Lesson Plans: Grades 6-8

Edgar Allan Poe, Ambrose Bierce, and the Unreliable Narrator

Tools

The Lesson

Introduction

Edgar Allen Poe.

Edgar Allen Poe.

Credit: Courtesy of American Memory

… someone is always between the reader and the action of the story. That someone is telling the story from his or her own point of view. This angle of vision, the point of view from which the people, events, and details of a story are viewed, is important to consider when reading a story."
—From Exploring Point of View on the EDSITEment resource Learner.org

"There is a radical error, I think, in the usual mode of constructing a story … I prefer commencing with the consideration of an effect."
—Edgar Allan Poe in "The Philosophy of Composition", Graham's Magazine, April 1846, pp. 163-167.

(Bierce) is a most uncomfortable writer; so ravenous is his appetite for the horrible, and so keen his delight in keeping his readers' hair erect and their eyes bulging out of their sockets.
—From Californian Literature by Arthur Inkersley (1897) on the website of the Museum of the City of San Francisco,
a link from the EDSITEment resource Internet Public Library

Both Ambrose Bierce and Edgar Allan Poe wrote stories with—as Poe noted in "The Philosophy of Composition"—the "consideration of a novel effect … a vivid effect" on the reader as a central goal. One way to accomplish such an effect is by controlling, through the narration, the information available to the reader and the veracity of that information. The narrator of Poe's "Tell Tale Heart" assures us "how healthily—how calmly I can tell you the whole story," a statement later belied by the content and style of the tale. The narration in Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" reveals at the last moment that the action in Part II took place only in the mind of the dying prisoner. Help your students consider a variety of narrative stances as they analyze how Bierce and Poe utilize narration in two stories.

Note: This lesson may be taught either as a stand-alone lesson or as a prequel to the complementary EDSITEment lesson Edgar Allan Poe, Ambrose Bierce, and the Unreliable Biographers. Although designed for grades 9-12, many of the articles and resources in Edgar Allan Poe, Ambrose Bierce, and the Unreliable Biographers can be adapted for younger students as well.

Guiding Questions

  • In the stories under consideration in this lesson, how did Ambrose Bierce and Edgar Allan Poe use narration to create their intended effect in the reader?

Learning Objectives

  • Define the term "unreliable narrator" and provide examples from Poe and/or Bierce texts for support
  • Cite examples of different points of view (e.g., limited and omniscient, subjective and objective) from Poe and/or Bierce texts
  • Contrast points of view in narrative text and explain how they affect the overall theme of the work.

Preparation Instructions

  • Review the lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and other useful websites. Download and print out documents you will use and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.
  • Download the worksheet for this lesson, available here as a PDF. Print out and make an appropriate number of copies of any handouts you plan to use in class.
  • Both Poe and Bierce are best known for their stories of the macabre and grotesque, as represented by the four stories referenced in this lesson. Three of the tales ("An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," "The Tell-Tale Heart," and "Masque of the Red Death,") are among the most frequently taught short stories; however, all of the narratives contain violence and may not be appropriate for every class.
  • The text of Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," is available from Project Gutenberg, a link from the EDSITEment resource American Studies at the University of Virginia. (You will need to scroll down to find the text.)
  • Adapting this lesson for high school students. Short stories such as "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" are most commonly taught in the middle school. High school curricula tend toward longer texts. However, learning about narration and its effect on the reader may be enlightening for high school students as well. One way of adapting this lesson for students in grades 9-12 might be to take a more sophisticated approach to narration by introducing concepts such as the following:
    • Second-person narration: Rarely used, but a viable alternative.
    • Intrusive narration: In which the narrator judges the characters and comments on all their actions and motives.
    • Impersonal narration: In which the narration appears strictly impartial even when omniscient.
    • Free indirect discourse: In which the thoughts or speech patterns of a character are used without the use of first-person, as in "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," when the narration includes the following thoughts—obviously those of the condemned—without even using quotation marks: How slowly it appeared to move! What a sluggish stream!
  • Activity 2 recommends the use of a directed reading and thinking activity. This method entails stopping the reading of a text at pre-selected intervals to ask students to predict what will happen and to support hypotheses with evidence from the text when possible. Because students are often reticent to participate if they are overly concerned about making a mistake, any prediction a student can support is accepted. When a "correct" answer is later determined through the reading, de-emphasize issues of right or wrong; the writer wants readers to muse about what will happen next and sometimes (especially with Bierce and Poe) intends to misdirect the audience. Because students should not read beyond the stopping point, you may have to prepare the text ahead of time. You might mark a handout to indicate stops, read the story aloud, or have the story read from an overhead or presentation system.
  • In Activity 3, an exercise involving the short story "The Tell-Tale Heart" and a personal letter of Poe's is repeated in the complementary lesson Edgar Allan Poe and the Unreliable Biographies.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Background on Point of View

Establish an anticipatory set by sharing with the class each of the following images from the EDSITEment-reviewed website American Memory. Present the images in turn, without revealing that they are photos of the Statue of Liberty until you show the last image. After you display each image, ask students to write down what they think they are seeing.

In making an analogy between photography and narration, you will be asking students to consider the photographer as the narrator, the photograph as a moment in the narrative, and the photographic subject (i.e. the Statue) as the main character. With this in mind, each of the photographs of the Statue of Liberty can represent one of the narrative stances discussed in the two-part lesson "Exploring Point of View" (Point of View and Types of Point of View) presented by the EDSITEment resource Learner.org.

The Ringlet of Hair compares to the objective point of view, which is when the writer tells what happens without stating more than can be inferred from the story's action and dialogue. The narrator never discloses anything about what the characters think or feel, remaining a detached observer. In the photo, nothing can be inferred; it is even difficult to recognize the subject of the photo. The photographer/author has chosen, in this case, to create in the viewer/reader a sense of mystery or a desire to know more. Share with your students the information on "Objective Point of View" from Types of Point of View on Learner.org.

The Nose Detail compares to third-person narration. Here the narrator does not participate in the action of the story as one of the characters, but lets us know exactly how the characters feel. We learn about the characters through this outside voice. This photo shows a large sculpted nose that has incurred some damage. The viewer/reader can infer that this detail is part of a much larger, though unseen, statue that it is exposed to the elements, that it is aging; considering the statue as a character, the reader begins to learn how the character "feels" about the damage. Share with your students the information on "Third Person Point of View" from Types of Point of View on Learner.org.

The View from the Torch compares to a first-person narrator—the statue itself. Here, we are looking out from the statue's point of view. Share with your students the information on "First Person Point of View" from Types of Point of View on Learner.org.

Compare the Detail of nose and lips showing strap-iron armature supporting copper skin to the limited omniscient point of view, in which the narrator "knows" what's "inside" one character. Share with your students the information on "Limited Omniscient Point of View" from Types of Point of View on Learner.org.

Compare the Overall view of Liberty Island looking Northwest with Jersey City in background to the omniscient point of view. Here the narrator sees everything and has all the answers we will receive in the story. Share with your students the information on "Omniscient Point of View" from Types of Point of View on Learner.org.

As in the poem The Blind Men and the Elephant, available on the EDSITEment resource Smithsonian American Art Museum, what you perceive in a narrative depends on what you are allowed to grasp. (If desired, share the poem with the class.) Through the narrator, the author controls the information available to the reader.

Activity 2. Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge": Playing Tricks on the Reader

Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge", available at Project Gutenberg, a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed website American Studies at the University of Virginia, is a wonderful object lesson on the use of narrative, because Bierce subtly switches the point of view to achieve the desired effect on the reader.

A first student encounter with "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" works well as a directed reading and thinking activity, (see the sixth bulleted item in Preparation Instructions). Stop at certain intervals in the story—a few are recommended below—and ask students to predict what will happen next and, when possible, to support hypotheses with evidence from the text. How often and at what points you ask students for predictions will depend on your group, but here are some potential places to pause:

  • After the first paragraph
  • After the paragraph in Part I ending with "invader's farthest advance"
  • At the end of Part I
  • After the paragraph in Part II ending with "burn like tinder"
  • At the end of Part II
  • After the paragraph in Part III ending with "beneath his feet"
  • After the paragraph in Part III ending with "darkness and silence"

Once the reading is over, discuss the twist ending. Was it possible to "see it coming?" What point of view does the narration take for the final paragraph (objective)? We can understand to a great extent how Bierce fools the reader by noting the changing narration in the story as the author subtly shifts between points of view. Download, copy, and distribute to the class the handout "The Narration in Ambrose Bierce's 'An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge'" on pages 1–2 of the PDF. Give students time to work, either individually or in small groups, and then discuss what students determined. Always ask for support from the text. Be aware that there may be more than one way of looking at the narration. (For example, when the narrator reveals the visitor in Part II to be a Federal scout, is that omniscient?) If desired, display the story on an overhead or other presentation system and highlight the various sections with a color code for each type of narration cited.

If desired, extend the lesson by sharing with the class Poe's "Masque of the Red Death," on the EDSITEment resource American Studies at the University of Virginia, in which the narrative largely uses the third-person point of view. (The word "I" appears in the narration in reference to the process of text creation, but the narrator does not take part in the story.)

Activity 3. True Confessions? Two Unreliable Narratives

Hearken! and observe how healthily—how calmly I can tell you the whole story."
—From Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart"

I say to myself, in the first place, "Of the innumerable effects, or impressions, of which the heart, the intellect, or (more generally) the soul is susceptible, what one shall I, on the present occasion, select? Having chosen a novel, first, and secondly a vivid effect, I consider whether it can be best wrought by incident or tone—whether by ordinary incidents and peculiar tone, or the converse, or by peculiarity both of incident and tone—afterward looking about me (or rather within) for such combinations of event, or tone, as shall best aid me…"
—From Poe's "The Philosophy of Composition"

Now students are ready to look closely at two first-person narratives, Bierce's "My Favorite Murder," available via a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed website American Studies at the University of Virginia, and Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart," offered in an exhibit of American Studies at the University of Virginia. Both are stories of murders from the point of view of the murderer. In both cases, the narrator/main character defends his behavior. As students read the stories, they should be thinking about to whom these defenses are directed.

In "The Tell-Tale Heart," the reader appears to be addressed directly. Why would the narrator do so? The narrator denies that he is mad: what in the text belies that claim? How does sentence structure (passages such as "I undid the lantern cautiously—oh, so cautiously—cautiously") reflect the apparent madness of the narrator? Is the story then simply the ranting of a madman, who would speak to anyone?

Share the letter Edgar Allan Poe to Maria Clemm - July 7, 1849, with the entire class. In it, Poe writes, "I was never really insane," sounding quite a bit like the narrator of his story. Does Poe's claim (as well as any other evidence in the letter) make students think he was or was not insane? Is there any chance the narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart" is not insane? Can we equate the narrator of the story with Poe himself as both claim sanity, perhaps in hopes that they can will it so?

Now share with the class at least the opening sentence of the article "The Trial of James Wood," which is attributed to Poe, though not with certainty. Written in 1840, before the publication of "The Tell-Tale Heart," the article (regardless of its authorship) establishes that the insanity defense was used in the mid-19th century. Is it possible the narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart" is relating the story to establish an insanity defense? Interested students will find the entire article quite intriguing, especially if Poe is the author.

All three possibilities above (the narrator is either stark raving mad, in a moment of (relative) clarity hoping against hope that he is not mad, or pretending to be mad) would preclude the possibility that we can completely rely on anything the narrator says. He is an example of an unreliable narrator. What in the text can students point to as likely examples of the narrator's unreliability?

Likewise, "My Favorite Murder" is narrated by the perpetrator of a crime; in this case, however, the narrative is largely addressed directly to the judge after a short introductory section addressed to the reader. Why does Bierce have the narrator tell us as the story opens that his statement resulted in his acquittal? How would the effect of the story have been different had we not known until the end? Is it reasonable to believe the judge would recommend for immediate acquittal based on the artistry of the crime? Is it possible the judge recommended for acquittal on the basis of insanity? Could the entire tale be the ravings of a lunatic attempting to justify a horrible crime? What in the text can students point to as likely examples of the narrator's unreliability? Do students believe that the writer intended readers to regard the entire story as a kind of tall tale?

If desired, direct students to complete the handout "Two First-Person Narrators" on pages 3-4 of the PDF, to facilitate a discussion of how the stories compare.

Activity 4. Same Story, Different Narrators

If desired, give students the opportunity to experiment with narration. Let individuals take any story (or a story you assign)—"The Tell-Tale Heart" or even a familiar fairy tale would work well—and tell it from different points of view. Like Faulkner in The Sound and the Fury, each main character can re-tell the story. Or, students can relate the tale more than once using some of the narrative stances discussed in this lesson. Encourage volunteers to share their stories through reading or posting.

Extending The Lesson

 

Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Time Required

4 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > American
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Common Core
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Common Core
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Short Stories
Skills
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Discussion
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Interpretation
  • Literary analysis
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Representing ideas and information orally, graphically and in writing
  • Using primary sources
  • Using secondary sources
  • Visual analysis
Authors
  • MMS (AL)

Resources

Activity Worksheets
Media