The Nameless Narrator


              There are many interesting literary techniques used in Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” but one of the most noteworthy is Poe’s choice of narrator: why did he choose to tell the story from the point of view of Dupin’s friend and not Dupin himself? Dupin’s friend- the nameless narrator- is a significant part of the story and enhances the work in many ways.

              C. Auguste Dupin was one of the first detectives introduced to the literary world, but his character would not be as prominent today if Poe had chosen to tell the story from his point of view; the detachment we get from Dupin’s mind by means of an alternative narrator emphasizes how good of a detective he truly is. By seeing his analytical work through the eyes of another person, we see how he picks up on details in a way no one else does.  His friend, the narrator, describes his own experience at the scene of the murder; “I saw nothing beyond what had been stated in the Gazette des Tribunaux” (Poe 154). Even after Dupin asks him if he had observed anything peculiar, he says “No, nothing peculiar” (Poe 154). Poe uses the narrator and his observations of the scene (or lack thereof) to show how much more perceptive Dupin is than others who witness the same evidence. We, as readers, don’t know how Dupin picks up on the information that he does, and neither does the narrator. Poe draws a parallel between the reader and the narrator because of this; furthermore, the narrator’s appreciation and admiration of Dupin’s intellect rubs off on the reader because of this parallel. Poe’s choice in narrator enhances an already thrilling detective story by making the reader see just how remarkable Dupin’s detective work really is.

Poe – Crazy or Genius?

“And evil was the hour when she saw, and loved, and wedded the painter. He, passionate, studious, austere, and having already a bride in his Art: she a maiden of rarest beauty, and not more lovely than full of glee; all light and smiles, and frolicsome as the young fawn; loving and cherishing of all things; hating only the Art which was her rival; dreading only the pallet and brushes and other untoward instruments which deprived her of the countenance of her lover (Poe 291).”

In Edgar Allen Poe’s compelling short story, The Oval Portrait, I found this brief passage to be particularly compelling. In this point in the story, the narrator is reading about the portrait of the young woman in the book he found. One of the more interesting things I noticed about this passage was Poe’s seemingly bitter tone toward love. For instance, he says “evil was the hour when she saw, and loved..” To him, the wedding of the painter to the young bride was not a moment to be celebrated, but a moment to be dreaded, and also seems to foreshadow the dark events that occur later in the passage. Further, he talks about the art as her “rival” which deprived her of the “countenance of her lover.” Again, we see Poe take a negative stance toward love by suggesting that love is only fleeting. To me, these quotes almost seemed to be a reflection of Poe’s character. Poe himself was an artist, and was obviously a very dark, troubled man. Could these quotes be a reflection of Poe’s own failed attempts at love? If you read beneath the surface of these quotes, they seem to be. Why else would he take such a negative stance on the relationship between an artist and a young lover?

Another interesting aspect of the text I noticed was the contrast between the maiden in the passage I selected and the maiden from later in the story. At first, she was a “maiden of rarest beauty,” “full of glee, light, and smiles,” “loving and cherishing,” and “frolicsome as the young fawn.” These positive, flattering quotes are in direct contrast with some of Poe’s quotes from later in the text. Later in the text, the woman has “withered health and spirits,” “visibly pining,” and grew “daily more dispirited and weak (Poe 292).” Clearly, Poe’s use of contrast adds a vivid visual element to his work. Not only is she beautiful, she is of the “rarest beauty.” “Frolicsome as the young fawn” is a brilliant metaphor that describes her love for life and purity of spirit. “Withered health and spirits” invokes an image of an apple going bad, which is a very vivid description for her failing beauty. All in all, the good and bad descriptions of the woman are very vivid. This contrast also further adds to one of the central themes that I think Poe is striving to reach. Losing yourself in your work shouldn’t cause you to miss out on life. So by contrasting the woman so vividly, Poe makes the woman a symbol for the enjoyment of life, and how the artist loses this enjoyment of life as he loses his touch on reality. And when she finally dies, this represents the death of sanity and reality for the artist.

Furthermore, this passage has very dynamic shifts in two of the characters. We already know that the woman shifted from “a maiden of rarest beauty” to “withered health and spirits,” but the artist had a dynamic shift as well. He is described as “passionate, studious, and austere,” all very positive descriptions. However, by the end of the whole passage, he became a “wild and moody man who became lost in reveries (Poe 292).” He also “turned the his eyes from the canvas rarely, even to regard the countenance of his wife (Poe 292),” and only realizes her demise at the very end. The artist shifts from a studious, peaceful man to a man who is obsessively lost in his work and out of touch with reality. Both characters go through dynamic shifts, and both character’s shifts are in a negative direction.

As a whole, I see this work of fiction as a reflection of Poe’s character. And I believe that this idea is represented best in Poe’s use of the word art. The fact that the word “Art” is capitalized throughout this passage seems significant. In my view, it is an attempt at personification. In the passage, “Art” is the artist’s “bride” and the woman’s “rival.” In this case, it seems as if Poe is depicting Art as a physical being with the power to take away the love and life of the artist. Again, I believe that Poe’s negative use of the word Art is significant in terms of reflections regarding his character. Poe himself is an artist of sorts. So why would someone who writes, who pens verbal art, look at art in such a negative way? Perhaps at this point in Poe’s life, he was depressed and didn’t see any significance in his work. Maybe he was a brilliant literary mind who felt trapped by his genius and never truly enjoyed writing, but continually fell back on it because it was what he was good at. Or maybe he is just questioning Art itself. While everyone sees art and artistic geniuses as brilliant and worthwhile, perhaps Poe sees the obsessive pursuit of art as detrimental to the enjoyment of life. In the end, it seems to me that Poe is critiquing art’s dissociation with reality.

All in all, I think that the particular passage I chose was very important when attempting to understand The Oval Portrait. Poe uses contrast, description, and metaphor brilliantly to predict the demise of the woman. He also uses her as a symbol for the enjoyment of life. Furthermore, this passage seems to be a reflection of Poe’s character. His stances on art and love seem to be very dark interpretations, and may shed light on Poe’s troubled character.

The Art of Symbols and Metaphors

“And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting

On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;

And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,

And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;

And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor

                                                                        Shall be lifted—nevermore!” (946).

            The major devices that is used in this poem and in this passage are metaphor and symbolism. The major symbol of the poem is the Raven. I took the Raven to represent the feeling of intense sorrow that comes from the loss of someone very dear and that cannot be alleviated. Evidence of this symbolism is present throughout the poem but one strong example is when the narrator begs for the object that might quell his sadness of the loss of his dear Lenore and the Raven refuses. “’…is there balm in Gilead?—tell me—tell me, I implore!’ Quoth the Raven, ‘Nevermore,’” (945). The narrator enquires if the cure to his heartbreak exists and the Raven seems to imply that there is not a fix for his misery. This idea also connects perfectly with the final stanza. “And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting…” (946).

            Most of the passage above shows that the narrator will never get over the sorrow he feels about his lost Lenore. There seems to a gap in time between the last two paragraphs and this adds even more to the feeling that this the narrator’s suffering will be unending. The passage above is the most important quote for seeing that the narrator will never be able to escape the depression that covers him. In this passage, Poe uses very precise and perfect language to describe the situation and lead to a metaphorical ending. He also uses details that seem to be just extra information and perfectly crafts into the symbolism of the story.

Naysayers may doubt the following metaphor but I maintain that it is too perfect to have been included by chance. “And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting … On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;” (946). Pallas is another name for the Greek goddess Athena, who is the goddess of wisdom. The Raven sitting upon the bust of Pallas is a metaphor showing that the narrator’s sorrow is conquering his logic and intellect and that his mind is being fully occupied by this grief. Unless the reader has a profound knowledge for Greek mythology or looked it up on the internet, the reader probably would not have caught that amazingly well thought out metaphor by Poe. It is a seemingly insignificant detail but Poe uses that one word to bring a new dimension to the poem. That shows the true nature of most of “The Raven.” Using allusions Poe brings incredible clarity and credibility to the work and to the narrator’s testimony.  

The phrase “And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting…” shows that the Raven is unwavering and is never going to leave (946). The narrator is aware of his condition and much like the problem of getting the Raven out of his home, getting through this is just beyond his reach. This supports this hypothesis that the narrator will never escape his sorrow because the Raven is unmoving, and his problem is too much for him to handle. 

            To show the extent to which this despair has restrained the narrator, Poe symbolizes the Raven’s shadow to be like a prison for the narrator. “And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor…Shall be lifted—nevermore!”(946). To never have one’s soul lifted again is to never again experience happiness. It is for this reason that the tone at the end of this poem is so somber and melancholy. This phrase gives even more support to the eternal unhappiness that awaits the narrator that was already presented by the first part of the passage.

More Than Just A Bird

“Prophet! Said I, “thing of evil! – prophet still, if bird or devil! Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore. Desolate, yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted. On this desert land enchanted. On this home by Horror – tell me truly, I implore. Is there- is there balm in Gilead? Tell me-tell me, I implore!” Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore” (Poe 945).

Stanza 15 from Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” is what I consider to be the most important part of this masterpiece. With relevance to the story, the passage I chose is a powerful emotional climax to the story, indicated by Poe’s use of exclamation points, dashes and apocalyptic imagery. The narrator has been somewhat perplexed by the presence of the raven up to this point, as shown by his statement in stanza 11 “doubtless….what it utters is its only stock and store” (Poe 944). But the narrator’s conclusion that the bird’s words are a learned habit fade away as he gets more frustrated and fearful, resulting in his pleading to the bird for answers in the passage I selected. The narrator shows indifference to the origin of the bird, no matter how malicious it may be. This is shown in stanza 15 by his statement “whether tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed the here ashore” (Poe 945).

Poe’s repetition of both the narrator’s constant pleading and the raven’s cold response of “nevermore” is the main force driving the conflict in the poem (Poe 945). This is not only seen in the passage I chose, but also in stanza 16 when the narrator says “by that God we both adore-tell this soul with sorrow laden…whom the angels name Lenore” (Poe 945). For me, this makes “The Raven” appear to be a cautionary statement by Poe to not attempt to find meaning in everyday occurrences, because you could drive yourself mad. Be careful when you are beset with grief, or you may interpret an ordinary bird as a sign or gateway to know the fate of your lost loved ones.

There is also a noticeable rhythmic pattern throughout the poem. When read with the right emphasis, it conveys a feeling of melancholy – many words rhyme with “Lenore” the narrator’s lost beloved – “nevermore”, “implore”, “evermore”, “your”, “door”, “wore”, “shore”, “bore”, etc. Poe’s choice of a raven is also very interesting to me because it ties into the theme of sadness, death and depression.  Ravens are black, a color that is generally associated with death, darkness and the bird itself is considered a bad omen and deliverer of bad news in many cultures.

This passage is not only important for the progression of the story, it also contains the central philosophical point that I believe Poe is trying to convey in this poem. That for human beings, one of greatest fears and sources of pain stems from death, and we seek answers to drive that fear and pain away. With the narrator’s exclamation, “Prophet! Thing of evil!- prophet still, if bird or devil!…..is there balm in Gilead?”(Poe 945), Poe is suggesting that it’s human nature to want to believe that anyone or anything might have a remedy for the intense pain of losing a loved one to death.

Poe’s use of the phrases “desert land” on two occasions and “home by Horror” in the passage I selected reinforces his nihilistic view of the world, one that is filled with despair, anxiety, and uncertainty (Poe 945). This may seem rather depressing, but the inevitable human experience of losing a loved one to death almost always results in some form of depression. The grief can intensify if you worry about what has become of them in the afterlife, if there is one.  So the raven is not only a gateway to Lenore or vessel of God, but also metaphor for how much we understand death. We see it, as the narrator sees the bird perched upon his doorframe, but we have difficulty comprehending it. We have ideas and theories about what death entails and means, but ultimately it comes without warning and leaves those left behind with more questions and answers, just like the raven.

One more thing that came to mind as I read this passage is the relationship “The Raven” has with previous works we’ve examined in class.  In both “The Oval Portrait” and “The Birth Mark”, the male characters lost their loves to their obsession with work. “The Raven” almost seems like the next chapter for these men, describing the anguish they felt after not cherishing their wives when they had the chance. When read with this in mind, the raven’s statement is the catalyst for the narrator’s realization that his wife is not in heaven, but rather her existence is  “nevermore”(Poe 945).


Neglect Leads to Demise

“And he would not see that the tints which he spread on the canvas were drawn from the cheeks of her who sat beside him. And when many weeks had passed, and but little remained to do, save one brush upon the mouth and one tint upon the eye, the spirit of the lady again flickered up as the flame within the socket of the lamp. And then the brush was given, and then the tint was placed; and, for one moment, the painter stood entranced before the word which he had wrought; but in the next, while he yet gazed, he grew tremulous and very pallid, and aghast, and crying with a loud voice, ‘This is indeed Life itself!’ turned suddenly to regard his beloved:–She was dead!” –page 292

“The Oval Portrait” by Edgar Allan Poe, if read only superficially, is a story about an ill man who sees a painting of a beautiful woman and reads the history of that picture. However, the entire short story itself is like a framed portrait. The part of the plot that discusses the sickly man is like the golden frame: although it does play a role in the story, is not the focus of Poe’s work.

The introduction to the real story helps establish the gothic tone and mood of the story. The illness of the narrator is never revealed, creating an air of mystery for the reader. The setting also helps create this environment. The narrator and his valet are spending the night in an abandoned apartment with many old paintings, large shutters, and black velvet curtains surrounding the bed. A setting like this provides a spooky undertone that allows Poe to be able to introduce the storyline about the painter and his wife.

The history that the man in the chateau reads brings about the main themes of the story. For example, as is exemplified in the above quote, the history brings about the themes of art, life, and death and how they are interrelated. As the painter is attempting to portray his wife’s beauty and make it immortal by painting it, by doing so, he also takes the life out of her with every stroke of his brush. However, she loves him so much that she stays obedient and allows him to make “Life itself” out of her beauty while he gradually causes her death.

The feelings and thoughts of the painter in his wife’s final moments are unclear. We as readers know that after admiring his skillful work, he “grew tremulous and very pallid, and aghast” (Poe 292). Then he screams that the painting is life itself. It appears that the painter becomes afraid of his own work. Why he does this before he even realizes that his wife has died is unknown. However it seems as though he may be afraid because the painting he has made of his wife is more lifelike than his wife had become before she suffered her death.

The plot and conflict of “The Oval Portrait” can be paralleled with Hawthorne’s “The Birth Mark.” Both the painter and Aylmer have beautiful wives. However, the love that they have for their wives cannot be compared to the love that they possess for their work (science for Aylmer, art for the painter). In addition, the painter and Aylmer are unable to accept and appreciate their wives’ beauty for the way that it is. In “The Birth Mark,” Aylmer uses science to try to get rid of the crimson hand on Georgiana’s cheek. Although she is beautiful, he will not rest until he can remove the crimson hand. It ends up being this very science that leads to Georgiana’s demise. In “The Oval Portrait,” the painter is unsatisfied with his wife’s earthly beauty, and wishes to immortalize it by painting a portrait. However, each day his wife gets weaker and weaker until, when the painting is finally finished and the painter is satisfied, his wife has died.

The Tell-Tale Heart: Insanity

“And still the men chatted pleasantly, and smiled. Was it possible they heard not? … -no, no! They heard! They suspected! They knew! – they were making a mockery of my horror! … Any thing was more tolerable that this derision! I could bear those hypocritical smiles no longer! I felt that I must scream or die! – and now – again! – hark! louder! louder! louder!  louder!” (Poe 306)

In this near closing passage of the text, I feel like Poe uses the semantics, diction, and punctuation of the English language in order to portray the mental state of the first-person character. Previously in the text, Poe primarily uses commonly structured sentences in order to portray the insanity of the main character. For example, in the main character’s effort to convince the reader that he is perfectly sane, in the very beginning of the text he states, “How, then, am I mad? Hearken! And observe how healthily – how calmly I can tell you this story.” (Poe 303). In addition, just after the climax of the story, Poe states, “If you still think me mad, you will think so no longer when I describe the wise precautions I took for the concealment of the body.” (Poe 305). The irony of the situation is that while, in so logically trying to convince the reader of his sanity, the main character does the exact opposite.

Consequently, as the character begins to lose the sense of false-logic that he has approached in telling the tale to the audience, the reader begins to lose this sense of “sanity” along with him, as he begins to break up his prose writing with frequent hyphens and shortened, one-word sentences. In addition, as in the quote above, towards the very end of this strange tale, Poe utilizes the use of punctuation to emphasize the character’s frenzy as the guilt, in the form of hearing a dead man’s heartbeat, begins to take over the main character as a result. In conclusion, Poe does an excellent job of using the semantics of the human language to demonstrate the emotion of this fictional character as his touch with the natural world is lost.