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Defining the Reliable Narrator in Literature Essay


According to Egan, in literature, there are circumstances when some situations surrounding a narrator compromise their credibility in narration (13). Therefore, such types of narrators are usually a sample driven by first-person narratives, which allow the audience or the readers of the literary works considerable flexibilities of shaping their perception of the story. Therefore, this field of research comprises a body of knowledge completed by players in the literary world such as authors, movie directors, poets, and other players. Their research entailed studying the relationship between unreliability in narration and state of mind of the narrators.

Their findings summarized that there is no reliable first-person narrator because what they give to their audience is usually an account in their best version of the story. For example, Fjellestad and Eleanor argue that the compromising state of the narrators may be because of their abnormal state of their mind, which has consequential effects on their judgment and understanding of others and events around them (190). Therefore, narrators of such caliber may have views that are distorted towards some elements of the story and give their audiences an opportunity of shaping their own perceptions (Wall 30).

Wayne Booth was the first literary artist to use the term unreliable in 1961 in his work called The Rhetoric Fiction (Kleven 30). It seems as though Booth only created popularity of the term and its application to literary works. The reason for such a statement is the fact that the idea spread soon after its first usage and has since become popular with filmmakers and other forms of literature as a way of filling their narration with suspense and interest.

There are a number of elements used in the determination of the reliability of the narrators. For instance, there may arise questions related to the sanity of the narrator when they give contradictory narrations, present illogical information or better still, when they provide incomplete event explanations.

Edgar Poe, a writer renowned for his ability to use dark story lines utilizes unreliable narrators while writing a number of his short stories (Doe and Harold 15). For example, Monstresor depicts his levels of anger following Fortunado’s insult. His unreliability in narration resulted from his failure to explain how Fortunado harmed him even while he craved for revenge and still ends up burying his assailant alive. However, there was a conclusion that he did such because of his compromised state of the mind, which altered his ability to make decisions (Meehan 80).

Another case of the use of unreliable narrators is in Catcher in the Rye, which is J.D Salinger’s novel. In the latter case, Holden Caulfield confessed the fact that he should have been one of the most terrific liars that readers of the book had interacted with. In the same story, Caulfield depicted a sense of immaturity as well as a tainted perception of the world, which contributed to his inability to make sound decisions. Additionally, the same character had tendencies of fibbing characters that the author used to populate the novel.

There are also cases of the use of such narrators in the contemporary literary works such as novels and theater. For instance, Gillian Flynn used two unreliable characters in his works, Gone Girl, in which he tells the account of the story through Nick Dunne and his wife. The reader does not have a choice of the narrator to trust because their narrations contradict each other because of their sour martial relationship.

The unreliability of the two narrators become even more evident after the discovery that both of them lied. Another example of the contemporary use of this type of narration is the works of Bret Easton Elli, American Psycho in which he writes concerning the life of Patrick Bateman as he kills all the people in his way to gain advantage of circumstances surrounding him. According to Phelan (78), the story raises questions concerning the sanity of Bateman concerning the crimes considering that he tells the story from his perspective.

In the same way, Nick is an unreliable because of the actions in the story such as the biased approach concerning Gatsby. Nick Carraway leads us through the whole story having had a close experience with both Gatsby and Daisy. Therefore, it is not surprising that the whole story has Nick’s perception, prejudice and thoughts on various issues in life written all over the Great Gatsby (Reynolds 50). From Nick’s narration, it is evident that he is biased to Gatsby (Lena 33). The story is supposedly a reminiscence of Nick’s past yet his one-sided accounts tell an entirely different story.

In conclusion, the available literature on unreliable characters made me realize that such an occurrence dates to 1961 when Wayne Booth first used it in his works. I also learned that the use of such narrators gained prominence soon after its introduction. This literature review has, therefore, explained the meaning of unreliable characters within its literary context using some real-time examples. I also discovered that the principle finding of such researchers relates to the character of Nick because all of the mentioned characters tell the stories from their perspectives.

Therefore, such a statement means that the use of first-person narration is one of the best ways of expressing unreliable narration because some writers argue that such narrators tell stories according to how best they perceive them. However, the findings documented in the reviewed pieces of literature will prompt me to study the levels of the truthfulness of the thesis that there is no way of separating first person narration from unreliable narration. There is also the discovery that authors and literary artists use such aspects in allowing the audience or the readers of the literary works considerable flexibilities of shaping their perception of the story.

Works Cited

Doe, Jane, and Harold Epps. The Evil Within: Human Nature in Heart of Darkness, Lord of the Flies, and The Great Gatsby. The Journal of Narrative Technique. 7.2 (2012): 12-37.

Egan, Kelsey. Film Production Design: Case Study of The Great Gatsby. Elon Journal of Undergraduate Research in Communications. 5.1 (2014): 6-17.

Fjellestad, Danuta, and Eleanor Wikborg. Fiction and Film: Teaching Aspects of Narrative in The Great Gatsby. Approaches to Teaching Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. New York: MLA, 2009. 189-93.

Kleven, Oskar. The Great Gatsbies: A comparative study of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel. Sweden: Lund University Press, 2014. Print.

Lena, Alberto. Deceitful Traces of Power: An Analysis of the Decadence of Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby. Canadian Review of American Studies 28.1 (1998): 19-42.

Meehan, Adam. Repetition, Race, and Desire in the Great Gatsby. Journal of Modern Literature. 37.2 (2014): 76-91.

Murphy, Terence. Defining the reliable narrator: The marked status of first- person fiction. Journal of Literary Semantics. 41.1 (2012): 67-87.

Phelan, James. Living to Tell about it: A Rhetoric and Ethics of Character Narration, New York: Cornell University Press, 2005. Print.

Reynolds, Guy. Introduction to The Great Gatsby, Belmont: Wordsworth, 2001. Print.

Wall, Kathleen. The Remains of the Day and Its Challenges to Theories of Unreliable Narration. The Journal of Narrative Technique. 24.1 (1994): 18-42.

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IvyPanda. 2020. "Defining the Reliable Narrator in Literature." May 14, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/defining-the-reliable-narrator-in-literature/.

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IvyPanda. (2020) 'Defining the Reliable Narrator in Literature'. 14 May.

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