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Narrators who are unreliable by way of an insane narrator are often used within the context of the story to examine a theme of personal perspective or comment upon society from the perspective of those on the “outside” in some capacity. Such is the case with “Diary of a Madman” by Nikolai Gogol, “The Tell-tale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe and “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Stetson. The reflections and perceptions of the narrators in each story reflect their position in society and that position manifests itself over time within the context of the world in which they live. In “Diary of a Madman”, Gogol’s titular narrator is the least self-aware with his ever loosening grip on reality. This reflects his skewed perception of the social order in nineteenth century Russia. Poe’s unnamed narrator in “The Tell-tale Heart”shows a bit more self -awareness as he constantly refers to the reader’s supposed assumption of his madness. However, he constantly endeavors to assure the reader of his sanity, never considering the possibility that the climactic scene could be the result of auditory hallucinations. Though Poe purposefully kept the reasoning behind the narrator’s madness and eventual murder ambiguous, he refers to his personal sensitivity as a “disease [that had] sharpened my senses” (Poe 1). He remarks upon the victims “evil eye” as the cause of his agitation. One can interpret that this is a manifestation of the narrator’s internal guilt being perceived in the outside world. Finally, the narrator from “The Yellow Wallpaper” is made to question her own sanity from the beginning. She is diagnosed with “temporary nervous depression” and is prescribed a restrictive rest cure. She actively works despite her physician husband and brother’s recommendation that she rest as she disagrees with their assertion that she is required to avoid excitement, however, as a woman she is made fully aware of how others perceive her and often expresses her shortcomings through the context of her husband. “He knows there is no reason to suffer and that satisfies him” (Stetson 649). Unreliable narrators are storytelling devices for the author to provide insight into the world of the story. [“Write my essay for me?” Get help here.]

For his short story “Diary of a Madman”, Nikolai Gogol chose to write in the first person from an unreliable narrator. This was a very deliberate choice particularly of note considering Gogol more often chose to write in the third person. The titular narrator is a low-level civil servant and his acute awareness of his placement in society appears to be a driving motivation behind his delusions. He is preoccupied with status and ceremony. He says of his workplace “…truly, were it not for this official propriety, I should have long ago sent in my resignation” (Gogol 3).  Initially, his predisposition to insanity only manifests itself within his harried habits and movements. His supervisor notes this. “For sometime past he has been in the habit of saying to me ‘Look here, my friend; there is something wrong with your head. You often rush about as though you were possessed” (3). The hallucinations and delusions truly begin, however, when the narrator spots and becomes infatuated with the director’s daughter. He immediately becomes convinced that her dog is not only speaking to other dogs, but corresponding with them via letters. He is painfully aware of the class difference between the director’s daughter and himself noting that her hand kercheif “had the scent of a general’s rank” (6). The allusions to class and rank within “Diary of a Madman” could be seen as a criticism of the class obsessed society in nineteenth century Russia. In his preoccupation with such things, the narrator’s perception of the world becomes increasingly absurd and he fails to question the clarity of such perception as it aligns just as logically as everything else.[Need an essay writing service? Find help here.]

The narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart” takes a more ambivalent approach to his own madness. He frequently states that any outside observer would consider him insane but goes through a good deal of effort attempting to convince them otherwise. He asserts that his calmness and how strategically he committed murder are evidence that he is, in fact, sane. “Madmen know nothing. But you should have seen me. You should have seen how wisely I proceeded- with what caution-with what foresight- with what dissimulation I went to work” (1). “The Tell-Tale Heart” differs from the other two stories to which is compared in that the narrator’s madness appears to be the result of internal scrutiny, the source of which is never revealed. The narrator cites the victim’s eye as the cause of his desire to murder. It is as if the eye sees the narrator’s internal flaws and short-comings. Just before the deed is committed, the protagonist parallels himself with his victim. “…it was the low stifled sound that arises from the bottom of the soul when overcharged with awe. I know that sound well[…]it has welled up from my own bosom” (2). Poe later parallels the protagonist with the victim literally when he is seated directly above the dismembered corpses of the old man. In “The Tell-Tale Heart” the narrator’s frequent assertion of his own sanity is a manifestation of his actual ambivalence about both his sanity and true nature.[Click Essay Writer to order your essay]

Finally, Charlotte Perkins Stetson’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” is an early feminist polemic on the treatment of women within Victorian society. The narrator is a middle class woman confined to a strict rest cure by her physician husband who often disregards her desires and misunderstands her needs as fancies of an overactive imagination. “He says that my imaginative power and habit of story-making, a nervous weakness like min is sure to lead to all manner of excited fancies” (649). As a woman, the narrator is considered less competent than the men in her life.  As a result of growing up within such a society  this she has internalized  such beliefs and thus views herself from a critical lens. Rather than validating her own feelings towards the rest cure, she writes her reaction of as senseless. “I get unreasonably angry with John sometimes” (648). When her sanity begins to deteriorate, she presumes that it is a hysteria from overexertion rather than the actual maddening lack of stimulus and activity. “It is getting to be a great effort for me to think straight. Just this nervous weakness, I suppose” (652). By the time the narrator begins to behave in a manner that reflects her ever worsening insanity, she assumes that she is behaving within the perimeters of what has been established as acceptable: confining herself in the room while creeping along it’s internal boundaries and allowing herself her true pleasures out of view of her husband and sister-in-law. She believes that she is a product of unreasonable fancy and as a result has plunged further into her delusions of entrapment than she would have had she been merely allowed to live as she pleased. Unlike the male narrators in “Diary of a Madman” and “The Tell-Tale Heart”, she never questions the diagnosis that she is unwell, she only questions the method of treatment. Stetson uses the narrator’s description of her life at the mansion as a way of criticizing the restrictive, patriarchal society at the time.

“Diary of a Madman”, “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Yellow Wallpaper” all have narrators that are made unreliable by way of insanity. However, all three characters are very different in their self-perception and admission to their own delusional outlook. It is through these differences that it is clear that the message the writers wish to convey to the reader as well as the aspects of their society they wanted to reexamine have diverse aims. All three are outsiders whose behavior deviates from what is considered acceptable within the rest of society, but it is the way in which they are outsiders that sells the message of each story. The protagonist of “Diary of a Mad Man” is an individual lacking status in a class obsessed society. The unnamed narrator in “The Tell-Tale Heart” is an ambivalent psychopath who interprets and old man’s blind eye as judgment of his being.  Finally, the woman in “The Yellow Wallpaper” is a woman and is the product of the role in which the society of the time has placed her. In this way, all three writers utilize the device of the unreliable narrator with varying results.

Works Cited

Gogol, Nikolai. “Diary of a Madman”. Translated by Claud Field. Feedbooks, 1835.

Poe, Edgar Allen. “The Tell-Tale Heart”. The University of Virginia, 1853.

Stetson, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper”. The New England Magazine, vol.11, no. 5, 1892, pp. 647-657

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By Hanna Robinson

Hanna has won numerous writing awards. She specializes in academic writing, copywriting, business plans and resumes. After graduating from the Comosun College's journalism program, she went on to work at community newspapers throughout Atlantic Canada, before embarking on her freelancing journey.

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