Edgar Allan Poe, Ambrose Bierce, and the Unreliable Narrator

… 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.