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March 18, 2007

EL312: Unreliable narrators: "told by an idiot" or misread?

Since I've been running in to quite a few unreliable narrators this semester, I thought I'd define that term for this week, with the help of my Bedford.

We discussed last week in class the unreliability of Kinbote as the narrator in Pale Fire and Cap'n Happy in Benito Cereno (I love that we call him that, just as an aside). Considering that both narrators give us only their limited viewpoint, we have to be super sleuths to get beyond the limitation of the unreliability to get "just the facts, ma'am."

I suppose it's possible to find many unreliable narrators, but some others listed in the Bedford include Marlow in Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Nick Carraway in Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (492). I've encountered both Marlow and Carraway in my time here at SHU, and I'd like to add to that list the Compson family (especially Benjy and Quentin) from Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury as well as Jane, the narrator, in Perkins-Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper.

In my opinion, the unreliable narrator adds a new layer of depth for readers to explore. Instead of spreading the story broader, the author makes it go deeper with the enigmatic and sometimes frustrating characteristics of the narrator whose views and thoughts cannot be trusted.

The frustration can push past the mere unreliability into questioning the person's capability to process thought altogether (especially in the case of Benjy in Faulkner's piece). However, this is in the author's favor: the depth of exploration into the character and his or her involvement with the storytelling as well as with the other characters only draws the reader further into the story without any extra effort on the author's part. The only way to misconstrue this is if the reader 1) gives up on the story, 2) totally misreads the narrator as someone reliable, or 3) decides that the character does not offer the best viewpoint for the narration of the text and can argue this point... which might be interesting...

Murfin and Ray, Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms -- Jerz EL312 (Literary Criticism)

Posted by KarissaKilgore at March 18, 2007 3:50 PM


I was thinking about doing this for my term paper. I thought about also adding in about "Bartleby the Scrivener" (sorry if I mispelled). What are your thoughts?

My thesis would be something along the lines of:

The unreliable narrator is a character that is used often in the literary world. One only has to look at the innumerable number of stories by different authors such as Faulkner and Melville to see how they make use of the device. However, is it possible that it is overdone? By looking at "Benito Cereno," The Sound and the Fury, and [insert another idea here] it is possible to see how this is so.

I know that it is very rough and I don't know if these are going to be the stories that I use (with the exception of "Benito Cereno" of course), but it has been something that I have been thinking of for a few days. Thoughts?

Posted by: Tiffany at March 19, 2007 10:01 PM

Hm, I admit that I'm not that familiar with that story. I'm sure it'd be interesting to tie it with Benito Cereno and TSATF, though. :)

I'd definitely use examples to say -exactly- how you think the works are "over done" with using the unreliable narrator. Otherwise, your reader has no clue what you mean by saying that. Also, you might want to delineate exactly what you're looking at with this unreliable character--are you examining style, the implementation of the character, the character's affect on readers, how unreliable narrators are much like real people (that switch topics in conversation, haha), or author's purpose in using this character to tell the story instead of something like an omniscient narrator?

Just a few questions. :)

Posted by: Karissa at March 20, 2007 8:00 AM

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