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 / 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 first-person 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 1 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.
Carol Ullmann (Editor) Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 15, Harlan Ellison, Published by Gale, 2002.
Diane Andrews Henningfeld, Critical Essay on “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.