Academic journal article Style

Unreliable Narration and the Historical Variability of Values and Norms: The Vicar of Wakefield as a Test Case of a Cultural-Historical Narratology

Academic journal article Style

Unreliable Narration and the Historical Variability of Values and Norms: The Vicar of Wakefield as a Test Case of a Cultural-Historical Narratology

Article excerpt

"The history of unreliable narrators from Gargantua to Lolita is in fact full of traps for the unsuspecting reader." This statement by Wayne Booth has certainly proved to be an accurate prediction (239). In fact, such a large number of theories concerning unreliable narrators have been propagated since Booth's statement in 1961 that to date no one has dared to initiate a historical overview spanning the period from the eighteenth to the twentieth century. But Booth's statement is also relevant in another respect, because the history of the reception of the individual unreliable narrators is not only a minefield for critics but for the unsuspecting reader as well. Moreover, the various attempts to define Booth's concept of unreliable narration clearly reveal that the phenomenon also involves a whole series of traps for the narratologist. In the following, I will focus on one of these traps that has hitherto received little attention, namely on the interdependence between narratological analyses of "unreliability" and processes of historical and cultural change.

1. The Importance of the Historical Change of Values and Norms for the Theory and Analysis of Unreliable Narration

The relationship between unreliable narration and the norms established in a text has from the outset been an integral part of Booth's definition of unreliability: "I have called a narrator reliable when he speaks for or acts in accordance with the norms of the work [...] unreliable when he does not" (158-59). Later in Booth's explanation it becomes clear that the concept of unreliable narration refers to narrators who are "morally and intellectually deficient" (7) and who can be detected as such by readers based on their "mature moral judgment" (307). The significance of unreliable narration is therefore located at the point where narratological and ethical categories intersect: a decision as to whether a narrator is to be considered unreliable or not always entails a judgment as to what is considered "normal," that is, what the reader's world view and his or her ethical convictions are based on.

The readers' concept of what it means to be human is of particular importance for judgments about the unreliable narrator because it is their image of humanity that determines which characteristics are considered "plausible" and what they consider a deviation from "normal behavior." Judgments about character, according to Herbert Grabes, are determined by a complex "referred to by psychologists working on interpersonal perception as 'implied personality theory'" (26). This implied personality theory is defined not only by individual experience:

   [A]lthough our individual experiences undoubtedly exert influence on
   our "implied personality theory," this theory is largely determined
   by culture-bound social stereotypes, pre-fabricated linkings of
   physical, psychic and mental qualities with each other and with age,
   gender, social roles, class and so forth.

Personality theories in various cultures can differ significantly. Hence, the variables that determine whether a character is categorized as an unreliable narrator can change over time.

In addition, two further considerations are important. On the one hand, a narrator may be categorized as unreliable because the story has internal inconsistencies or diverges from the reader's knowledge of the world. Ethical convictions, on the other hand, can also play an important role: "Unreliable narrators are those whose perspective is in contradiction to the value and norm system of the whole text or to that of the reader" (Ansgar Nunning 87). This "value and norm system" encompasses many things, including the reader's model of the world, which determines what is "natural," "normal," or counts as "psychologically plausible," as well as his or her ethical values, which determine, for example, if someone should be categorized as a "sadist."

We must keep in mind, however, that different readers of one and the same text can "detect" different value systems. …

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