Historicizing Unreliable Narration: Unreliability and Cultural Discourse in Narrative Fiction

By Zerweck, Bruno | Style, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

Historicizing Unreliable Narration: Unreliability and Cultural Discourse in Narrative Fiction


Zerweck, Bruno, Style


I. Introduction

It seems hardly necessary to emphasize how important the concept of the unreliable narrator has been in literary studies since it was introduced by Wayne C. Booth in 1961. Booth's classic definition of the unreliable narrator has survived in nearly all narratological textbooks: "I have called a narrator reliable when he speaks for or acts in accordance with the norms of the work (which is to say the implied author's norms), unreliable when he does not" (158-59). Recently, however, in the wake of an increasingly critical attitude toward this traditional understanding of unreliable narration, e.g., in the works of Tamar Yacobi ("Fictional Reliability"), Kathleen Wall, or James Phelan and Mary Patricia Martin, the German scholar Ansgar Nunning has shown in a whole series of articles on the subject (1) that the existence of an implied author is neither a necessary nor a sufficient requirement of unreliable narration. (2) Instead, he has offered a reader-centered approach to unreliable narration. According to Nunn ing ("Unreliable"), unreliable narration can be explained "in the context of frame theory as a projection by the reader who tries to resolve ambiguities and textual inconsistencies by attributing them to the narrator's unreliability." In consequence, unreliable narration can be understood "as an interpretive strategy or cognitive process of the sort that has come to be known as 'naturalization"' (54). (3) Within the theory of unreliable narration such a cognitive turn represents a first paradigm shift. It allows a radical rethinking of the whole notion of narrative unreliability. Instead of relying on the device of the implied author and a text-centered analysis of unreliable narration, narrative unreliability can be reconceptualized in the context of frame theory and of readers' cognitive strategies.

In the following, however, I will argue that we need a second fundamental paradigm shift, one toward a greater historicity and cultural awareness. Such a second paradigm shift--a historical and cultural turn--goes beyond Nunning's cognitive approach and leads to a cultural-narratological theory of unreliable narration. (4) The central thesis of my approach rests upon the realization that, because unreliability is the effect of interpretive strategies, it is culturally and historically variable. It reflects a number of prominent synchronic and diachronic developments within philosophical, scientific, psychological, social, or aesthetic discourses of the last two centuries. Unreliable narration can therefore be considered as a phenomenon on the borderline between ethics and aesthetics, between literary and other cultural discourses. Furthermore, if we include historical and cultural aspects in the theory of unreliable narration, the concept of narrative unreliability can ultimately serve as an important categor y in the wider field of cultural studies.

After a brief sketch of the cognitive turn and its implications for our understanding of what exactly constitutes unreliable narration, I will formulate a set of four theses. These theses highlight the central features that I believe to be the minimal conditions of unreliable narration and suggest the necessity of a historical and cultural turn in the study of narrative unreliability. They will be followed by four diachronic theses concerning the history of unreliable narration. Within this historical framework, I will focus on the different cultural discourses that have been reflected in narrative literature by the use of unreliable narration since the phenomenon came into being with the realist novel of the eighteenth century.

II. The Cognitive Turn in the Theory of Unreliable Narration: Unreliable Narration as a Result of Interpretive Strategies

Until quite recently, Booth's definition of the unreliable narrator had hardly been questioned. On the contrary, it served as the basis for almost all works on unreliable narration. …

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