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Unreliable narrators often misunderstand or overlook crucial connections, fail to see others motivations or even their own motivations besides misunderstanding what they describe (Piancentino 3). Their view and account of events are often biased, misleading, faulty and distorted and the narrators view departs from the readers understanding of the described events and the authors implied meaning of events. Unreliable narrator's views are thus unreliable and untrustworthy. Poe uses unreliable narrators in many of his stories including "The Tell Tale Heart", "the Raven", the Black cat", and "Ligeia" to effectively invite readers to participate actively in interpreting the narrative. The unreliable narrators in these stories share both similarities and differences while they serve to play various roles in the narratives.
In "The Tell-tale Heart" the narration illustrates the narrator's perversity, madness, obsessive paranoia, psychological suicide and self delusion all which add to the narrator's unreliability (Studies in ShortFiction 232). While the narrator attempts to show that he was sane by demonstrating his sagacity in planning and executing the murder, concluding it with a light heart and a calm mind is evident to the readers that the narrator suffers from self delusion and is insane and unaware of his own motives. The narrator's unreliability is further exposed when after police arrive, he first conducts himself and speaks in a composed manner but eventually breaks down as he continues hearing the old mans heart beating. The question readers may ask is whether they can trust that the man could hear the old mans heartbeat after he was dead. Definitely, the narrator cannot be relied upon to give an account of the events surrounding the old mans murder, motives and reasons due to insanity.
In the narration "Ligeia" the unreliability of the narrator is introduced in the first paragraph where the narrator asserts that he could not remember how, when or even where he became first acquainted with Lady Ligeia asserting that his memory was feeble from many years of suffering. The introduction draws the reader's attention to the narrator's state of mind, a view that is further cemented in the subsequent paragraphs where the narrator asserts that he was unaware of the paternal name of Ligeia, who is his wife. The narrator is depicted as an opium addict who is prone to hallucinations making his account of events to be greatly compromised and unreliable to the reader. Bieganowski (175) asserts that Stanley's proposal to a shift to analysis of what is happening within a reader may provide a fresh reading to the self consuming narrator in Ligeia. The narrator depicts scenes such as the "palpable and invisible objects," seeing "three or four large drops of ruby colored fluid," and the narrators seeing Ligeias take shape from Rowena's body. Readers are bound to question these happening and mostly part of the narrator's imaginations and perceptions suggesting the unreliability of the narrator.
In the Poe's "The Black cat" the narrator can also be described as an unreliable narrator. The narrator rationalizes his acts while it is clear to the reader that the man is insane and readers cannot trust the version that the narrator gives. Piancentino suggests that the retrospective narrator is actually two persons namely the man who killed his wife and the teller who is "an unreliable and untrustworthy authority."(p, 1). The narrator diverts the real reasons for murdering his wife attributing the murder to the cat having seduced him to committing the murder. In this way, the narrator not only diverts attention for the real motives for committing murder but offers a glimpse in the failure of the defenses and attempts at concealing what they feel to others and themselves. Piancentino describes the motive for the murder as subconscious and not premeditated. It is also shown that the narrator is unable to understand rationally his acts or persuade readers why he committed the crimes.
For instance, the narrators assertion and rationalization for the murder of his wife and of the pet cat attributing his actions to the primitive impulse of human heart and the spirit of perverseness and the need to do wrong for wrongs sake views that readers do not agree with. Piancentino suggests that the narrators cause for murder was likely due to an abnormal personality that was evident in his sentimental excesses, and provides evidence in an analysis of the psychobiography of the narrator. The narrators recount of the events are influenced by past experiences and resulting perceptions which may be subtle (Piancetino 2). While the narrator wishes that the reader would regard him as rational, calm and with high levels of self control, the events recounted indicate that the narrator is both illogical and excitable.
In the poem, "The Raven", the issue of an unreliable narrator also comes up where the speaker's state of mind is questioned. Freedman(3) asserts that Poe moved from the relatively simple question of the state of mind of the speaker and longing for well being in the poem "The raven", to the issue regarding the issue of getting meaningful responses from external sources of truth or even from self.
The stories depicted share similarities and differences. One of the similarities that are shared between the "Black cat" and "The Tale-tell heart" is the theme of guilt conscious. In the story the "black cat" the narrators guilt conscious is evident where after the police had searched and found no evidence for murder, the narrator started hearing loud continuous, inhuman screams and howls emanating from where he had hidden the body of his wife. Similarly, in the "Tell-tale heart", the narrator continues to hear the reverberation of the heart beat of the old man despite the reader's awareness that he was dead. Besides showing that the narrator could not be a reliable narrator, it also brought out the theme of guilt conscious.
One of the differences regards the cause of narrator's unreliability. While the cause of unreliability in the narrator in the "Black cat", and the "Tale-tale heart" is due to their possible madness, which has impaired their judgments, the cause for unreliability in "Ligeia" stems from the narrators consumption of opium. The narrator is depicted as an opium addict, which renders his judgments and perceptions to differ from reality. However, no evidence exists to indicate that the narrators in the "Black cat", and the "Tale-tale heart", are under influence of any substances that may alter their reasoning. In these cases, the narrators strongly erroneously believe in whatever they see and perceive as being real. In the story, "The Black cat", the narrator's possible psyche and possible reason for his committing murder are depicted where he asserts that from infancy, he was noted for his tenderness and docility and was even chide for it drawing the reader to possible childhood problems tat may explain the narrators state of mind (Piancentino 4). The cat and the wife reflect what he was, docile and gentle, characteristics that the narrator has come to loath leading to the murder of both the wife and the cat.
Another aspect of similarity is the fact that the unreliability of the narrators in all the four cases does not result from deliberate manipulation of the truth. It is plausible to argue in the case of the "Black cat", and the "Tale-tale heart", and "Ligeia" that the narrators do not use deliberate deception to argue their reasons for their actions but somehow they seem to be rationally incapable to decipher their own actions or even their motives. It is thus evident that in all the cases, the narrators are points of views are not deliberately flawed. In the case of the "Tale-tale heart and the "Black cat", it is plausible that the causes of their acts and unreliability as narrators is as a result of madness. In the case of "Ligeia", the use of opium is the major cause for the narrator's unreliability.
In all the stories and the poem, the use of unreliable narrator as a stylistic literary device is used to illustrate to the reader more than what the narrators say. For instance, while the narrators attempt to make arguments and futile rationalizations regarding their various reasons for committing the crimes, the reader is able to make judgments on the reliability of the narrators in offering an unbiased perspective regarding their acts. In this was, the narrators provide more information about themselves than what they actually say in the narration. The reader is thus invited to make judgments on the authenticity of the narrator's claims thereby determining that the narrators are unreliable source of information and cannot be trusted to provide a true and unbiased account of their acts, motives and even reasons for their actions. The narrators also provide an opportunity for the readers to fill in the information gaps that result from their narrations.