Using Poe’s Unreliable Narrator to Identify and Create Rhetorical Arguments


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Becky Frangella

ENG 409.05


Using Poe’s Unreliable Narrator to Identify and Create Rhetorical Arguments

Theoretical Justification/Rationale

According to Doug Brent in Reading as Rhetorical Invention, “The way we believe or disbelieve certain texts clearly varies from one individual to the next. The task of a rhetoric of reading is to explain systematically how these differences arise—how people are persuaded differently by texts” (18). In determining how an author or speaker is attempting to persuade, the reader must critically evaluate whether the author is using ethos, pathos, or logos in attempt to convince the reader. Then, the reader must consider his or her own assumptions and decide whether or not the arguments presented in the text can be assimilated into their own system of beliefs.

In fiction, the reader is looking to assess the speaker and primary characters in the novel and determine whether or not they should accept the statements or actions of these figures as true. Wayne Booth reminds readers to be cautious of the artificial voice that exists in fiction; it is this voice that tells the reader which characters are trustworthy and which are not. In Edgar Allan Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado, the voice of the speaker, Montresor, tells us that the other character, Fortunado, is foolish and irritating; he is quite deserving of his death due to the insult that was afflicted upon Montresor. This trivial issue, an insult, becomes much more serious when it negatively impacts our speaker; thus his actions become less irrational and more acceptable.

Students need to be able to understand what constitutes a rhetoric of reading and be able to recognize the author’s intended purpose for persuading. In reading, they can identify the author’s ethos and decide, using their own system of beliefs, whether or not the argument of the speaker is rational and worth accepting. They should be able to use the techniques learned when evaluating what they read to create their own arguments through writing. Their task will be to write from a viewpoint that opposes Poe’s speaker, creating an argument for a converse theory of the same story.


This lesson is designed to accompany a unit that analyzes point of view in writing—it will be preceded by an outline of the different points of view and followed by an investigation into when different points of view are most appropriate for a variety of rhetorical situations. The activities in this lesson are intended to aide students in establishing the credibility of the speaker whose voice is being used narrate a story. Edgar Allan Poe is a renowned author whose ability to spook and captivate an audience is uncanny. In addition, his speakers are notorious be being unreliable. The students will have already read about Poe; they will be aware of his curious background and the moods and themes present in his writing. This lesson focuses on identifying the argument of the speaker and the unreliability that exists in the first person point of view. Students will investigate The Cask of Amontillado not only from the first person perspective that Poe used but also from the viewpoints of other characters within the story. They will be asked to create alternate perspectives for The Tell-Tale Heart.

National Learning Standards

Standard 3: Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).

Standard 5: Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.

Standard 7: Students conduct research on issues and interests by generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., print and non-print texts, artifacts, people) to communicate their discoveries in ways that suit their purpose and audience.
Required Materials

  • Computers for student access

  • Website:

  • Projector

  • Attached handouts—First Person Narration Worksheet, Triple Venn Diagram

Student Activities (This lesson will take about two 50 minute periods to complete!)

  1. Introduce the importance of recognizing the point of view and persuasive argument posed by the primary speaker in a fictional story.

  1. Pass out and explain directions for the First Person Narration worksheet. Have students complete it as they read Poe’s original versions of The Cask of Amontillado and The Tell Tale Heart.

  1. Have students read The Cask of Amontillado from the first person point of view. Use Think-Pair-Share to complete Column 1 of the First Person Narration worksheet.

  1. Number students off as ones or twos. Split the class and have the ones re-read The Cask of Amontillado from the point of view of Fortunado and the twos reread it from the perspective of a 3rd person narrator using the Knowing Poe website. Afterwards, have ones pair with twos and complete the tri-circle Venn Diagram making comparisons between the three versions. They may use the First Person Narration sheets to prompt their discussion.

  1. Work as a whole class to discuss similarities and differences among the arguments given in each of the three different perspectives.

  1. Assign students to read The Tell-Tale Heart from the perspective of Poe’s speaker. Have the ones rewrite the story from the perspective of one of the officers. Have the twos rewrite the story from the perspective of an outside narrator. Remind the students that their job as writers is to argue their character’s beliefs and point of view. They should consider the ethos, pathos, and logos of the assigned character.

  1. Share stories orally. Discuss the differences among the three versions—which was most interesting, why Poe chose to write in the 1st person and why it is so effective in this type of fiction, etc.

  1. Begin a conversation about using the appropriate point of view for a given audience. This is a topic that students will explore later in the unit. Initial questioning may include: Why is Poe’s use of first person so successful in his stories? What happened when the point of view was changed? In what types of writing would 3rd person be more appropriate?


- Copies of The Tell-Tale Heart

- First Person Narration Worksheet

- Triple Venn Diagram


Students will need to write a one page fictional story a la Poe using the first person. They may write about any subject they want, but the goal is to create a story that includes a persuasive speaker with unreliable tendencies.


Students will trade papers in class the following day and asses the writing of their peers using the First Person Narration Worksheet. The writing should appropriately captivate an audience and reflect correct use of the first person.


Booth, Wayne C. The Rhetoric of Fiction. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago, 1961.

Brent, Doug. ''Reading as Rhetorical Invention: Knowledge, Persuasion, and the

Teaching of Research-Based Writing''. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1992.
“Edgar Allan Poe, Ambrose Bierce, and the Unreliable Narrator.” 19 March 2007.

“Knowing Poe: Poe the Writer: Point of View.” Knowing Poe: The Literature, Life, and

Times of Edgar Allan Poe…In Baltimore and Beyond. Maryland Public Television, 2002. 14 March 2007. <>

Name: ________________________________________ Date: ______________
First-Person Narration: Edgar Allan Poe
Part I
First person narrators are notoriously unreliable. Think about the narrator in The Cask of Amontillado and The Tell-Tale Heart and respond to the questions below. When possible, provide evidence from the story in the form of a direct quote to support your responses.


The Cask of Amontillado

The Tell-Tale Heart

Identify the speaker’s ethos. (What is he trying to persuade his readers to believe?)

Give an example where the narrator is unreliable. Explain your reasoning.

Give an example where the narrator is reliable. Explain your reasoning.

Provide evidence a lawyer might use to prove the narrator is insane.

Provide evidence a lawyer might use to prove he’s sane.

Part II
Poe wrote with the intention of producing an intense effect in the reader. Characterize the effect you believe he intended for each story. What in the story supports your idea?

The Cask of Amontillado

The Tell-Tale Heart

Names: ___________________________________ Date: __________

Triple Venn Diagram

Directions: Use this Venn Diagram to compare the three versions you read of The Cask of Amontillado.




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