Use of Unreliable Narrator in Literature

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1817

Harlan Ellison first published ‘‘I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream’’ in the March 1967 issue of IF: Worlds of Science Fiction, before using it as the title story in his 1967 collection I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream . A horrifying and ghastly story...

(The entire section contains 6946 words.)

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Harlan Ellison first published ‘‘I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream’’ in the March 1967 issue of IF: Worlds of Science Fiction, before using it as the title story in his 1967 collection I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream. A horrifying and ghastly story of a post-apocalyptic hell controlled by a monster computer, ‘‘I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream’’ attracted the attention of Ellison fans and critics alike, winning a Hugo award in 1968.

In the years since its original publication, the story has continued to attract critical attention. Because it is fraught with ambiguity and layered with nightmarish imagery, the story provides fertile ground for varied interpretations.

Critics such as Joann Cobb, for example, argue that the story reveals those attitudes present in 1967 toward the growth of technology. Others suggest that the story represents cultural anxiety over the relationship between humans and machines, an anxiety that finds expression in popular film and television. Such anxiety is evident in the number of episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation concerning Commander Data, the android who not infrequently goes berserk.

Thomas Dillingham, in a chapter he prepared for the Dictionary of Literary Biography, provides an intriguing interpretation of the story focusing on the American ideals of individuality and free will. He writes that the story

not only explores special psychological problems of individuals caught in impersonal, mechanized systems, but also launches a satiric attack on the two poles of totalitarian victimization which are present in the twentieth century: total loss of will, intellect, and individuality, on the one hand; loss of effective control over the phenomenal world of which one is conscious on the other. These losses, along with the specter of nuclear holocaust, which is a metaphor for them both, constitutes the special nightmare of the second half of the century.

Thus, by placing the story in its proper historical and cultural context, the reader is better able to understand the world Ellison creates. At the root of many of these discussions, however, is the question of the story’s ending. Some critics argue that this is a nightmarish vision of the future, a story that demonstrates that humans are ultimately unable to control their own machines, and that they will end up in a hell of their own making, a hell that prevents resolution or solace. On the other hand, there are those who maintain that ‘‘I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream’’ is a story of redemption and of the indefatigable human will. In spite of everything, the narrator Ted is able to defeat the machine at its own game, just as Captain Kirk in the 1960s Star Trek episodes often destroys the computers that attempt to control him.

To arrive at any sort of interpretation of the ending, a reader must first thoroughly investigate the role of the narrator. Although most critics spend some time examining the character Ted, and discussing his role as narrator in ‘‘I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,’’ few have examined the convention of the unreliable narrator and its implications for the story. Such an examination reveals something very interesting: that Ellison may be having as much fun with his readers as AM has with his captives.

The role of the narrator in any short story is crucial to understanding the story. It is important for a reader to identify the point-of-view and to make some judgments about the narrator. In the case of this story, the point-of-view is an extremely limited first-person. That is, everything that the reader learns is filtered through the character Ted. He speaks in the first-person ‘‘I.’’ It is difficult to ascertain to whom he speaks, however, given his limited circumstances. Consequently, readers must assume that they have wandered into to an interior monologue that Ted is having with himself.

There are many advantages in using a firstperson narrator. The reader immediately identifies with the narrator because the narrator’s senses and thoughts form the only source of information the reader has. Indeed, a reader forms an intimate relationship with a first person narrator that makes it extremely hard for the reader to disbelieve whatever it is that the narrator reveals.

In the case of Ted, a character who finds himself in the midst of a nightmarish, post-apocalyptic hell controlled by the whims of a huge supercomputer, the reader has nothing but horror and sympathy for his position. And why not? Ted seems to be in the best position of the characters of the story to relate their plight. He portrays himself as somewhat of an outsider, the youngest of the group, and the ‘‘one AM had affected least of all.’’ He seems to be able to distinguish between image and reality more clearly than the others.

The others are not in as good shape. Nimdok, for example, is a mystery man without a past who hallucinates. Benny, a former university professor, has been changed into an ape-like creature with a huge phallus. Gorrister is a ‘‘shoulder-shrugger,’’ someone unable to make any decisions or to care about his surroundings. Ellen cries a lot and grants sexual favors to all the men.

It is, however, with Ted’s description of Ellen that the reader begins to wonder just a bit about Ted’s reliability. Given the utter horror of their situation, it seems unlikely that ‘‘AM had given her pleasure’’ through her sexuality. It also seems very unlikely that Ellen ‘‘loved it, four men all to herself.’’ Further, Ted speaks with venom about Ellen, calling her a ‘‘slut’’ and a ‘‘douche-bag.’’ Clearly, Ted’s reasoning about Ellen is faulty. And if Ted is mistaken in his description of her, might he also be faulty in his reporting of the rest of the survivors? In the following passage, Ted’s sanity must be called into question.

I was the only one still sane and whole. Really!

AM had not tampered with my mind. Not at all.

I only had to suffer what he visited down on us. All the delusions, all the nightmares, the torments. But those scum, all four of them, they were lined and arrayed against me. If I hadn’t had to stand them off all the time, be on my guard against them all the time, I might have found it easier to combat AM.

At which point it passed, and I began crying.

At this moment, Ted sounds like nothing so much as one of Edgar Allan Poe’s classic insane and unreliable narrators, paranoid and caught within the ramblings of his own twisted mind. Indeed, that the paranoia comes and goes so quickly suggests that AM controls Ted’s mind just as surely as it controls the minds and bodies of the rest. Further, since readers only have Ted’s dubious voice to report his condition, they also have no idea what state his body is truly in.

What does it matter to the story if Ted is reliable or not? Might it not be yet another technique to instill fear and loathing in the reader for the situation brought about by nuclear holocaust and technological hubris? Quite frankly, it matters deeply to the ending of the story whether Ted is sane or not. Those critics who interpret Ted’s murder of the others as an act of supreme self-sacrifice require Ted to be reliable. That is, the only hope for redemption in this story rests on Ted’s clear-headed and reliable reporting that death is the only escape from AM. There are those critics who, building on the ample use of biblical imagery in this story, attribute Christ-like qualities to Ted: he is willing to sacrifice everything in order to save the others.

Yet such interpretations simply cannot hold if Ted is not reliable. In such a case, his murder of the others may simply be an act of insane paranoia. He obviously worries about this potentially being the case. When he recalls Ellen’s death, he says, ‘‘I could not read meaning into her expression, the pain had been too great, had contorted her face; but it might have been thank you. It’s possible. Please.’’ Even in his blob-like final state, Ted is capable of guilt and worry.

There is, however, an even deeper layer to unpeel in this story. Ellison does Poe one better in his use of the conventional unreliable narrator. Ellison’s characters find themselves in a setting with no objective reality. Poe’s readers, ultimately, discover the insanity of the main character and are able to reconstruct a sane telling of the story. Ellison’s use of setting and narrator prevent this. If Ted is unreliable in his reporting of some things, might he not be unreliable in his reporting of all things? That is, what evidence is there in the story that there are really five survivors? Might it not be just as likely that the entire sequence of events that Ted relates takes place nowhere but in his mind? Because there is simply no objective reality in this story against which the reader may test the veracity of Ted’s testimony, his entire testimony is in doubt.

If readers push the notion of the unreliable narrator far enough, they bump into none other than manic puppeteer, Harlan Ellison, standing just outside the edges of his story, creating a strange and awful landscape for his characters. Like the Wizard of Oz, he stands behind the curtain, creating AM, a post-holocaust landscape, and trapped characters. In the final moment, the reader comes to this realization: Ellison has played with the reader in the same way that AM plays with the survivors. The horror the reader feels at Ted’s awful inability to move, talk, see, or scream; the deep sorrow the reader feels for Ted’s act of genuine self-sacrifice; and the utter dismay the reader feels about the future of humankind have all been manipulated by the writer, a writer who has chosen a completely untrustworthy narrator to tell the story. Perhaps in the final analysis, ‘‘I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream’’ is really a brilliant story about the power of fiction, rather than a social or cultural commentary. For if the reader cannot trust the storyteller, can the reader trust the story? And if readers cannot trust the story, then what of the writer? Behind the curtain, out in the margins of the story, Ellison stands laughing, like the unrepentant harlequin he is, waiting for readers to get his joke.

Source: Diane Andrews Henningfeld, Critical Essay on ‘‘I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,’’ in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2002. Andrews Henningfeld is an associate professor at Adrian College in Adrian, Michigan, where she teaches literature and writing. She holds a Ph.D. in literature, and regularly writes book reviews, historical articles, and literary criticism for a wide variety of educational publishers.

Created in the Image of God: The Narrator and the Computer in Harlan Ellison’s I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5129

And man has actually invented God . . . the marvel is that such an idea . . . could enter the head of such a savage, vicious beast as man.

If the devil doesn’t exist, but man created him, he has created him in his own image.—Fyodor Dostoevsky

‘‘I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream’’ first appeared in If: Worlds of Science Fiction in March 1967, bought and edited by Frederik Pohl. It was printed without the now-familiar computer ‘‘talk- fields’’ and also was edited in several places: Ellison calls this ‘‘the Bowdlerizing of what Fred termed ‘the difficult sections’ of the story (which he contended might offend the mothers of the young readers of If.’’ Specifically, Pohl omitted a reference to masturbation, toned down some of Ted’s imprecations of Ellen, and removed all references to Benny’s former homosexuality and the present equine state of what certain writers and speakers of German call the männliches Glied. (In Benny’s case, however, perhaps die Rute would be more precise, and in the process would lend an entirely new meaning to the expression einem Kind die Rute geben.)

The story made its next appearance in Ellison’s collection I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, published in April 1967. Its subsequent reprintings in Ellison’s books were in Alone Against Tomorrow (1971), The Fantasies of Harlan Ellison (1979), and The Essential Ellison (1987). I have compared the versions of all four books with each other and with the story’s original appearance in If; my speculations here are drawn from this comparison.

It is my belief that Ted, the narrator, reveals his own true nature in speaking of the computer and in telling the story of himself and the others. Although the machine often is portrayed in both anthropomorphic and divine terms, I believe it is Ted alone who is both fully human and fully godlike in this story.

A comparison of the texts is illuminating, especially when attention is paid to the nouns and pronouns by which AM is described. Ted sometimes calls AM the machine, the computer, the creature, or simply AM, but usually pronouns are used. ‘‘He’’ and ‘‘it’’ are used indiscriminately, but this apparently careless usage in the versions of the story prior to 1979 becomes clearer in the versions found in The Fantasies of Harlan Ellison and The Essential Ellison, where the pronouns are deliberately mixed. For instance, at one point Ted speaks of Ellen’s sexual services. All versions before 1979 read: ‘‘The machine giggled every time we did it. Loud, up there, back there, all around us. And she never climaxed, so why bother.’’ In The Fantasies of Harlan Ellison and The Essential Ellison this passage is rearranged and expanded:

And she never came, so why bother? But the machine giggled every time we did it. Loud, up there, back there, all around us, he snickered. It snickered. Most of the time I thought of AM as it, without a soul; but the rest of the time I thought of it as him, in the masculine . . . the paternal . . . the patriarchal . . . for he is a jealous people. Him. It. God as Daddy the Deranged. (Ellison’s ellipses)

These later texts establish the division in Ted’s mind between an impersonal and personal view of the computer. They also establish Ted’s religious perspective of AM—a perspective in which God is seen as mad, much as God is portrayed in Ellison’s 1973 story, ‘‘The Deathbird.’’

These two later versions of ‘‘I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream’’ strengthen this combination of personal and impersonal through a deliberate mixture of pronouns not found in earlier renditions. Here are some examples:

The passage of time was important to it. (If 25; Alone 16) The passage of time was important to him. (Mouth 24) The passage of time was important to him . . . it . . . AM. (FHE 187; EE 168; Ellison’s ellipses) It was a mark of his personality: he strove for perfection. (If 25; Mouth 25; Alone 17) It was a mark of his personality: it strove for perfection. (FHE 188; EE 168) He was a machine. We had allowed him to think, but to do nothing with it. (If 32; Mouth 34; Alone 25–26) AM wasn’t God, he was a machine. We had created him to think, but there was nothing it could do with that creativity. (FHE 195; EE 175)

Perhaps Ted best sums it up with this sentence: ‘‘We could call AM any damned thing we liked.’’ But there is more than indifference in Ted’s attitude toward the computer. He admits he frequently thinks of AM as ‘‘him,’’ and he regularly uses masculine pronouns in reference to it. This is due partly to his religious conception of AM as God, as ‘‘Daddy the Deranged,’’ but more often it is because Ted anthropomorphizes the computer, and because Ted and the computer are reflections of each other. In addition, the computer itself assumes human characteristics.

Much of what makes Ted so interesting and effective as a narrator for this story is his intense paranoia, given to him by AM. In The Oxford Companion to the Mind ‘‘paranoia’’ is defined as a functional psychosis ‘‘in which the patient holds a coherent, internally consistent, delusional system of beliefs, centring [sic] round the conviction that he . . . is a person of great importance and is on that account being persecuted, despised, and rejected.’’ Ted displays these classic symptoms, as in this passage: ‘‘They hated me. They were surely against me, and AM could even sense this hatred, and made it worse for me because of the depth of their hatred. We had been kept alive, rejuvenated, made to remain constantly at the age we had been when AM had brought us below, and they hated me because I was the youngest, and the one AM had affected least of all.’’ As the article in the Oxford volume says, ‘‘The adjective ‘paranoid’ is sometimes used by psychoanalysis to describe anxiety and ideas that are inferred to be projections of the subject’s own impulses.’’ Ted thus transfers his own hatred to the computer and the others, while fending off the delusion that he was unchanged despite the descriptions he supplies of his altered mind and believing that ‘‘those scum, all four of them, they were lined and arrayed against me.’’

Part of the effect of Ted’s paranoia is his transference of his own thoughts and feelings to others—and this includes AM, as well as his four human companions. He often describes the computer and its actions in human terms. For instance, he calls AM’s tortures the machine’s masturbation, and speaks of ‘‘the innate loathing that all machines had always held for the weak, soft creatures who had built them.’’ It is difficult to imagine a toaster or refrigerator harboring malice against their makers; more likely, this statement is an expression of Ted’s own hatred of humanity, and just happens to describe AM’s own hatred as well.

Much could be made of the epistemological problems inherent in this story. Not only is Ted an extremely unreliable narrator, but it is often difficult to know how much of what he says is true and how much a projection of his own psyche. For instance, George Edgar Slusser calls Ted ‘‘the true creator of this hate machine,’’ but while Ted does project his hatred onto the machine, it is not simply his delusion either, unless the entire story never happened and is merely an elaborate construction within Ted’s mind.

This humanization of AM is by no means limited to Ted’s transference of human qualities to the computer, however. We are told AM’s name in part refers to the Cartesian cogito ergo sum, ‘‘I think, therefore I am’’; Ellison also mentions that the talk-fields eventually were designed to read ‘‘I think, therefore I AM’’ and ‘‘Cogito ergo sum,’’ even though they were positioned correctly only in The Essential Ellison. This philosophical statement on the part of the computer is certainly one quite human in nature. And AM displays other human qualities: ‘‘he’’ giggles and snickers; shows emotions like anger, hatred, and jealousy; goes through an ‘‘irrational, hysterical phase’’; and possesses sentience, life, and thought. Perhaps the trait which most reveals AM’s human side is its sense of humor. Ted speaks of the computer having fun with the five of them, whom he describes as its toys; the machine frequently laughs at them, sometimes in the guise of a fat woman. AM even jokes with them: ‘‘he’’ gives them bows and arrows and a water pistol to fight the gigantic Huergelmir, and after starving them AM supplies them with canned goods but with nothing to open them. Once there was a Tom and Jerry cartoon with a similar joke: they are locked up in the house with nothing to eat but canned food, but the can opener is useless since they lack opposable thumbs. Given Ellison’s love of animated cartoons— most recently documented in The Harlan Ellison Hornbook—it is quite possible that the cartoon influenced this part of the story.

The computer reveals a sexual side as well. I have mentioned already that Ted describes the machine as masturbating and that it giggles whenever Ellen has sex with anyone. AM also enlarges Benny’s penis, and Ted says that ‘‘AM had given her [Ellen] pleasure’’ in bringing her into the computer’s complex. Jon Bernard Ower believes ‘‘AM’s degredation of the sexual lives of his subjects reveals his jealousy of the physical pleasure and the spiritual fulfillment of human love.’’ It is also possible, I believe, that the scene in which AM enters Ted’s mind with the neon-lettered pillar could be seen as rape, a mental sodomy of sorts. ‘‘AM went into my mind,’’ says Ted. ‘‘AM touched me in every way I had ever been touched . . . AM withdrew from my mind, and allowed me the exquisite ugliness of returning to consciousness with the feeling of that burning neon pillar still rammed deep into the soft gray brain matter.’’ The sexual language and imagery here are very strong and suggestive.

In examining the story’s various printings and reprintings in Ellison’s books and in anthologies edited by others, I noticed that in speaking of Ellen’s sexual services for the four men two of Ellison’s books read, ‘‘She loved it, five men all to herself,’’ while the anthologies had, ‘‘She loved it, four men all to herself.’’ For a while, then, I believed that ‘‘five men’’ was the correct reading, and before I saw either The Fantasies of Harlan Ellison or The Essential Ellison, and before I asked Harlan himself about it, I was prepared to argue that the computer itself was the fifth man, thus strengthening my arguments for AM’s humanization, in particular its sexual manifestations—all of which goes to show the importance of establishing dependable texts.

But while the computer itself may not have sex with Ellen, it definitely possesses a human side; as George Edgar Slusser says, ‘‘in its hatred for mankind, this machine has acquired a human heart.’’ Yet it is an extremely twisted and evil humanity this computer displays, stemming directly from the fact that AM was created to wage war and was programmed by people with hatred and madness in their souls. Ellison’s comments on his projected screenplay adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot are illuminating on this point: ‘‘The only thing that can make machines hurt us is ourselves. Garbage in, garbage out. If we program them and we have madness, then they will be programmed mad.’’ Incidentally, in Ellison’s 1960 novel The Sound of a Scythe (published with the title The Man with Nine Lives) there is a supercomputer similar to AM, designed to handle tasks too complex for humans, but it is kept benevolent by Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics.

If AM is far from benevolent, it is also far from human. It is limited in its creativity and, envying what freedoms and abilities the humans possess, strives to limit even those, as a dog in the manger. Either unwilling or unable to destroy itself, AM apparently is immortal and therefore grants the five humans a form of immortality (following the human adage that misery loves company). Although it can sustain human life, AM cannot create it, which explains why after 109 years and four men no children have been born to Ellen. Although one logically might infer that AM would want more human beings to torture, it evidently keeps Ellen as barren as ‘‘she’’ is. The humans are not fruitful, they do not multiply, they do not replenish the earth. This is made more ironic by the frequent images of pregnancy in the story, as Joseph Francavilla has noted; the computer complex repeatedly is referred to as AM’s belly, and at one point Ted says, ‘‘He was Earth, and we were the fruit of that Earth.’’ In a way, since AM sustains them, it is a type of mother to the five, but it never gives birth to them, making the pregnancy imagery all the more ironic: ‘‘It [the hunger] was alive in my belly, even as we were alive in the belly of AM, and AM was alive in the belly of the earth.’’

Nor can AM restore life. After Ted and Ellen kill their companions, and after Ted murders Ellen, we clearly see the computer’s impotence, evident in its rage that it cannot bring the dead ones back to life. Like Frankenstein’s monster, AM cannot create life; but it can destroy it, which both AM and the monster do by turning on those who gave them life but who failed to give them love and the possibility to create life in turn. Unlike the Frankenstein monster, however, AM does not mature, but instead grows more childish: its use of the five as playthings indicates this, as does the temper tantrum it throws upon the death of the four. The computer again resembles the childish, insane god of ‘‘The Deathbird.’’ Like Ted, it is filled with hatred and in its madness must scream, yet like Ted it has no mouth: it can communicate only through acts of violence such as the rape scene and through the unintelligible talk-fields. Like Ted at some moments, AM represents humanity at its worst.

However, Ted also reveals glimmers of hope within the human condition as he aspires to godhood (so Ellison tells us in ‘‘Memoir’’) through his heroism. AM also aspires to godhood, helped partly by Ted’s own religious imagination, but the divinity it achieves is a very poor sort. In some ways the ‘‘god’’ AM becomes is a reflection of the human race which invented the machine, in others like the Judeo-Christian God in its power and supposed omnipotence, but actually it is closer to Dostoevsky’s devil or Twain’s malign thug: ‘‘If one truly believes there is an all-powerful Deity, and one looks around at the condition of the universe, one is led inescapably to the conclusion that God is a malign thug.’’ Nevertheless, AM’s type of divinity is one representation of human potential, as Willis E. McNelly tells us in his foreword to the story in Robert Silverberg’s anthology, The Mirror of Infinity. Programmed by humanity, ‘‘AM now knows all the ancient archetypal myths, and now uses its knowledge to pervert and negate them. It exercises the power that man never had, to control man, and to give substance to the myths. Man has played God for one last time, creating a God that destroys him.’’ In effect, AM plays at being God just as it plays with the five humans at its disposal, assuming the role of a God who prepares its creatures for destruction by first driving them mad.

There are several instances in the story where the computer plays with the symbolism and mythologies of various religions. For example, Charles J. Brady, Carol D. Stevens, Francavilla, and Ower all note the story’s similarities to the book of Exodus—an additional meaning of AM’s name comes from Exodus 3:14, where God tells Moses that He is to be called I AM THAT I AM—and usually these occur in the perverse way McNelly mentions. The computer sends the five manna which, however, tastes like ‘‘boiled boar urine’’; when AM enters Ted’s mind, it walks as God walked in the Garden of Eden before chastising Adam and Eve for their sin; it appears to them in the form of a burning bush; and after Ellen and Nimdok are swallowed by an earthquake, AM returns them to the others ‘‘as the heavenly legion bore them to us with a celestial chorus singing, ‘Go Down Moses.’ The archangels circled several times and then dropped the hideously mangled bodies.’’

And these examples are within the Judeo-Christian tradition alone: AM employs other religious tricks as well, such as producing the Huergelmir from Norse mythology. Still another mythic tradition may shed some additional light into the relationship between Ted and the computer. Returning to the sentence ‘‘He was the Earth, and we were the fruit of that Earth’’ along with the following sentence, ‘‘though he had eaten us he would never digest us,’’ recalls the Theogony of Hesiod, in which Kronos suppresses his godling children by eating them. Like Zeus in the myth, Ted is an emerging god, but to emerge he first must emasculate the Kronos-figure, AM. Ted saves his ‘‘brothers’’ and ‘‘sister,’’ ironically, by killing them; but instead of reigning triumphantly over the defeated god, both are condemned to Tartarus.

However, the Judeo-Christian mythology is most prevalent in the story, both in the identity AM adopts for itself and in Ted’s ideas about the computer as God. Ted sees AM as God the Father and says, in a biblical misquotation, ‘‘He is a jealous people.’’ The phrase is actually ‘‘jealous God,’’ and two places where it occurs in the Bible are remarkably relevant to the story. In Exodus 20:5, the King James version, it says, ‘‘Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them [graven images], nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.’’ Since there is no certain indication in the story that any of the five are responsible for the creation of the various national AMs, the choice of the unified AM to punish these five and kill everyone else seems fairly arbitrary, but this biblical passage reflects a God who will punish the children for the sins of the fathers, down even to the third and fourth generations. Also, as both Ower and Stevens have pointed out, AM’s selection of these five parodies the concept of a ‘‘chosen people.’’

Nor will such a God necessarily forgive them, as we find in Joshua 24:19: ‘‘And Joshua said unto the people, Ye cannot serve the LORD: for he is an holy God; he is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions nor your sins.’’ Life in AM, for Ted, if not for the others, is not Purgatory, in which one suffers but ultimately is reprieved, but is Hell. ‘‘He withdrew, murmuring to hell with you. And added, brightly, but then you’re there, aren’t you.’’ Yet Ted realizes, and we must realize, that AM is not God. Rather, as Ellison himself has said, ‘‘AM represents . . . the dichotomous nature of the human race, created in the image of God; and that includes the demon in us.’’ In this respect, AM mirrors its creators. As Ower says, ‘‘Humanity in making the computer has travestied its own creation [by God], projecting an amplified image of its fallen and conditioned nature.’’ Perhaps it could even be argued that AM is not entirely malevolent toward humanity, but instead has a love/hate relationship with it. While it hurts the five, it also sustains them and in some cases even gives them pleasure; but Ted, narrating through the veil of his paranoia, can see only the computer’s hatred.

Ted is more like the computer than he realizes, for he also has a love/hate relationship with the others. This is most apparent in his feelings for Ellen. For instance, when he comments that Ellen gave herself to him sexually out of gratitude at one point, he says, ‘‘Even that had ceased to matter’’— which implies that at one time it did matter. When traveling, Nimdok and Gorrister carry her while Ted and Benny walk ahead and behind ‘‘just to make sure that if anything happened, it would catch one of us and at least Ellen would be safe.’’ Ted here transfers his concern to the idiot Benny to deemphasize his own concern for Ellen, and he does not begrudge her this special treatment (in a way foreshadowing her future limp), even though he curses her throughout the story. Ted always gives in to Ellen’s wishes and tries to reassure her whenever she becomes anxious. And when just the two of them are alive and he could have her for himself— he is clearly jealous of the others, especially Benny, since he believes ‘‘she loved it from him’’ while with Ted ‘‘she never came’’—he cares enough for her to rescue her from the hell he will encounter under AM’s wrath.

Both AM’s love/hate relationship with the five and Ted’s paradoxical feelings toward Ellen reflect Ellison’s own feelings toward humanity: ‘‘It is a love/hate relationship that I have with the human race,’’ he says. Ellison believes the human spirit is capable of greatness and nobility, but too often people settle for meanness and mediocrity. ‘‘A majority of readers see his work as filled with anger and bitterness,’’ says Debra McBride. For instance, Joann P. Cobb thinks ‘‘I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream’’ ‘‘illustrates the surrender of human purpose and value that is inherent in contemporary attitudes toward technological progress.’’ But Ellison says otherwise, and his sense of anger, according to McBride, ‘‘stems from a love-hate relationship he has with the human race; he sees greatness in humanity that society seems to bury instead of cultivate.’’

Earlier in the Wiloch and Cowart interview, Ellison expands on his comments with his beliefs about God and humanity: ‘‘There is no God. . . . We are God.’’ He has made similar statements elsewhere: ‘‘I have faith . . . in people, not Gods’’ (FHE 19; Ellison’s ellipses); ‘‘God is within you. Save yourselves’’ (‘‘The Waves in Rio’’ 15). Charles J. Brady believes that in ‘‘I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream’’ Ellison’s ‘‘target’’ is ‘‘God-thepuppet- master, the eternal one behind the scenes who pulls all the strings.’’ But Brady asserts that this is an idol, not the ‘‘real’’ God; therefore ‘‘Ellison’s work is not atheistic or blasphemous in the final analysis.’’ On the contrary, I think it is meant to be blasphemous, if not atheistic. Ellison implies here what he explicitly states above, that gods are essentially our own creations made in our image, and if anything the ‘‘real’’ God is an ideal of human nobility. Similar ideas also are expressed in two other stories by Ellison, ‘‘The Deathbird’’ and ‘‘The Region Between’’ (1969).

It is the belief in the potential of the human spirit that shapes the impact of ‘‘I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream.’’ It is this that makes the apparent humanity and divinity of AM so important, because AM is a human creation: humanity has created both God and Satan in its own image because it is potentially godlike and realistically demonic. It is also important that AM is so much like Ted, and vice versa, because in the narrator we see an actual human being at its worst, yet also a god emerging. As Francavilla says, citing the Promethian nature of Ted, ‘‘If the dark half of human nature is projected into AM, then the firebringing half is embodied in Ted.’’ The editors’ introduction to the story in The Essential Ellison is very revealing on this point:

‘‘I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream’’ is an exceptionally violent warning about technology as a reflection of humanity. If our machines store our knowledge, is it not possible that they can also store, and possibly succumb to, such things as hatred and paranoia? AM . . . is a ‘‘god’’ only in the sense of its godlike powers. But the story must be viewed as Harlan intended, as ‘‘a positive, humanistic, upbeat story,’’ if it is to have any real meaning. Gods and pseudo-gods cannot destroy us without destroying themselves, and the absence of a mouth or a scream cannot invalidate the courageousness of the human spirit.

In ‘‘Memoir,’’ Ellison claims Ted’s actions are godlike since they reveal love and heroism in overcoming his paranoia and in killing the others to put them out of their misery, thus subjecting himself to an eternity of loneliness and torment.

Several aspects of the story strengthen this religious view of the narrator. First is the establishment of AM as a God-figure and the subsequent identification of Ted with the computer, however unwitting on Ted’s part. Like AM, Ted is filled with envy, hatred, and paranoia. Both are immortal. Two descriptions of Ted’s brain resemble those of AM’s ‘‘mind’’: blown by the hurricane, Ted describes his mind as ‘‘a roiling tinkling chittering softness,’’ a description resembling those of AM in thought, especially the repeated word ‘‘chittering’’; and just as when AM was constructed its creators dropped shafts into the earth, so when AM enters Ted’s mind ‘‘[h]e smiled softly at the pit that dropped into the center of my brain and the faint, moth-soft murmurings of the things far down there that gibbered without meaning, without pause.’’ In the latter, the sounds within the ‘‘pit’’ of Ted’s brain are much like the talk-fields of the murmuring computer.

Other features which reinforce Ted’s religious nature are his language and expressions, many of which are loaded with theological and liturgical impact. Not only does he often equate AM with God, and even pray at one point (but in vain), but he also speaks occasionally in a biblical mode. He speaks of AM’s ‘‘miracles’’ and the torments which he ‘‘visited down on us,’’ and their passage through ‘‘a valley of obsolescence’’ foreshadows the Bunyanesque tone of the later passage, which reads:

And we passed through the cavern of rats. And we passed through the path of boiling steam. And we passed through the country of the blind. And we passed through the slough of despond. And we passed through the vale of tears.

John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, to which this story has been compared, is of course the source of the Slough of Despond; the ‘‘vale of tears’’ is a traditional religious phrase expressing the medieval Christian view of the world as a place of suffering (terribly apropos for this story); and ‘‘the country of the blind’’ is from the H. G. Wells tale of the same title which makes use of the familiar quotation, ‘‘In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king’’— even if he has no mouth.

Another religious aspect of Ted is the narration itself. To whom is he telling this story? Not to AM, certainly; the computer is referred to in the third person, and it’s likely the two aren’t on speaking terms. He probably isn’t writing or typing it, as McNelly supposes, given the description of his arms as ‘‘[r]ubbery appendages.’’ The most probable answer is that Ted is telling it to himself (Joseph F. Patrouch, Jr., arrives at the same conclusion), and likely not for the first time. Like Gorrister telling the history of AM over and over to Benny, so Ted probably repeats his story to himself, possibly to alleviate the sense of guilt he feels at the death of the others and his uncertainty that he did the right thing. In this way, the story would assume a mythological aspect. Evidence of such repetition can be seen in the various instances of foreshadowing in the story. Gorrister’s reaction to seeing himself suspended, dead and mutilated, from the pink palette, ‘‘as though he had seen a voodoo icon,’’ foreshadow’s Benny’s later cannibalistic attack. Ted’s description of the earth’s ‘‘blasted skin’’ parallels his later transformation by AM, as does the light pulsing within Benny when he tries to escape to the surface and AM reduces his eyes to ‘‘two soft, moist pools of pus-like jelly.’’ Ellen is carried by Nimdok and Gorrister even before her leg is injured—or maybe after; perhaps Ted’s chronology has become confused with successive retellings. Also, Ted says that among the five he was affected the least—an impression given him by his paranoia—but in the end he is altered almost beyond the point of recognition as a human being.

The most religious thing about Ted, however, is not his language but his actions. In killing the others, with Ellen’s assistance, Ted fulfills Christ’s statement, ‘‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.’’ Like other religious aspects of the story, this is reversed: Ted lays down his life, but it is his friends who die and he who lives. Despite this inversion, however, Ted is no Christ-figure. He remains fully human, yet achieves a type of godliness despite his humanity, despite his paranoia and his hatred of others. Ted is a human hero—human as we are, his courage an example for us to follow rather than a Christlike ideal we cannot reach. As McNelly says, ‘‘Ted is no Christian in his pilgrim’s progress’’ but rather ‘‘the embodiment of the good and evil in all of us, at once brute and angel, fornicator and lover, killer and savior. He is man—like a devil, like an angel, like a god.’’

The narrator of ‘‘I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,’’ then, embodies the image of God despite his human, all too human limitations and flaws. Ted exemplifies the potential of the human spirit. In this way he triumphs over the computer, which is also human and godlike; because while the computer is neither fully human nor fully divine, Ted is both, and through this displays a moral superiority which makes this tale, as Ellison intended it, ‘‘a positive, humanistic, upbeat story.’’

Source: Darren Harris-Fain, ‘‘Created in the Image of God: The Narrator and the Computer in Harlan Ellison’s ‘I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,’’’ in Extrapolation: A Journal of Science Fiction and Fantasy, Vol. 32, No. 2, Summer 1991, pp. 143–55.

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