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Evaluating Narrator Reliability

Evaluating Narrator Reliability-Notes
The reader and the narrator
• The reader enters a contract with the narrator when reading the story.
Audiences have expectations about what makes a satisfying conclusion or resolution
for any given story, and these expectations are based on implied promises made by
the writers of stories.
Generate Expectations:
“commercialism” vs. “art”
What is the difference?
Commercialism: the author will take the reader’s hand and guide him
through the world created in the book. The author will
not suddenly push the reader off a cliff or put boulders in
the way, to trip him up.
In other words, “The narrator will tell me what I need to know.”
Art: the author sacrifices accessibility and commercial feasibility for
art and integrity.
The most important connection in a first person narration is...
• The readers response to the narrator.
– Can be positive or negative
• The reader must ultimately decide if the narrator should be trusted.
– Should everything be taken at face value?
Sometimes Problems Arise: Narrator Reliability
The reliable narrator
• Trusted by the reader although the reader may not agree with narrator
Terence Murphy’s ‘Five Determinants of Reliability’: [a critical perspective]
1) Narration from a place of security, at the place where the narrator was born or
has settled.
2) Use of the ‘middle’ style of standard English (as according to classical rhetoric),
neither colloquial and marked by representation of accent and dialect, nor poetic,
ornate, sophisticated and opaque.
3) Observer-narrator status. a narrator who is not the main character in the story,
but instead tells the story of that main character.
4) Ethical maturity and a conventional moral stance. the narrator has been through
trials that have tested and developed his moral beliefs, and which earns him respect.
5) Retrospective re-evaluation or re-interpretation of another character. the plot
structure centres on the observer-narrator’s re-evaluation of another character
which replaces prior impressions.
Murphy suggests that unreliability is created through departure from or
absence of these determinants.
Other indications that the narrator may be unreliable:
• Cannot be trusted
-the narrator has misinterpreted what was seen or heard.
- the narrator wants the reader’s empathy.
- the narrator is too immature to understand the events as they are
• Misleads the readers
-Speaks or behaves in a manner which is not consistent throughout the story
-the narrator exaggerates or outright lies
-the narrator does not have a grasp on reality
• Makes the reader evaluate the story and read between the lines
***Or, any combination of the above***
Critical Concepts:
Point of View: First-Person Narrator.
It will be clear pretty much at the outset if we are dealing with a "first-person" narrator: the
narrator refers to himself or herself as "I." When this happens, we are on notice that the story is
being told to us by a one of the characters in the story.
Sometimes this character is fairly marginal to the main action of the story -- a kind of by-stander
to it, a minor character in the main action. Sometimes he or she is an important participant in
that action, a major character in it. The narrator can even be the story's central character: the
protagonist can tell his or her own story.
Whenever this happens, there is one thing that we should never do -- take the voice of the
narrator for that of the author. The author is (or at one time was) a real person in the
world. Every narrator -- including every first-person narrator -- is a fictional creature of the
author, a figment of the author's imagination presented for our inspection. The narrator of "The
Tell-Tale Heart" is by no means Poe! So if you say or write, "Poe explains why he hated the old
man," you end up behaving as if you are more naïve than [surely!] you are. The question of what
the author believes is definitely one that the reader can be legitimately interested in, but we can't
answer it directly by quoting the views of his characters, even if the character in question
happens to be the "I" of the story. In all fiction (some would say even in autobiography, too),
any narrator is a construct by the author, not a voice to be identified with the author. A useful
technical term for the implied character of the narrator (whether first-person or third-person) is
persona. It reminds us that the voice addressing us, at least in fiction, is not the author, but a
"mask" the author assumes for the purposes of the particular work at hand.
A question that is always called for whenever we confront this kind of narrative "angle" on
events, is: is this narrator reliable? And there are at least two distinct dimensions to this
(1) Is the narrator a reliable reporter of the facts of the situation s/he presents for our inspection?
The answer can of course turn out to be "Yes." But our experience of the story will be different
if we have arrived at this judgment by way of an examination of the issues relevant to deciding it
than it will be if we just take the speaker's/writer's representation of what happened at face value.
And of course, the answer can turn out to be "No." This is a game with the reader that writers
often play. Note that a person (here, a fictional one) can fail as a reliable guide to the facts in,
broadly speaking, two distinct ways, each of which can, according to circumstances, mean
different things for our assessment of what the larger issues are with which the story might be
The reporter can be honestly deceived -- just ignorant about the facts -whether out of negligence, or naiveté, or in some way that does not reflect
limitations of character (failure of due care, want of common sense, lack
of experience one in his circumstances would be expected to have), for
instance, by having been unknowingly victimized by the ignorance or illwill of another.
The reporter of facts may be dishonest. There are of course different
degrees of seriousness here, as well. And it will make a difference to
whether we realize we are hearing from a person who is consciously out to
deceive his audience, or one who is unconsciously dishonest, whether
about the situation as a whole or about himself.
When we detect that a person is a victim of unconscious selfdeception, the issue arises as to whether this is something we
should hold the person responsible for, or whether it is "not
culpable." Extreme delusion, for example, can raise a question
concerning the person's sanity, and insanity in turn, depending on
the moral outlook we bring to bear on particular sorts of it, can
raise complicated issues of culpability.
And, of course, a person who is conscious of his hypocrisy on
some matters can also end up deceiving himself about other
It is not impossible, too, that a narrator (like many a witness in court)
might exhibit a complicated mixture of ignorance and deception
(2) Is the narrator reliable in his or her evaluation of the situations in which s/he is involved as a
That is to say: one can, for instance, have the facts right about what someone has done, but still
fail to understand their further factual significance, or their moral meaning.
A by-stander narrator, for instance, may be set up by the author to have to figure out the agents
of the main action, or even what some of the crucial events are of the action itself. This is a
staple situation in detective stories, whether those told us by the detective (a Sam Spade or a V.I.
Warshinski) or by the detective's friend or sidekick (a Dr. Watson). But this just reminds us that,
in a detective story, "the action" with which we are concerned is rarely just the crime scenario
which is investigated by the detective; rather it is usually the process of investigation itself. And
this is a process in which the traits of the investigator or sidekick narrator are important elements
in the solving of the mystery. Even when we leave the story with the sense that the obscurities
have been laid to rest, an important part of the story itself will usually have been the bafflement
experienced by the narrator along the way.
A central character may be set up by the author to end up with an understanding of what happens
that the audience is supposed to appreciate as off the mark -- mistaken in some minor or major
particular, even outright warped. The author's job here is to convey, through the distorted lens of
the narrator's consciousness, enough clues for it to dawn on the readership that its job is to
construct a different understanding of what has happened, or of its meaning, than the narrator
ever arrives at. The reader's job is to be alert to whether this is indeed a game that this particular
author is playing in this particular story.
Part of the essence of these stories is that we are expected to appreciate the narrator's reliability
as an interpreter or evaluator of events. It may be that this reliability is grounded in his or her
soundness of character. But we can hardly come to this appreciation unless we are in the habit of
examining the narrator's reliability, as a matter of course!
If the reader senses that author is playing the game of offering us narrator whose take on events
is off-the-mark, then the reader’s job is
to pick up on the clues and arrive at the real state of affairs the
story implies, and
to appreciate the point of the disparity between this reality and the
narrator's particular way of misconstruing it.
▪ For example, it may be that we are being invited to figure
out the reasons for the narrator's mistakes. What
assumptions is he or she acting from that are out of place
here? Where did they come from? Why are they so
tenacious? These kinds of questions may well take us into
the larger thematic concerns of the story as a whole.
This is a possibility we'll want to be alert to even when the narrator the author confronts us with
is not a child or an obvious madman. And it can be at work even with narrators whose
shrewdness and common sense have been proven by events. A classic case is Huck's decision at
the end of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to free the runaway slave Jim from his captors,
instead of writing Jim's rightful owner Miss Watson telling her where Jim is and that the captors
will give him up for her advertised reward. Huck agonizes over what to do, conscious of being
watched by a wrathful Providence, and finally decides to steal Jim back from slavery. Thinking
he is condemning himself to eternal damnation, Huck does what Twain regards as the right
thing. Huck mis-identifies his true voice of conscience as the promptings of temptation, but has
the moral courage (which he mis-identifies as weakness) to follow it. If we take Huck's
understanding of the situation as Twain's, we are far astray: the reader is expected both to
endorse Huck's decision, and to reject his evaluation of it.
Another question that is always on the table whenever we are confronted with a first-person
narrator is: what is to be imagined as the narrator's situation? What is the speaker's (or
pretended writer's) predicament? Who is the audience being addressed? (That is: what role is
the author assigning to the "you" of the story -- i.e., to us, the reader.) And what does the
speaker want from that addressee?
What is the speaker's (or the pretended writer's) situation or predicament, at the moment we are
to imagine him telling us the story? In other words, what is the setting not of the events narrated,
but of the event of narrating itself? Whom is he supposedly addressing?
It may be that the speaker is addressing himself or herself. This is the special case of soliloquy.
We need to know what motivates this self-address:
● Is the speaker trying to figure out what has happened? to reach a decision? to respond to
an accusation? to allay his conscience? to vent an emotion impossible (why?) to express
Even if the narrator is a by-stander to the main action, we will want to know what motivates
his/her telling of the story to us, whoever we are supposed to be. But this question is likely to be
especially urgent if the speaker/writer is the central character of the piece.
What drives the speaker to talk to "us," or the writer to write to "us"? What does s/he want
from us? (The answer may be more than one thing.)
It may be that the speaker is not so much (or not merely) telling a story, but behaving with the
audience. In such cases we are confronted with a dramatic monologue. We want to notice -- just
as in a play -- what the speaker is doing in saying (even in reporting) this or that. What
"transactions" are being undertaken, or attempted? And we want to get clear on the motivation,
conscious or unconscious, for the speaker's behaving this way.
Sometimes of course the speaker's situation is not all that definite, and it is open to the reader to
imagine ourselves overhearing a soliloquy or witnessing a dramatic monologue.
Hardy's "The Man He Killed" works this way. I can imagine the speaker silently talking to
himself, trying to figure out what to make of his having killed a person whom he probably had
more in common with than his officers.
So: as soon as we realize that in a story we have to deal with a first-person narrator, these issues
of the speaker's reliability, situation, and motivation are on the table. They will be central to the
savvy and engaged reader's agenda of curiosity.
What does Nick want from us?
Is Nick reliable? Or deceptive?
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Chapter 1 [Is Nick a reliable narrator?]
In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning
over in my mind ever since. “Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just
remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”He didn’t
say any more, but we’ve always been unusually communicative in a reserved way, and I
understood that he meant a great deal more than that. In consequence, I’m inclined to reserve all
judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim
of not a few veteran bores. The abnormal mind is quick to detect and attach itself to this quality
when it appears in a normal person, and so it came about that in college I was unjustly accused of
being a politician, because I was privy to the secret griefs of wild, unknown men. Most of the
confidences were unsought — frequently I have feigned sleep, preoccupation, or a hostile levity
when I realized by some unmistakable sign that an intimate revelation was quivering on the
horizon; for the intimate revelations of young men, or at least the terms in which they express
them, are usually plagiaristic and marred by obvious suppressions. Reserving judgments is a
matter of infinite hope. I am still a little afraid of missing something if I forget that, as my father
snobbishly suggested, and I snobbishly repeat, a sense of the fundamental decencies is parceled
out unequally at birth.
1. Do a close reading of the text below. Annotations only.
“Come to lunch some day,” he suggested, as we groaned down in the elevator.
“Keep your hands off the lever,” snapped the elevator boy.
“I beg your pardon,” said Mr. McKee with dignity, “I didn’t know I was touching it.”
“All right,” I agreed, “I’ll be glad to.”
. . . I was standing beside his bed and he was sitting up between the sheets, clad in his
underwear, with a great portfolio in his hands.
“Beauty and the Beast . . . Loneliness . . . Old Grocery Horse . . . Brook’n Bridge. . . . ”
Then I was lying half asleep in the cold lower level of the Pennsylvania Station, staring at
the morning Tribune, and waiting for the four o’clock train.
2. Do a close reading paying close attention to Daisy’s hope for her daughter. What does
the text imply about a woman’s role in the world—especially if she wants to succeed in
life? To what extent have Daisy, Myrtle, and Jordan fulfilled or failed to embrace
Daisy’s vision? [One page typed—make annotations as well—below text from page 17]
Evidently she had reason to be. I waited but she didn’t say any more, and after a moment I
returned rather feebly to the subject of her daughter.
“I suppose she talks, and — eats, and everything.”
“Oh, yes.” She looked at me absently. “Listen, Nick; let me tell you what I said when she was
born. Would you like to hear?”
“Very much.”
“It’ll show you how I’ve gotten to feel about — things. Well, she was less than an hour old and
Tom was God knows where. I woke up out of the ether with an utterly abandoned feeling, and
asked the nurse right away if it was a boy or a girl. She told me it was a girl, and so I turned my
head away and wept. ‘all right,’ I said, ‘I’m glad it’s a girl. And I hope she’ll be a fool — that’s
the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.”