Friday, April 10, 2015

The Reliable Narrator in an Uncertain Narrative

For some years, you've been challenging your graduate and otherwise advanced fiction writers to list their view of five of the major elements related to story.  You do this in order to rag on them and complain when they almost without variation fail to mention point of view.

To be fair, they'd come around to mentioning point of view if you gave them a chance to compile a longer laundry list, but to be fair to your own point here, point of view can and does change the way story emerges from the motives of the players, those individuals who contest specific internal events and challenge Reality in order to produce some tangible outcome.

Who, you ask, is the teller of the story?  And of course there may be more than one, a device known as multiple point of view, an approach that began making itself known in the eighteenth century, then creeping into full reader and author favor in the nineteenth century with great thanks to writers such as Wilkie Collins, William Makepeace Thackeray, and Anthony Trollope, all three of whom have titles still in print, at this remove from their heydays.

After asking who the teller of the tale is, you find it instructive to ask a group of writers that most daunting, one-word question of all questions:  Why?  These two questions reveal a good deal of conscious deliberation on the part of the author, often helping to bring the reader much closer to the text in which the characters appear, making their story seem more vivid and more memorable.

We are still skirting around the edges of importance with the matter of point of view, but by way of hinting at the greater thrust, you cite young Benjy Compson, the first character the reader meets in William Faulkner's significant exploration into the importance of point of view, The Sound and the Fury.  Readers with any awareness of Shakespeare will be prepared for the significance of the title and the appearance of Benjy.  The title comes from a renowned soliloquy from Macbeth, in which Macbeth observes of the process of life, "It is a tale full of sound and fury/Told by an idiot--"

You have only to read a sentence before you make the connection that Benjy Compson is the idiot of the title, directly addressing us, telling us about his love of golf and of fires.  The more you know of Faulkner, the more aware you become of his fondness for writing about families and about the past.  It is not a spoiler to say of The Sound and the Fury that his idiocy to the contrary notwithstanding, Benjy emerges as the most likable and sympathetic of his family, sharing those honors with the one non-Compson-family character, an African American servant.

Faulkner chose Benjy because of his mental state.  Another type of example, to make the point-of-view aspect seem even more dimensional, can be found in the great success of Mark Twain's novel, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which is told in the third person, wherein Tom is referred to as he, and which the author handled well enough to give most readers the sense that they were privy to Tom's salient thoughts as they were happening to him.  Think about this for a time, then ask why Twain shifted to the first person for what has become his most iconic fiction, Huckleberry Finn.  

Ask yourself what Twain was doing in the artistic sense of narrative, then ask if you can see why his feelings for the book and his intent in the story caused him to shift from a more conventional and deliberately boy's adventure kind of narrative voice into the more pragmatic, streetwise, and sensitive responses of one of the major forces in American literature.

We are still not at the elephant-in-the-living-room aspects of point of view, which can be expressed in another question.  Go ahead, listen to the question, then decide its relevance:  Do we trust the narrator?

Herman Melville's magnum opus, Moby Dick, was published in 1851.  Nine years later, Charles Dickens' vibrant first-person narrative, Great Expectations, first appeared.  Then, nearly a quarter of a century later, well, in 1884, came Huckleberry Finn, which had been started closer to the times of the Melville and Dickens novels, then shelved for the time it took those two explosive forces, Twain and the theme and intent of the novel, to catch up with one another. All three novels were first person, all three narrators address the major point of point of view, the reliability of the narrator.

All three narrators experienced extreme inner and outer conflicts to the point where we might say of them that they were transformed in significant measure from what they were at the beginning.  Difficult to say which we trusted more.  Each suffered trauma, yet in no case do we suspect exaggeration.  All three accounts, vast in their differences, remain with us as actual accounts, even though we know they were fictional.  They were reliable.

Let's move forward in time a tad more than a hundred years after the publication of Huckleberry Finn, to the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day.  In this work, we encounter a single narrator, a man we know only by his surname, in the manner by which butlers were known.  This narrator was, indeed, a butler, Mr. Stevens.

Mr. Stevens is, we discover, scrupulously honest.  But he is not reliable except in the consistent way he breaches reliability.  He is naive, in some ways to a fault.  We would be unlikely to think of Mr. Stevens as a reliable narrator because, our argument might go, his reliability is undermined by his naivete.

Now comes what Poe might call The Imp of the Perverse, for there is a good deal of mischief here, enough to qualify as perversity.  Each of us is to some degree unreliable in that each of us tries to present a fair account, with minimal exaggeration or, as Huck Finn would call them, stretchers.  According to our regard for ourself, we may reveal variations on Mr. Stevens' theme of naivete.  We may be victim, martyr, wronged, more successful than we are, wretched, fair minded.  We may be blinded by pride or anger or stupidity, driven as Thomas Hardy's memorable narrator, Michael Henchard, was in The Mayor of Casterbridge.

Story is a compendium of characters, each with the belief he or she is right.  We are writers, honed to our visions, which we believe is more likely to unlock doors of moral and cosmic mystery than not.  We will go to great lengths to demonstrate our fair-mindedness, which makes us all the more characters within our own narrative.

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