How does Edgar Allan Poe develop the first-person point of view and the narrative or third-person point of view?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Edgar Allan Poe’s use of the first-person point of view is often memorably effective.  Take, for instance, the opening sentences of “The Cask of Amontillado”:

THE thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could; but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge. You, who so well know the nature of my soul, will not suppose, however, that I gave utterance to a threat.

These sentences not only introduce us to the basic plot of the story but also to the character of the narrator. His reference to a “thousand injuries,” for instance, implies a person who is prone to exaggerate any perceived offences. His reference to the name of the man who has injured him may be an ironic pseudonym, chosen by the narrator so as not to reveal the real name of the person whose murder he confesses in this story. The abrupt second half of the opening sentence catches us a bit by surprise and helps characterize the narrator as strongly decisive. The story never makes clear the identity of the “You” whom the narrator is addressing; in a sense, he is addressing us as readers, making us fascinated voyeurs to his sick plot of vengeance.  In just a few words, then, the narrator begins to characterize himself and immediately creates curiosity and suspense. The story would probably be less effective if it were told by an omniscient narrator from a third-person point of view.

The opening two sentences of “The Masque of the Red Death” offer an interesting difference in narrative method:

THE "Red Death" had long devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its Avatar and its seal—the redness and the horror of blood. There were sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution.

Here the story is told from a more objective, distanced point of view. Even this narrator, however, inevitably characterizes himself, although more subtly. Notice, for instance, the reference to “Avatar,” which implies an educated narrator addressing an educated audience. The narrator feels no need to pause and explain this phrasing. He takes for granted that we will know what he means, because obviously he knows what he means. The same is true of his use of the word “seal,” which alludes to the practice of sealing letters or document with bright red wax. Frightening as the references to blood are here, they might be even more frightening if the narrator were describing his own bleeding. These sentences, however, deal not with a particular person’s feelings (as did the opening sentences of “The Cask of Amontillado”) but deal instead with a plague afflicting an entire society. Thus the third-person viewpoint is appropriate.

For the sake of one more contrast, consider the opening two sentences of “The Pit and the Pendulum”:

I WAS sick—sick unto death with that long agony; and when they at length unbound me, and I was permitted to sit, I felt that my senses were leaving me. The sentence—the dread sentence of death—was the last of distinct accentuation which reached my ears.

Instantly this first-person narrative provokes many questions: why is the narrator sick? Is he really “sick unto death” or merely exaggerating? Who are “they”? What does he mean by “unbound”? And so on.  Poe often manages to create great curiosity, as in the examples shown here, through his use of first-person narration.