In my last blog, I talked about first person and the unreliable narrator points of view. I would like to expand on those a bit.
In contemporary novels, it’s not unusual to see multiple first person, usually handled by assigning a chapter to various characters with each one identifying himself as “I.” When a novelist uses this technique, she has to make sure each voice is distinctive so the reader isn’t confused when a new narrator pops up.
I’m currently reading Ursula Le Guin’s futuristic fantasy, The Left Hand of Darkness. She takes many liberties with point of view, switching between two main characters and occasionally tossing in an anonymous narrator. Because the chapter titles don’t indicate the narrator, I occasionally lose track of who is telling the story and I have to look for clues to identify the character.
In another novel that uses multiple first person, The Sweet Hereafter, Russell Banks has four characters tell basically the same story about a horrific school bus crash that killed fourteen students. The narrators are the bus driver, an injured teenage girl, a lawyer out to make money and a young widowed father who was waving at his two children when the bus went off the road. It’s a powerful, haunting story, and Banks skillfully makes each narrator’s voice unique.
Here’s a line from the lawyer: “People immediately assume we’re greedy, that it’s money we’re after, people call us ambulance chasers and so on…”
And one from the teenage girl, who will never walk again: “It just wasn’t right—to be alive, to have what people assured you was a close call, and then go out and hire a lawyer, it wasn’t right….Not if I was, like they said, truly lucky…”
Each of the four characters has their version of the truth, and consequently they occasionally contradict each other, becoming unreliable narrators (sometimes intentionally, sometimes not) and requiring the reader to sort through the perceptions and misperceptions and determine whose version is most plausible.
Using first person POV with several characters, including one or more unreliable narrators, can be tricky but compelling.
Sometimes we know immediately the narrator’s view of the world can’t be trusted. In the short story, “The Tell-Tale Heart,” Edgar Allen Poe immediately reveals the narrator is psychotic, but the master of horror captures his character’s crazed mind so well that we’re willing to go into the abyss with him.
Here’s how it starts:
TRUE!—nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses—not destroyed—not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily—how calmly I can tell you the whole story.
It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain; but once conceived, it haunted me day and night. Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye! Yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture—a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees—very gradually—I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.
Not too hard to figure out Poe’s narrator is unhinged.
An unreliable storyteller can be a sadistic murderer, a rebellious teenager, an innocent child, a revengeful ex-spouse, an arrogant emperor—almost any category of character. In fact, one might argue that even the most well intentioned person will skew the facts to serve his own purposes.
Novels with unreliable narrators are legion. A few you might want to read are Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as told by a schizophrenic Native American “Chief”; Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, in which Humbert Humbert slants his story to justify his licentious interest in adolescent girls; Yann Martel's Life of Pi, in which a young man shares a lifeboat with a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan and a Bengal tiger; Italo Svevo’s Zeno’s Conscience, in which a psychiatrist supposedly publishes a patient’s diary to show the patient distorts the facts, and my personal favorite, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, about an uneducated boy who innocently reveals the entrenched racism of the antebellum South.
An unreliable narrator is a powerful literary device because the reader has a tendency to believe the person telling the story. But how do you create one without making the reader feel deceived and cheated? I’ll show you in my next blog.