When “Disability Demands a Story”: Problems With the “Unreliable” Narrator

by Maria Rovito

The manner in which first-person narrators tell the reader their stories greatly impacts whether or not the reader views these narrators as trustworthy and reliable. In several cases, scholars and readers alike deem these narrators as “unreliable,” based on many different criteria within these stories that readers define as “true” or “factual.” Many scholars and readers take pleasure in scrutinizing the thoughts and actions of these narrators and evaluating what is in fact “true” within these sorts of narrations. Each of these “unreliable” narrators are categorized based on the underlying rationalization of their thoughts and actions; these are divided into four categories as defined by Riggan (1981). One of these classifications of the “unreliable” narrator is that of the “madman,” a narrator who suffers from a severe mental illness, and this impairment hinders the narrator’s ability to tell their story correctly (Riggan 133). However, a reading of these “madman” narrators through the lens of the social model of disability studies greatly impacts how the reader considers these narrators as “unreliable,” and ultimately questions how readers determine who is a “madman” and who is “sane.” As Michael Bérubé states, “disability demands a story” (43). I argue this perspective through an example of one of the narrators in Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories.

Disability and Narration

It is important to understand the different models of disability when speaking of disability in narration. Critical disability studies are historically divided into two major models: the medical model and social model. These two models can give scholars a better understanding of the medicalization of disability as well as the lived experiences of individuals with impairments. An awareness of these models can also aid in readings of disability narratives and can help readers determine how a narrator meets the criteria for being unreliable. I believe that both Booth’s and Riggan’s classifications for the unreliable narrator represent a problematic and ableist view of disability and that their privilege and power as academics upholds ableist views as members of the “cognitive authority.”

Social, political, and religious institutions have played an important role in determining how we as a society classify bodies as “normal” and “abnormal.” These institutions are classified as the “cognitive authority,” as “[c]onceptualizations of disability are influenced by professional organizations and individuals who have the power or authority to establish definitions in society and are in command over the knowledge within a particular field” (Haegele and Hodge 193). Academic institutions and scholars within literary theory can also act as the cognitive authority, as these institutions and professionals have the power and privilege to determine whether a narrator meets the norms and criteria to be classified as untrustworthy and therefore not part of “normal society.” These larger forces within academia can problematically label narrators as disabled, affecting how they are taught within the academic setting and how the portrayal of literary works can uphold ableism within the university and ultimately society.

The medical model ultimately views disability as “[a]n individual or medical phenomenon that results from impairments in body functions or structures; a deficiency or abnormality […] disability is understood as an individual and/or a medical phenomenon that results in limited functioning that is seen as deficient” (Haegele and Hodge 194). In these instances, doctors and scientists view disabled individuals as “problems” that deviate from the social norm; these individuals must be “fixed” in order to maintain normalcy within society (Oliver 1446). The cognitive authority, according to the medical model, also determines what is “normal” human thought and behavior, and what is “abnormal” (Oliver 1446). Many scholars argue that the medical model of disability is in fact the medicalization of disability: “[s]imilar to ill health, disability, including problems with the mind or body, is viewed as a problem that needs to be medically cured so individuals can function within society” (Haegele and Hodge 195). Some notable scholars within disability studies, such as Oliver, believe that the medicalization of disability is inappropriate, arguing that disability is a social state rather than a diagnosable condition:

In short, […] there is no such thing as the medical model of disability, there is instead, an individual model of disability of which medicalisation is one significant component […] Why then is the medicalisation of disability inappropriate? The simple answer to this is that disability is a social state and not a medical condition. Hence medical intervention in, and more importantly, control over disability is inappropriate. Doctors are trained to diagnose, treat and cure illnesses, not to alleviate social conditions or circumstances. (“The Individual and Social Models of Disability”)

It can be argued, using Oliver and Haegele and Hodge’s definitions of the medical model of disability, that classifying narrators as unreliable based on the fact that they have a physical or mental disability promotes ableism within literature and throughout academia. Reading these narrators through the social model of disability helps to alleviate these problems within literature.

Contrasting the medical model, the social model of disability argues that disability is “a social state,” as Oliver describes (“The Individual and Social Models of Disability”). Instead of disability being viewed as a problem within the individual, the social model contends that “it is society that imposes disability on individuals with impairments […and] disability is considered the disadvantage or restriction of activity caused by a social organization that does not take into account people who have impairments and excludes them from community life” (Haegele and Hodge 197). Unlike the authority of institutions and professionals within the medical model, the cognitive authority according to the social model is “academics and advocates with disabilities” whose goal is to “decrease environmental barriers and increase levels of understanding” for the whole of society (Haegele and Hodge 194). Problems arise when medical professionals, rather than agents of social change, control the cognitive authority, as disability is understood as a social state. As Oliver states,

[…] the medical profession, because of its power and dominance, has spawned a whole range of pseudo-professions in its own image; each one geared to the same aim—the restoration of normality. And each one of these pseudo-professions develops its own knowledge base and set of skills to facilitate this. Increasingly, disabled people, individually and collectively, are coming to reject the prescriptions of the ‘normalising’ society and the whole range of professional activities which attempt to reinforce it. (“The Individual and Social Models of Disability”)

The practice of diagnosing specific individuals with illnesses and impairments is essentially similar to classifying narrators and characters within literature as either “reliable” or “unreliable.” This practice goes even further into distinct categorizations of unreliability, as Riggan’s definitions of the pícaro/as, naïfs, clowns and madmen is based upon the manners in which these narrators are unreliable: are they simply lying to us, or do they have a psychiatric illness that prevents us as readers from believing them? Many scholars even attempt to diagnose narrators and characters with specific illnesses and conditions, serving as “literary M.D.s” that look for unique clues and statements that might determine what specific diagnoses scholars should use to label a character. Of course, these practices are highly problematic. I am suggesting that a reading of the unreliable narrator through the social model expresses that narrators and characters who deal with impairments within their respective stories should be allowed to exist and believed based on their narrations of their experiences in a disabling culture.

Booth’s Definition of the Unreliable Narrator

Although there exist several types of “unreliable” narrators throughout literary history, the term was not coined until 1961, with the publication of Wayne C. Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction. This work was the first attempt to define a reader-centered approach to unreliable narration, and it classifies unreliable narrations and reliable narrations based on values and ethics (Booth 158). Booth argues,

Our terminology for this kind of distance in narrators is almost hopelessly inadequate. For lack of better terms, I have called a narrator reliable when he speaks for or acts in accordance with the norms of the work (which is to say, the implied author’s norms), unreliable when he does not. It is true that most of the great reliable narrators indulge in large amounts of incidental irony, and they are thus “unreliable” in the sense of being potentially deceptive. But difficult irony is not sufficient to make a narrator unreliable. Nor is unreliability ordinarily a matter of lying, although deliberately deceptive narrators have been a major resource of some modern novelists […]. It is most often a matter of what James calls inconscience; the narrator is mistaken, or he believes himself to have qualities which the author denies him. Or, as in Huckleberry Finn, the narrator claims to be naturally wicked while the author silently praises his virtues behind his back. (158-159)

The problem with Booth’s classifications, however, is that he bases the categories of “reliable” and “unreliable” on his own conception of “implied norms” (158). As reader-response criticism argues, values and norms are variable and distinct from reader to reader, and vary depending on the reader’s age, race, gender, sexuality, disability, religion, personal philosophy, and a host of other factors that influence a reading of a text: these are known as Stanley Fish’s “interpretive communities” (Abrams 301).These authorial norms may place value in upholding an ableist society. Booth continues:

…classifying narrators as unreliable based on the fact that they have a physical or mental disability promotes ableism within literature and throughout academia.

Unreliable narrators thus differ markedly depending on how far and in what direction they depart from their author’s norms; the older term “tone,” like the currently fashionable terms “irony” and “distance,” covers many effects that we should distinguish. Some narrators, like Barry Lyndon, are placed as far “away” from author and reader as possible, in respect to every virtue except a kind of interesting vitality. Some, like Fleda Vetch, the reflector in James’s The Spoils of Poynton, come close to representing the author’s ideal of taste, judgment, and moral sense. All of them make stronger demands on the reader’s powers on inference than do reliable narrators. (159)

The author’s ideals of “taste, judgment, and moral sense” are also variable from work to work, and Booth does not reflect on how a reader is supposed to determine these values. The issue also exists as to who the author determines is the “reader,” as audience impacts how the narrator will tell his/her story. This question of audience affects whether one could read a text “straight,” which is essentially a “confidence” in the narrator, rather than reading a text as if the content of what the narrator tells the reader is simply untrue (Booth 159). Booth addresses a “straight” reading of a text, which argues that,

[…] the basic convention of first-person fiction is a confidence in the narrator […] it is clear that in modern fiction there is no longer any such convention. The only convention that can be relied on, as I show in chapter eleven, is that if a narrator presents himself as speaking or writing to the reader, he really is doing so. The content of what he says may turn out to be a dream […] or falsehood […] or it may not “turn out” at all—that is, it may be left indeterminately between dream, falsehood, fantasy, and reality. (159)

Classifying narrators on extra-diegetic factors such as norms and ethics creates a theoretical problem for readers, as norms and ethics are influenced by each individual reader’s values and opinions. As Rabinowitz states,

There are unreliable narrators (c.f. Booth). An unreliable narrator however, is not simply a narrator who ‘does not tell the truth’ – what fictional narrator ever tells the literal truth? Rather an unreliable narrator is one who tells lies, conceals information, misjudges with respect to the narrative audience – that is, one whose statements are untrue not by the standards of the real world or of the authorial audience but by the standards of his own narrative audience. […] In other words, all fictional narrators are false in that they are imitations. But some are imitations who tell the truth, some of people who lie. (133-134)

These “standards of [the] narrative audience,” however, are also subject to this audience’s values and moral judgments, which are subject to change depending on the work and how the reader interprets and is influenced by this audience. The reader’s capability to trust a narrator is also an issue in the scope of narrative theory. Riggan also addresses the issues of truth and reality regarding first-person narration, stating:

The very fact that we have before us, either literally or figuratively, an identifiable narrator telling us the story directly, possibly even metaphorically grabbing us on the arm, gesturing to us, or addressing us individually or collectively from time to time, imparts a tangible reality to the narrative situation and a substantial veracity to the account we are reading or “hearing.” When the account is rendered in good style, with flair and interest and with at least a modicum of realistic description or explanatory detail, that veracity is enhanced all the more. And unless obvious errors of fact, outlandishly absurd occurrences, or physical impossibilities enter unexplained into the narrative, our natural tendency is to grant our speaker the full credibility possible within the limitations of human memory and capability. (18-19)

The very act of first-person narration creates an issue for the reader and implied audience within a text: since narrators are human, they are subject to the limitations of human knowledge, judgment, memory, intellect, and several other factors that impact their telling of a story (Riggan 19). Of course, these narrators, existing within a human body, are subject to disease, illness, injury and impairment—which is where the concept of disability intersects with narration.

Riggan’s Classifications: Pícaro/as, Naïfs, Clowns and Madmen

Although the act of narration is within the human body, Riggan proposes several different classifications for unreliability, based on the causes of a narrator’s perceived unreliability. These four categories that Riggan defines are pícaro/as, naïfs, clowns and madmen, all of which affect their respective works. For three of these categories, I am suggesting that readers might classify these narrators as unreliable based on an ableist perspective that discredits these narrators due to their physical and mental disabilities. For the purpose of this work, I am focusing most of my research on Riggan’s classification of the madman.

Pícaro/as, the first category that Riggan defines, is a representation of the “outgrowth of late sixteenth-century Spanish society” (38) and exists as an “unheroic literary hero” (40). The exaggeration and boastful nature of the pícaro/a therefore affects the reliability of his/her character, and this nature of their character might influence the reader’s expectations within the story. Although the pícaro/a gives the reader an “enjoyable reading experience,” the pícaro/a narrative “unfailingly provides serious social, moral, or cultural satire or parody in varying degrees of severity, using unreliable narration as both the means toward and the frequent embodiment of these serious ends” (Riggan 78). The earliest and most known portrayals of the pícaro/a narrative are Plautus’ Miles Gloriosus, as well as Moll Flanders, Simplicius Simplicissimus and Felix Krull (Riggan 39).

Somewhat related to the pícaro/a is the naïf, whose unreliability is a result of his naïveté and immaturity; these naïfs are usually a very young age within the story and often don’t understand the larger social and cultural forces surrounding them in their text (Riggan 144-145). The naïf can resemble both the pícaro/a and madman, as Riggan writes:

The practice of diagnosing specific individuals with illnesses and impairments is essentially similar to classifying narrators and characters within literature as either “reliable” or “unreliable.”

[…] namely, in that the unreliable nature of the narrative is used to convey the implicated author’s vilification or at least his serious critique of given social norms and practices. Like the pícaro and madman, the naïve narrator himself frequently gives voice to a portion of this critique in his narrative asides and in his direct commentary to the reader at various junctures in the course of his account. And like the commentary of both the pícaro and the madman, the sound heart’s social criticism also points out in many instances only the most blatant ills of the society in question, leaving unsaid the most damning strictures to be inferred by the reader from the narrative proper […] the narrative of the naïf presents a figure who by definition lacks experience with people and society and is thus unequipped to deal in any far-reaching manner with the moral, ethical, emotional, and intellectual questions which arise from his first ventures into the world and from his account of those ventures. (169)

The naïf narrator essentially shows the reader their goodness through their thoughts and actions, and elements of Bildungsroman often appear in their narrative, demonstrating their ability (or inability) to mature in the fictional world around them. These naïfs are often found to be positive figures by the reader, due to the simple nature of their character and general sense of goodness. As Riggan states,

The naïf […] does not carry the stigma of the society which his account calls into question, for he views and encounters that society essentially unmarked by its taints, bringing with him only the “wonder” of adolescence or the incomprehension of simple naïveté. His critique, whether consciously uttered or whether conveyed over his head from implied author to reader, thus does not work to his discredit but rather the opposite, despite his frequent confusion and error as he attempts to describe and come to terms with a world still beyond his ken. (170)

Although the naïf is unable to produce “fully reliable articulation” (170), he is still viewed by readers as an overall “good and pure” character, unlike many other classifications that Riggan defines. The naïf, according to Riggan’s definition, does not have to be young in age in order to fit this category; rather, the naïf’s perception of events could be limited in view (144). For example, Forrest Gump, in the 1986 novel by the same name, could be classified as the naïf narrator, due to his limited view of events that occurred in the novel and physical and mental impairments he faces. These impairments, however, imply that Forrest Gump suffered from disabling situations throughout his narrative, quite similar to the clown and madman categories that Riggan defines. I am suggesting that the naïf, clown and madman all suffer discrimination through ableism based on their outward appearances and physical and mental impairments, as this prejudice arises from the reader’s judgments and values that they might place on these narrators. This act of analyzing these narrators’ reliability is based on whether or not the reader passes judgment on these character’s physical and mental abilities and whether academics and readers uphold ableism as a central value.

Examples of the naïf that Riggan uses are “Huck” Finn in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Holden Caulfield in TheCatcher in the Rye (although Holden could also be classified as a madman, due to his telling the reader that he is being treated in a mental hospital, where he is telling his story) (144-159). Another narrator that could also be classified as a naïf is Vardaman Bundren in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, as his age and imaginative storytelling greatly impacts his narration in the novel.

Quite distinct from the naïf, yet similar to the pícaro/a and madman, is Riggan’s next category of unreliable narrators: that of the clown. The clown narrator, essentially, does not take the act of storytelling seriously and purposefully (or accidentally) plays with truth in order to confuse the reader (85). The clown began as the “social parasite of second-century Greece and to Plutarch’s accounts of parasites at the courts of Phillip and Alexander” (Riggan 79). These clowns often acted as curiosities for the public:

[…] as far back as the sixth century B.C., dwarfs, freaks, and idiots of every sort were kept at court and in the more affluent houses for the sheer physical curiosity and novelty of their appearance, speech, or antics—the more grotesque, the better—and also in the superstitious belief that the presence of such “possessed” or “afflicted” creatures was beneficial in warding off evil. The babble of these genuine grotesques and half-wits was allowed virtually total impunity, of course—for who could take serious offense at the rantings of an idiot? —and this impunity was largely carried over in the later Roman period both to those freaks who did in fact not possess their wits and to more normal physical types who chose to adopt the life of parasite and buffoon. (Riggan 79-80)

The narrative of the clown carried well into the Victorian period, where “circus freaks” and sideshow performances reached the height of popularity. Wellsford’s definition of the Fool greatly fits Riggan’s definition of the clown: “[…] a man who falls below the average human standard, but whose defects have been transformed into a source of delight, a mainspring of comedy” (qtd. in Riggan 107). However, the narration of the clown can be a “destructive” force on readers:

There is something brutal, aberrant, even destructive about them, affecting events and people around them as well as coloring their narratives, something which rises through and above their antics and tinges the laughter. And like the festival scapegoats and the often demonic sottie clowns and Harlequins of old, they are cast out, as it were, at the end of their respective performances after indulging their excessive natures to the hilt. Though they entertain us mightily, their antisocial abnormality serves to create in their audience a community of spirit which reinforces the very norms that they themselves imply by breaking them. (107-108)

Believing the clown at face value is a difficult task, as Riggan states, “To take him at his word and read on with the exception of eventually being presented with that promised story can ultimately lead only to confusion, consternation, and such sour disappointment” (85). Quite similar to the madman, clowns were often times ridiculed and judged unfairly for their outward appearances and “grotesque” nature (Riggan 81). A disability studies understanding of the clown would find that their classification of “dwarfs, freaks, and idiots” would be problematic, and the “babble of these genuine grotesques and half-wits” (Riggan 79-80) could be seen as a realistic portrayal of individuals dealing with impairments and being disabled by their social standing and place. However, quite distinct from the madman, the narration of the clown could be the work of an impersonator, such as the performance of “higher arts [such as] mime and narrative invention” (Riggan 80). In several instances throughout literary history, the clown might in fact be the madman as well, but there exists the narrative of the clown as a form of high art, such as street performance, which takes into consideration the light-hearted nature of these narratives. Riggan uses the examples of Tristram Shandy in The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, as well as Bras Cubas in The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas as literary examples of the clown.

The madman, as the name implies, is a narrator who suffers from some sort of psychological affliction, which ultimately impacts his/her trustworthiness to the reader (Riggan 109). The madman can be interpreted as the least reliable narrative type, according to Riggan, as he states,

[…] one is far more prepared at the outset to take the text as anything from incoherent ravings to rambling absurdities to clear but twisted logical musings—at any rate, not to accept it as authoritative in any sense. One is predisposed, rather, merely to listen to the madman talk, to watch him move, to study him as a case—he is called simply “a madman” after all, at least in the English, German and French titles—possibly to laugh at his antics or lament his overall condition. The madman’s story actually meets all these expectations and evokes all these reactions. (111)

These characters might have mental or physical impairments; however, their experiences become disabling due to the lack of accommodations and societal attitudes towards these impairments.

Treating these madmen narrators as simply nothing but a “case” is problematic in terms of treating these characters as “problems” for which the reader must solve (Oliver, “The Individual and Social Models of Disability”). Scholars can uphold values of normalcy as members of the cognitive authority: “And where sequential narratives with some degree of normalcy do occur, the madman’s gross imperceptions, stridency of tone, and often absurd logic undermine the reliability of his position as a narrator and of his character as a person” (Riggan 178). It can also be argued that unreliability might exist within the readers themselves and/or their standards of normalcy:

It is these models which determine the perception of narrators designated as “unreliable,” and not the other way around. The information on which the projection of an unreliable narrator is based derives at least as much from within the mind of the beholder as from textual data. In other words, whether a narrator is called unreliable or not does not depend on the distance between the norms and values of the narrator and those of the implied author but between the distance that separates the narrator’s view of the world from the reader’s or critic’s world-model and standards of normalcy, which are themselves, of course, open to challenge. (Nünning 40-41)

The madman narrator also might be or become “estranged” to the reader, as “he begins to intone about his feelings of emptiness, despair, self-effacement, world-weariness, coldness to religion, estrangement, and anguish” (Riggan 139). This estrangement that the madman narrator faces leads to “his eventual retreat into total solitude and the darkness of an imaginary world of shadows” (Riggan 139-140), as he succumbs to the angst and ennui which arises from the psychological situation within the narrative. This combination of madness and estrangement leads to an even greater sense of unreliability for the reader:

The resulting mix of madness and estrangement thus presents a complex situation in regard to the reliability of the narrator. On the one hand, his obvious derangement, the aberrations and fixations and compulsions he shares with a long line of untrustworthy neurotic narrators, plus his pronounced inability to distinguish reality from imagination, mark him as a patently unreliable guide to his past experiences and present circumstances. On the other hand, the relative cogency and sincerity of many of the expressions of estrangement […] lend occasional touches of seeming trustworthiness to the narrative. These touches are then at least somewhat undetermined, however, by their frequent combination with facets of the narrator’s neuroses […]. The narrator’s efforts at speaking to his shadow and gaining some understanding of himself and of his ordeal result only in continued confusion and darkness—even blindness in that darkness […]  (Riggan 140-141)

The madman narrator might also embody cases of “oppression-induced madness” (Riggan 129), of which the narrator suffers psychological distress or mental impairments as the result of decaying traditional social expectations. In these cases, madness can represent an effect of a social “moral vacuum” and “existential anguish” (Riggan 129) of characters in the lower rungs of social class:

Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1963) goes so far as to depict a psychiatric ward as a microcosm of American society in order to make its point against the arbitrary and dehumanizing institutionalization of political power; and black writers such as James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison, in Go Tell It on the Mountain and Invisible Man respectively, transform the frustrations of blackness into outcries which run the gamut from the primitive to the neurotic to the tragic to the threatening. Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint presents in wildly and outrageously exaggerated form the libidinously oppressed Jewish boy who has been victimized and made a neurotic mess by overly stern traditional mores (his story is even couched in the form of a monologue delivered to his psychiatrist). (Riggan 129)

These mental impairments that each narrator faces in their respective stories, as Riggan suggests, result from oppression that these respective narrators face within their narrative. Since Riggan’s work was published well before Oliver’s definitions of the models of disability, it can be argued that these madmen narrators are experiencing disability as it is defined according to the social model. These characters might have mental or physical impairments; however, their experiences become disabling due to the lack of accommodations and societal attitudes towards these impairments. It is entirely plausible that these narrators are viewed as existing outside of the “norms” of society and are relegated to places such as treatment facilities where they will be “fixed” and made normal again. The cognitive authority in these narratives are the institutions that force this normalcy upon these characters—such as hospitals, the government, prisons, and religious organizations; but it can also be assumed, using the social model as a theoretical lens through which to view literature, that academic institutions and scholars who enforce Booth and Riggan’s definitions of unreliability onto readers can also serve as the cognitive authority through which expectations of normalcy can be projected.

Poe’s Short Stories

Poe’s works of fiction have long been analyzed as examples of Riggan’s madman narrator, as Poe’s short stories display the psyche of characters dealing with supernatural and unusual situations. These works are also case examples of the madman narrator in 19th century American Gothic literature and were largely influential in Riggan’s definition of the madman narrator. The narrator in “The Black Cat” is perhaps one of the best examples of this in Poe’s work. This narrator and his respective analysis demonstrate a stereotypical view of mental illness in literature, as well as problematic interpretations throughout literary criticism.

The narrator in “The Black Cat” is writing his story from his prison cell—the first clue that he is existing within the confines of the “cognitive authority” as defined by Haegele and Hodge (193). He expresses to the reader that he is to be executed the day after he is writing his narrative, stating:

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. But 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. Yet I will not attempt to expound them. To me, they have presented little but horror—to many they will seem less terrible than barroques. Hereafter, perhaps, some intellect may be found which will reduce my phantasm to the commonplace—some intellect more calm, more logical, and far less excitable than my own, which will perceive, in the circumstances I detail with awe, nothing more than an ordinary succession of very natural causes and events. (Poe 203)

I am suggesting that readers might classify these narrators as unreliable based on an ableist perspective that discredits these narrators due to their physical and mental disabilities.

These events that have occurred within his narrative have “destroyed” him, and he asks that a reader “more calm, more logical, and far less excitable” than he attempt to listen to his tale. Riggan states that Poe’s narrators exist as examples of “man’s basically irrational or perverse nature,” arguing:

Neurosis can also be used in an even broader sense, however, as a representation of what the implied author views as man’s basically irrational or perverse nature. The classic case in point is the prose oeuvre of Edgar Allan Poe—in particular, his first-person narratives. […] The narrator of “The Black Cat” comes closer to success in concealing his act of murder, which he considers solely the product of a mad horror and terror induced by a hated one-eyed cat. Having assured the investigators that nothing is amiss in his house, the narrator compulsively taps the wall behind which he has sealed his murdered wife’s body, whereupon the piercing wail of the cat from inside the wall betrays him to the police. (129-130)

The narrator in “The Black Cat” states that he has loved animals his whole life, and fills his house with animals that he and his wife take care of. One of these animals is a sharp, all-black cat named Pluto, which the narrator takes the most pride in and loves the most deeply. It is only after he begins drinking that the narrator begins physically abusing his wife and pets. This act of alcohol abuse leads many scholars to believe that he is an unreliable narrator—not as someone who struggles with addiction—he is simply lying to the reader. As Amper states:

On the eve of his execution for the murder of his wife, a condemned man tells a far-fetched tale about how the murder occurred. In it he expresses little remorse, denies responsibility, and blames the murder on an extraordinary sequence of events beyond his control. He tells us that, debilitated by alcoholism and driven by an uncontrollable urge, he merely killed his cat; that an “apparition” of this cat then miraculously appeared on his bedroom wall, tormenting him further; that subsequently a second cat, virtually identical to the first, appeared under curious circumstances and domesticated itself in his home, gradually driving him to frenzy; and that finally in attempting to kill the second cat, he more or less accidentally killed his wife instead.

Obviously the man is lying. (475)

Many scholars, in their criticism of the narrator in “The Black Cat,” widely discount his experiences with alcoholism and rage. These impairments that the narrator faces become disabling when he is driven to murder Pluto, and eventually his wife. Simply assuming that the narrator is “lying” due to his alcoholism becomes problematic and helps to uphold stereotypes that individuals with addiction and mental health issues are “lying” when narrating their tales to others. Passing these narrators off as “unreliable” is a weak attempt by scholars to pass the narrator’s struggles off as “insane” without looking at the underlying causes and impairments for their debilitating situations.


A new vernacular is needed by scholars of literary criticism and cultural studies in order to define these “unreliable,” first-person narrators. I am suggesting that we use the phrase “diverse narration” when speaking of narrators who suffer from physical or mental impairments that impact their telling of their respective stories. This term implies that readers and scholars can experience these impaired narrators without discounting their lived experiences and disabling them within their narrations. This phrase can also aid in reversing the stereotypes and tropes that the term “unreliable narrator” upholds within the literary criticism community, and can aid in understanding these narrators without “othering” them. As members of academia, it is our responsibility to dismantle harmful vernacular that upholds stereotypical images within our treatment of literature and within our classrooms.

Works Cited

Abrams, M. H. “Reader-response criticism.” A Glossary of Literary Terms, 9th ed., Wadsworth, 2009, pp. 299-302.

Amper, Susan. “Untold Story: The Lying Narrator in ‘The Black Cat’.” Studies in Short Fiction, vol. 29, 1992, pp. 475–485. EbscoHost, EbscoHost.

Bérubé, Michael. The Secret Life of Stories: From Don Quixote to Harry Potter. New York University Press, 2016.

Booth, Wayne C. The Rhetoric of Fiction. University of Chicago Press, 1961.

Haegele, Justin Anthony, and Samuel Hodge. “Disability Discourse: Overview and Critiques of the Medical and Social Models.” Quest, vol. 68, no. 2, 2016, pp. 193–206. EbscoHost, EbscoHost, doi:10.1080/00336297.2016.1143849.

Nünning, Ansgar. “Reconceptualizing the Theory, History and Generic Scope of Unreliable Narration: Towards a Synthesis of Cognitive and Rhetorical Approaches.” Narrative Unreliability in the Twentieth-Century First-Person Novel, edited by Elke D’hoker and Gunther Martens, Walter De Gruyter, 2008, pp. 29–76.

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Maria Rovito is a graduate student in the Master of Arts in English program.