Contemplating the Unreliable Narrator

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Like a lawyer, the human brain wants victory, not truth; and, like a lawyer, it is sometimes more admirable for skill than virtue.

 -Robert Wright, author and journalist (b. 1957)

There is a perception in our society that some texts are reliable, and some texts are not.  I would argue that no text can be constructed as completely reliable, as it is human nature to pick and choose what facts will be represented.  The presentation of the facts, what order they are in, what has been left out, are all constructs of the author of a text.

The news story reported by a respected journalist; the critique of a historical event by an academic; and the article presented by a scientist; all these texts are just as unreliable as the authors.  Each individual has chosen their topic, which means they have ignored other topics.  They have decided how to represent the topic, highlighting some issues and ignoring others.  No matter how unbiased the text may appear, there will be gaps and ambiguities – because the authors are not omniscient and are only human.

As well, truth can not be set in stone.  What is consider only right and normal in one time and place, will be seen as strange or criminal somewhere and somewhen else.  The truth itself may change.

This means that a reader should never passively accept a text on face value.  The reader should remain alert and question the text.  She should look for gaps in the meaning, for what is left out is often as telling as what has been included in the text.  What is the context?  What was the author of the text trying to achieve?  What constraints are their on the author and the text?

Of course, the author of a text may be deliberately setting out to misinform or mislead the reader.  However, most authors of a text have attempted to supply the text in good faith.  It is up to the reader to stay open-minded, and try to avoid accepting any text as the complete and utter truth of the matter.

In Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, many of the narrators and characters are unreliable in some way.  Does an unreliable narrator reduce the number of meanings in a text, or does the unreliable narrator increase and deepen the underlying meanings, symbols and possibilities?

This type of narrative structure is often the hallmark of postcolonial texts. Postcolonial texts are usually a narrated from a marginalised viewpoint or viewpoints and other examples of these texts would be The Colour Purple and Strange Objects.  In contrast, colonial texts are usually written from the viewpoint of the colonizers, with the indigenous population or non-hegemonic population marked as ‘other’, alien, and often threatening; examples of colonial texts are The Coral Island or Robinson Crusoe.  These texts give the central narrative voice to European, white, heterosexual males, and they are always constructed as reliable, trustworthy narrators.

Definition:

What is an unreliable narrator?  The narrator is the literary person who is telling or explaining the story to the reader.  The reader can only know what the narrator reveals to them.  If the narrator is unreliable, the reader cannot be certain they have the accurate representation of the story.  Usually, as in Alias Grace, an unreliable narration is told in first person.

How can you recognise an unreliable narrator?  There are many reasons why a reader may know or suspect the narrator may not be telling the truth or a complete account of events ).  The narrator may be:

  • Drunk or stoned or drugged;
  • they may be mentally unstable or demented;
  • they may be of below average intelligence;
  • they may be a child or a foreigner or an alien, and so misunderstand the situation;
  • they may suffer from a bias that affects their viewpoint;
  • they may be trying to put a positive or negative light on events for their own gain;
  •  or be suffering from selective memory or memory loss;
  •  or they just may be outright lying.

It may be that the reader will not realise the untrustworthiness of the narrator at the beginning of the story, but at some point the reader will begin to suspect the narrator’s version of the events.  Once the reader had made the realisation, the story is now open to different interpretation.  This may affect the verisimilitude of the text. (Example: Fight Club)

Alias Grace uses the metaphor of patchwork to structure the narration.  The text has a complex structure, as the text includes:

  •  ballads,
  •  etchings,
  •  fictionalized dialogues,
  •  archival documents from the Kingston penitentiary,
  •  fictionalized letters,
  • inner monologues,
  •  transcribed confessions,
  •  actual newspaper clippings,
  •  excerpts from Susanna Moodie’s nineteenth-century descriptions of Grace,
  •  epigraphs from romantic literature,
  •  and chapters titled after quilt patterns .

With other books, such as Gary Crew’s Strange Objects or Bram Stoker’s Dracula, texts constructed in such a manner increase the texts’ verisimilitude.  However the main two narrators, Grace and Dr Jordon, have doubts cast over the reliability and truthfulness of their accounts.  How does this affect the ability of the audience to understand the text?

To recap: Irish Grace, a lowly domestic, seems unable to remember the events surrounding the murders of Thomas Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery.  Dr Simon Jordan has his own personal agenda to pursue, and eventually suffers a nervous collapse.  Jeremiah the peddler man is a conman and is constantly changing his identity.  Several incidental characters, such as Susannah Moore and Doctor Samuel Bannerling, have their own agendas which affect their viewpoints and this undermines the reliability of their contribution to the narrative.

The novel Alias Grace is based on real events.  By deliberately using unreliable narrators, Atwood doesn’t make a definite statement about Grace’s guilt or innocence.  The author’s use of an unreliable narrator opens up the text to infinite interpretations by the reader.  This is in contrast to the unreliable narrator in The Fight Club, where the discovery of the dual personality of the narrator removes some of the underlying meaning from the text.

Atwood uses two types of unreliability in the text:

  1. The narrator is unreliable. (Grace is mad or lying.)
  2. Is the narrator unreliable? (Grace may be sane and truthful, but unable to give an accurate recollection of the events due to post-traumatic stress.)

Grace seems to be telling the truth as she knows it.  However, she has spent time in an asylum, and she admits to making the story ‘interesting’ for Doctor Jordan.  It is left to the reader to guess at how much of her narration is the truth.

To further confuse the situation, the reader is offered conflicting attitudes as to whether Grace’s recollections are close to the reality of events leading up to the double murders, and the subsequent attempt to flee the crime scene.  The people offering these opinions may be just as unreliable as Grace.

The Reliability of Other Characters in Alias Grace:

Of course, Grace isn’t the only narrator in the novel.

Dr Simon Jordan starts off as a reliable narrator, a doctor and researcher, a wealthy man of education, in contrast to the hysterical, poor, and uneducated Grace.  However, we are soon made aware of his agendas, his increasing obsession with Grace, and towards the end of the novel he exhibits erratic behaviour and then suffers from a breakdown.  His reliability as a narrator has reversed.

I found this reversal an interesting comment on the perception of trustworthiness of the narrators.  As members of Western society, there is the acceptance of a white, wealthy, educated man will be a responsible and dependable narrator.  Many, if not most texts, accept this premise.  Either they place such men in the role of reliable narrator.

Although not a narrator as such, Jeremiah the Pedlar goes through a reversal of this process.  As a wandering pedlar of possible Gypsy ethnicity, it is accepted that he will be unreliable.  By the end of the book, he is still a scallywag and con artist, but he has shown himself to be a good friend to Grace, and has become a man of some means.  I believe his character is the deliberate mirror of Doctor Jordan’s.  Jeremiah hammers home the concept that the outward semblance of reliability does not reflect the actual reliability of any character’s narration.

Margaret Atwood was making a comment on the construction of truth, and the construction of history, with Alias Grace.  She gives the reader the opportunity to make their judgement of Grace’s innocence and guilt.  I believe she is slyly pointing out that there is no such thing as a truly reliable narrator.  Truth and history depend on your point of view.


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Filed under Unreliable Narrator, writing, Writing Style

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