Academic journal article Style

Camus's the Fall: The Dynamics of Narrative Unreliability

Academic journal article Style

Camus's the Fall: The Dynamics of Narrative Unreliability

Article excerpt

When Wayne Booth coined the term unreliable narration, he deemed the reader's role in identifying an unreliable narrator unproblematic (esp. 158-59). For him, the implied reader shared with the implied author an ironic distance from the norms of the unreliable narrator. Narratologists after Booth who have dealt with unreliable narration have contended that the role of the reader is not as trivial as Booth thought and hence should be thoroughly explored. For example, Tamar Yacobi uncovers the difficulties that face the reader who tries to decipher the system of norms of the implied author and offers solutions to these difficulties. She also explains the reasons that actual readers misinterpret the implied author's perspective ("Reader"). Ansgar Nunning, who rejects the term implied author as vague, incoherent, and anthropomorphic, relies on cognitive theories of the reading process (both "bottom-up" and "top-down" processes) to describe the ways in which the reader labels a narrator unreliable. Kathleen Wall, conversely, remarks that changes in the notion of subjectivity are reflected in the way unreliability is both presented by the author and perceived by the readers.

These scholars hold different views concerning the essence of fictional unreliability, the principles that should be employed in the classification of unreliable narrators, and the status of the reader with relation to the text in identifying this type of narrator. Nevertheless, it seems that they all assume a cognitive and/or ethical gap between the narrator and the readers, who treat this type of narrator as inferior to them in either knowledge or morality. The readers hold themselves capable of exposing the flaws of the narrator, since they themselves are immune, or at any rate less susceptible, to these flaws; and even if in certain other situations they do succumb to them, their uninvolved position vis-a-vis the fictional world enables them to judge the behavior of the unreliable narrator as irrational or immoral. (1) Accordingly, the terminology that is most frequently used with regard to the relations between the reader and the unreliable narrator emphasizes the former's role as a detached and neutral observer, researcher, detective, and judge. The reader must follow the implied author "in judging the narrator" (Booth 158), "recognize an unreliable narrator when he or she sees one" (Nunning 54), examine whether or not he or she "has reasons to suspect" the narrator (Nunning 57), (2) establish "a secret communication" with the implied author (Chatman 233), and construct the cultural or textual norms of the text (Yacobi, "Fictional" 121).

The uninvolved position of the readers leads them to the (not explicitly formulated) conclusion that they are in no way affected by the recognition of a certain narrator's unreliability. It is implied that the readers themselves are more reliable than the unreliable narrator and, thanks to this difference, capable of identifying unreliabilty. This difference between, and in certain cases even incommensurability of, the narrator and the readers leads the latter to believe that unreliability is merely one of the criteria in the typology of narrators, with no consequences or ramifications for the readers themselves. To make things clear, I do not deem this view to be utterly mistaken. It is indispensable for readers to feel, at least to a certain extent, and in a certain phase of the reading, that they indeed are superior to the unreliable narrator in order to classify him or her as such. (3) However, this feeling does not necessarily persist. It may change if the readers either find out new details about the narrator that urge them to reevaluate their classification or discover something new about themselves that encourages them to reconsider their superiority to the narrator. An interesting combination of these two possibilities is found in Camus's novella The Fall (La Chute). I believe that an interpretation of The Fall focusing on the triad narrator-narratee-reader is significant for a work whose unreliable narration both undermines the binary opposition between "unreliable narrator" and "reliable reader" and has some general implications on the position of the reader towards fiction. …

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