The ubiquitous unreliable narrator

Fashion and Point of View


     When novels first started rolling in English there were three real popular forms: omniscient, first person and epistolary. Fielding's TOM JONES was an example of omniscient, where the narrator knows everything. MOLL FLANDERS was told in first person, and there was some confusion at publication whether or not Daniel Defoe really interviewed a woman named Moll Flanders and this was her story. Then there was the endless and interminable CLARISSA, which was an epistlary novel. An episltary novel was told in letters, and was something of a multiple p.o.v. novel. You have letters people wrote to people, letters those people wrote back. At one point in CLARISSA, the villain, Lovelace, is apparently writing while sitting outside Clarissa'a window in the rain, but that was after he raped her while she was declining, and dying, and dying...

     There are a couple of theories about why omniscient p.o.v. became less popular. One is that as we are less religious, we are less likely to assume there's a god and the omniscient p.o.v. assumes a kind of sees all, knows all voice that we just don't believe in any more. I think there is also something to the fact that Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Carver wrote naturalistic fiction and used third person limited really well and that the style lends itself to establishing a sense of psychological realism. The people in the stories seem human and full of foibles and the lives they live are often not particularly glamorous.

     I like limited third p.o.v. but I'm glad that people like Rushdie and Gabriel Garcia Marquez are using omniscient p.o.v. again. Naturalistic style is only one style. Psychological realism is a great way to tell us about ourselves but it is limited. We don't talk in poetry, poetry is rarely realistic to the way we use language, but poetry is still an amazing medium to illuminate, and in the same way, conventions other than psychological realism can do things that psychological realism cannot. Tarot cards and dreams tell us things about ourselves because they sneak through our assumptions. Magic realism can do the same thing. So can omniscient and lots of other styles that are getting more and more accepted. (As well, probably, of styles that aren't becoming fashionable right now. That's the problem with selecting your conventions, you gain some things and you lose some things. But life is like that.)


     I've been thinking a lot about p.o.v. and the unreliable narrator. It's a pretty writerly thing to be thinking about, which means has about all the conversational pizazz of an engineer discussing chrome plating techniques or the difference between ABS and glass filled ABS plastic. But imagine this is a trade journal, which it is. And I were a trade journalist, which I'm not.

     In some sense all narrators are unreliable.

     The classic unreliable narrator is someone like Nick in THE GREAT GATSBY, whose hero worship blinds him to things about Gatsby that the reader can see. An unreliable narrator has to report things that tell the reader information that the narrator doesn't deduce. A bad unreliable narrator is stupid. A bad unreliable narrator figures things out a long time after the reader does for no other reason than if the narrator figures out that, say, the weird guy who lives upstairs, never talks to anybody, keeps a large gun and knife collection, and always pays his rent in small unmarked bills is the one who is killing all the coeds there will be no story. The only time a narrator should be stupid is if the narrator is someone like Benjy from Faulkner's THE SOUND AND THE FURY, who really is stupid--Benjy is retarded and is institutionalized in the course of the book--his narrative is without understanding. It's also difficult on the reader, who must sort out what is important to the story from what is important to Benjy. (It took me forever to figure out that he was watching two men play golf.) A bad unreliable narrator is unbelievable because the reader can't understand how come the narrator hasn't figured out what the reader has.

     A good unreliable narrator is a fine piece of work. The narrator must be presented to the reader as someone who is working out of the context of their own personality, and who misses things that the reader can pick up because of the narrator's naivite, or prejudice, or prejudgement. Like Huck Finn, who doesn't realize that the two guys that he and Jim are traveling with are con men because he is a child and has never seen a con, but his description of them is sufficient for the reader to realize. There's a tension created with an unreliable narrator--they are unaware of something important that the reader is aware of, will it get them in trouble?

     Every book has a narrator. In first person books, the narrator is the 'I' of the book. "Call me Ishmael," and Ishmael goes on to narrate MOBY DICK. David Copperfield narrates DAVID COPPERFIELD. But there's a narrator in third person books too. The more limited the p.o.v. the harder it is to pick out the narrator. (If you don't know what p.o.v. is, here's a brief explanation.) But even in a third person limited p.o.v. where the story reports only what the characters sees and thinks and feels and experiences, someone is selecting those experiences, and the cumulative selections suggest a personality at work, a narrator. This gives the book a certain tone, a certain voice.

     All narrators are in some sense unreliable is because as writers we are all fallible. A book is going to reveal the unconcious assumptions about culture and ethics of the writer. When I write, the things I assume and the way I see the world are going to stand revealed in ways that I don't anticipate or intend and in the end, I think this is one of the values of fiction. All these voices of authors, talking back and forth across the pages and now, the bits and bytes, and trying to say, _this is what the world is_. We are all blind, we are all trying to describe the elephant.


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