Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Increasingly Apparent Role of the Unreliable Narrator

As we progress through this class, time and time again I find myself grateful that we are reading these works in the order they were published. For one, this helps expand our examination of the literature to encompass the society around it. And for two, it makes literary trends that may have easily passed from one author to another more apparent.

In this post, I will examine one such trope--the ubiquitous idea of the unreliable narrator. For every work that has a style of narration more personal than the third-person omniscient, there must be at least some ambiguity as to accuracy, if for no other reason than the inherently error-prone nature of humankind. For example, in The Captain's Daughter, the protagonist is writing a memoir to the in-book audience of his descendants. Thus, it may be assumed that some details of setting or dialogue have become fogged through the passage of time or the narrator's deliberate stretching of truth to appear more admirable. However, as the works read have become more recent, there's been a definite trend of increasingly unreliable narrators, especially as we move into literature of the 20th century. I posit that this trend is due to both updated literary conventions, and a new method of reflecting the Soviet culture immediately following the Revolution.

This is especially noticeable in We, which is both the book written soonest after, and closest in theme to, the real-life Revolution. The narrator's quickly degrading knowledge of the world around him seems to reflect the uncertainty and panic that was present in the newly-formed Soviet state.

In The Master and Margarita, on the other hand, the myriad narrators seem to be well in possession of their mental faculties and skills of storytelling. However, the fact that what they've seen is too outlandish to be believed makes everyone around them assume they're unreliable--that is, insane. At the time of this writing, I haven't yet finished the novel, but I hope that as we reach the end of the book, the dualism between what characters perceive as truth and what the "real world" insists is truth coalesces into a great revelation of how things really are.


  1. I think the unreliable narrator is especially chilling when you think about censorship and the like--that is, the words the speaker says are not allowed to be his own. Maybe something to trace in Soviet-era lit.

    1. I agree with you, Drew. I was really struck by that same impression with Ivan and the other characters that have interacted with Wolland getting committed to the mental hospital. We know, or at least we think we do based on what the narrator tells us, that they didn't hallucinate any of it and were behaving relatively rationally in the madness of their situations. But it's also clear that when they tell the truth to the authorities, it won't look good. So there's this culture of paranoia and mistrust: it's obviously bad to be caught in a lie by the authorities, but the truth seems like a lie, too.

      Of course, the fact that the narrator keeps insisting how trustworthy he is just makes me suspicious, too.