Roundtable on Unreliable Narrators

Stefan Dziemianowicz
If we reach beyond our own genre, into extraliterary media . . .

I have always thought Dennis Potter’s “The Singing Policeman” one of the more ingenious (if self-consciously artful) treatments of the unreliable narrator. The program builds on successive episodes that often feature repeat scenes played out slightly differently than they played in the previous episode. After a while it becomes clear that the point-of-view character is wrestling with serious emotional and psychological problems that are altering his perspective on events in his life as he comes to terms with them. By the end of the program the story that emerges is vastly different from the story as it played out at the beginning.

Siobhan Carroll
I just had this question come up in a class discussion of The Hobbit . Tolkien explains the changes made to the revised version of the novel — including the altered outcome of the riddle game — by adding a publisher’s note to the effect that Bilbo was lying in the novel’s first edition.

The first time I came across that note I experienced the equivalent of reader-whiplash: the cheerful authoritative voice of The Hobbit seems diametrically opposed to the “unreliable narrator” of other fiction. And so I continue to read The Hobbit’s narrator as reliable, and put the note down to Tolkien being a cheeky beggar.

But Tolkien’s note helps clarify an important component of “the unreliable narrator,” which is that there must be internal evidence within a story to suggest the narrator cannot be trusted. There must be hints dropped as to the narrator’s unbalanced mental state (“Turning of the Screw”) or ulterior motives (Usual Suspects) and/or there must be jarring contradictions within the story itself (Rashomon, Atonement).

So, to follow up on Cecelia’s question: Heart of Darkness is not an “unreliable narrator” story in my eyes because Marlow is so open about his own uncertainties regarding his narrative. He admits to being out of his mind with fever. He’s not sure if he actually saw the figure he thinks he saw in the jungle. And he’s not sure he understands what his story means, either: his tale is a long, slow, circling of a horrible truth that he can’t quite grasp.

In short: it’s possible to have an unreliable narrative delivered by a reliable narrator. And in Heart of Darkness, that’s what I think is going on.

Marie Brennan
Slight tangent, but I think this is part of what annoys me so much about the “it was all a dream!” school of plot-twisting. There’s rarely any hints dropped along the way; the rug gets pulled out from under you without warning, which does nothing but cheapen everything that went before. I think it’s much the same with a badly-handled unreliable narrator.

Good distinction between unreliability in the narrator and the narrative, too.

Gary K. Wolfe
Siobhan’s last point is important, since the few times I’ve taught Heart of Darkness, students often miss that Marlow isn’t the actual narrator, and that the narrator gives us plenty of clues to question Marlow’s account–“his propensity to spin yarns,”to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze,” etc.

Well, Karen, if you were waiting for Gene Wolfe to come up, I’d been waiting for Roger Ackroyd, and John beat me to it. Both books raise the issue of how readers read unreliable narrators, which are generally more appreciated by us literary sorts than by the sort of readers represented by many of my students–and presumably by many of the original readers of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, who I understand were outraged by Christie’s flouting of what they took to be the rules of fair play in mysteries. Such readers seem less disturbed by narrators who repeatedly proclaim their own unreliability, as in O’Brien’s The Things They Carried or more recently Kiernan’s The Drowning Girl, but a novel like Peace is apt to leave them utterly without clue. Ironically, many of these same readers have no problem questioning the reliability of the narrator in, say, a politician’s autobiography. It’s fiction that seems to trip them up.

Stefan Dziemianowicz

Kids today, Gary. When I was college age, I just assumed everyone older than me was lying to me, so I found it easy to accept unreliable narrators.

Gary K. Wolfe
I was going to suggest John’s essay in Conjunctions 39 as well, which spends some time on Heart of Darkness.

Cecelia Holland
I think Marlow grasps the truth when he lies to Kurtz’ wife. Maybe that’s when he becomes the unreliable narrator.

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