The Unreliable Narrator

All the novels used as examples in this book have been written in the voice of a "reliable" narrator. The contract with the reader is that all events are set down as they happened and that the author is playing fair with the facts of the situation.

The narrator of a story, by the very nature of the storytellers' art, must withhold things from the reader. In the standard contract, the narrator, who knows the ending of the story, as an example, does not reveal it, but rather tells the story linearly, so that it seems to be unfolding before the reader's eyes. The narrator tells all that's necessary for the reader to know of the events that have already happened, but holds back what is going to happen.

In the standard contract it is a terrible violation to not play fair with the reader. A writer may sometimes get away with it, however, especially if it is done only once. As an example, a science fiction story might open with the first-person narrator talking about a beautiful woman the narrator is hoping to seduce, and not let the reader know that the narrator is a lizard until later.

If such a device at the beginning of the story is used as a kind of hook, okay, but if you try to pull it off more than once, the reader is apt to feel the contract has been violated and close the book.

You can, however, make a contract with the reader that states that the narrator is completely unreliable and it is up to the reader to figure out what is really happening. One example of this is Faulkner's famous retarded narrator, Benjy, watching a golf game in The Sound and the Fury. The enjoyment of reading it is getting the sense of what it's like to be in the head of a retarded person. We enjoy it, even though we know that what is being reported is unreliable.

A narrator does not have to be retarded or insane to be unreliable. A narrator might just be highly prejudicial:

Really, I didn't mind when the Fresians moved in next door. Honest, some of my best friends are Fresians. In fact, when they moved in, I went over and said hi and asked them not to park in front of my house, because I have friends come sometimes and they like to park there. I didn't insist on it, though, but I could tell they didn't like it. Fresians are touchy.

They complained the very first week about my kid throwing apples in their back yard. Why not make an apple pie, I told them, kidding. But you can't kid with a Fresian, no sense of humor ...

Even though the narrator is unreliable and is giving highly prejudicial testimony, the reader gets the true picture. This is not a violation of the author/reader contract, because the narrator has been unreliable all along. Even if the reader does not catch on immediately, there is no contract violation unless the author doesn't let the reader know the narrator is unreliable until the very end and is playing a sort of joke on the reader. Readers don't like those kinds of jokes. They will send you nasty letters if you do things like that.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment