When we begin reading anything, it is perfectly natural to dive in trusting the narrator so that we quickly become absorbed into the story and are ready to go along for the ride. What happens when a reader begins to question that trust? Can we still find pleasure or value in the text if we start to wonder whether or not the narrator is reliable? Is honesty part of what makes literature work? And if it is, how do we define honesty? Maybe our narrator is honestly sharing his perception of what is going on but maybe his perception is skewed. Maybe his behavior begins to make us wonder if he is telling us what is actually going on or telling us what is going on inside his head. Maybe we don’t know what to believe. Maybe we start to question everything.
Credit: ShmoopAt the start of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, The Raven, we feel for our narrator. He’s tired, lovesick, and seems like he just needs some time alone. We can all relate to the feeling of being exhausted and having someone annoy us via phone, text, or in person. Right from the start the poem is relatable and feels honest. Once the raven steps into the picture things begin to get a little weird, to say the least. Our trusted narrator tells us that the bird talks to him. We didn’t really have a reason to think this bummed out seemingly normal guy would be telling us anything that wasn’t true, but at this point in the poem the thought probably creeps in. But this is Edgar Allan Poe so we can buy a talking bird. Things start to get even weirder. The narrator continues to ask the raven questions even after he should catch on to the fact that the talking bird only has one word in its vocabulary. One begins to wonder if the narrator is actually a reliable source. Is it one of those unfortunate scenarios where he is going to wake up at the end of the poem and it will be revealed that it was all a bad dream? Towards the end of the poem, the exclamation points start really wracking up and we start to feel like the narrator must have been completely bonkers to begin with or is now starting to lose his mind.
Plenty of spooky literature has an air of insanity that plays into its “creep factor.” At times, The Raven feels like it raises more psychological questions that an AP Psychology exam. Is Poe just going for a creepy vibe or is he revealing something to us about the speaker? And if the speaker is insane, then how do we go about taking in the tale? Perhaps we reason that this lovesick guy went bonkers when he lost the love of his life and nothing more. It’s all simply the vision of a madman. Or maybe the poem is actually about a talking evil bird that comes to torture the poor, lovesick guy until he literally loses his mind. Just like anything, the poem is open to interpretation.
Whether it’s simply for ones own enjoyment of a work or for a well thought out AP English Literature essay, considering the point of view of the narrator is imperative to interpreting any work of literature.