Masters of deceit: Poe's lying narrators

Susan Amper, Fordham University


Disparities long noted in Poe's stories between the first-person narrators' versions of events and those constructed by readers can be attributed not to the narrators' confusion but to deliberate deceit. Telltales of deceit include contradictions, implausible explanations, clumsy or hyberbolic language—long-recognized staples of Poe's fiction. Analyzing the patterns of deceit leads to the discovery of concealed murders in numerous stories. These murders, in turn, often figure the literary crimes of the narrator-authors. This approach employed in “The Black Cat,” for example, reveals the narrator has having killed his wife not accidentally on the cellar stairs, but deliberately at a much earlier date. The method leads to new readings of several highly regarded Poe tales. The madness of the narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” usually taken for granted, emerges as feigned. He is attempting to cop a plea of insanity, a novel defense and highly controversial issue known to have interested Poe. Narrative lapses in “The Assignation” suggest that the Romantic hero, supposedly a suicide, in fact was poisoned by the narrator. The tale has previously been identified as a hoax on Thomas Moore's biography of Byron. The concealed murder dramatizes the character assassination that lies beneath the flattering surface of the narrator's biography. The narrator of “Ligeia,” already identified as a murderer of Rowena by some and Ligeia by others, can be seen as a serial killer, apt image of the Gothicist, whose trade entails the repeated abuse of his heroines. The narrator of the “The Fall of the House of Usher” is likewise a Gothicist. His story masks a murder for money, and in the process enacts the transformation of the Gothic into the murder mystery. “William Wilson” is a story not merely of “doubles” but of copies. The narrator, not Wilson, is the copyist. His murder and appropriation of Wilson's identity figure the literary crime of plagiarism, a topic of intense personal importance to Poe. These readings re-enforce from a unique perspective the perception of Poe as fully engaged in the literary and cultural conversation of his day.

Subject Area

American literature

Recommended Citation

Amper, Susan, "Masters of deceit: Poe's lying narrators" (2001). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI9999818.