . . . The hypomanic person maintains an exaggerated feeling of well-being by denying the existence of any thought, action, or event that might reflect adversely on his adequacy, veracity, or security. (434)

It is therefore reasonable to interpret the narrator’s report of his social relations with the old man and with the police as unreliable. The narrator probably was not as kind to the old man as he claims; and the officers, taking so much of their on-duty time to chat, were probably not completely “satisfied” with his explanation or with his “manner.” In fact, the narrator’s most reliable statement in the story’s final scene may be: “I foamed—I raved—I swore! I swung the chair upon which I had been sitting, and grated it upon the boards . . . .” The cause of the narrator’s discomfort and the stimulus for Poe’s final emotional, horrific effect also closes the story on another important symptom of schizophrenia: indefinite ego boundaries.

“The person with indefinite ego boundaries is likely to feel that there is no clear demarcation between his body and that of others, so that what happens to him happens to others . . . .” (Weiner 125). The beating of the old man’s heart that the narrator hears is, therefore, not a hallucination as simple as that with which Poe opened the story. Neither is it the first instance. When, on the eighth night, the narrator inadvertently awakens the old man with the noise of the tin fastening, he waits to see if the man will lie back down. “Presently I heard a slight groan,” says the narrator, “and I knew it was the groan of mortal terror.” Here is an instance where Poe’s clever choice of words can be seen as clearly manipulative. Poe does not have the narrator say the more likely, “Presently I heard the old man groan . . . .” Poe’s word choice lets the reader assume that the groan comes from the old man.

The indefinite ego boundary symptom suggests, however, that the groan came from the narrator himself, and that the narrator thought it came from the old man. The very specific, “I knew [italics added] it was the groan of mortal terror,” supports the claim. The terror is the narrator’s, and is reflected back soon after when he hears the heartbeat which he says, “excited me to uncontrollable terror.” The sound of the heartbeat, itself, suggests unreliable reporting from the narrator. “And now have I not told you that what you mistake for madness is but over-acuteness of the senses?—now, I say, there came to my ears a low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. I knew that sound well too. It was the beating of the old man’s heart.”

Here Poe provides plenty of cues—“over-acuteness of the senses,” “I knew that sound well too,”—to indicate the unreliability of the narrator as well as the clear difference in perspective between the narrator’s reality and the reader’s. By that point in the story, however, Poe’s mesmerizing narrator has hopefully drawn his readers in (manipulated them, if you prefer) to a degree where they will not see the cues for what they are and will instead have accepted the narrator’s reality as their own.

Despite the narrator’s insanity, despite the patent unreliability of his nature, the absolute consistency of his character, his persuasive voice, and the domination of his perspective over Poe’s willing readers will have been most instrumental in their acceptance.

At the climax, the narrator shrieks to the police, “I admit the deed!—tear up the planks!—here, here!—it is the beating of his hideous heart!” The narrator is, therefore, schizophrenic and unreliable to the end. Yet, the manipulated reader not only hears the heartbeat, but believes that it emanates from the corpse beneath the floorboards. And so Poe has succeeded in his plan to achieve the singular emotional effect of horror. Yet the success of his techniques of manipulation have depended paradoxically on the reliability and consistency of an unreliable narrator. Only well-researched and detailed character development could accomplish such an intense ending to the story, not a bad job, for a man.

Works Cited

Bonaparte, Marie. The Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe, A Psycho-Analytic Interpretation. London: Imago Publishing Co., 1949.

Jason, Philip K., and Allan B. Lefcowitz. Creative Writer’s Handbook. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1994.

Ketterer, David. The Rationale of Deception in Poe. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1 979.

Knott, William C. The Craft of Fiction. Reston, VA: Reston Publishing Co., 1983.

Neale, John M., and Thomas F. Oltmanns. “Assessment of Schizophrenia.” Behavioral Assessment of Adult Disorders. Ed. David H. Barlow. New York: The Guilford P, 1981.

Orlofsky, Michael. “Eyes: Windows to Your Characters’ Souls.” Writer’s Digest. July 1995: 24-26.

Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Philosophy of Composition.” (1846) accessed 28 January 2013

Phillips, Elizabeth. Edgar Allan Poe, An American Imagination. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat P, 1979

Saliba, David R. A Psychology of Fear, The Nightmare Formula of Edgar Allan Poe. Washington, D.C.: UP of America, 1980.

Weiner, Irving B. Psychodiagnosis in Schizophrenia. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1966.

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