Academic journal article Style

Relational Reconsiderations: Reliability, Heterosexuality, and Narrative Authority in 'Villette.'

Academic journal article Style

Relational Reconsiderations: Reliability, Heterosexuality, and Narrative Authority in 'Villette.'

Article excerpt

Contemporary narrative theorists have come far in their understanding of "person" since Wayne C. Booth, in his Afterword to The Rhetoric of Fiction, conceded that this category was - contrary to his earlier claim - "radically underworked" (412). Yet remaining curiously absent from our discussions about the workings of person is a sustained analysis of un/reliability in homodiegesis.(1) Calling "a narrator reliable when he speaks or acts in accordance with the norms of the work (which is to say, the implied author's norms), unreliable when he does not," Booth created these categories to explain how dramatic irony creates a disparity between implied author, narrator, and reader, a distance that functions rhetorically to engage the reader along a different ethical axis than the narrator, thereby complicating a narrative's logic. Booth's rhetorics, of both Fiction and Irony, acknowledge two types of unreliability: those of ethical norms and those of narrative fact (see esp. ch. 7, RoF, and ch. 3, A Rhetoric of Irony).

Booth's definitions have provided stable foundations for rhetorical analyses that others have refined over time. For example, Susan Lanser suggests looking at a narrator's reliability in terms of a continuum in which a narrator can be seen as "developing . . . through the course of a text" (The Narrative Act 172); James Phelan reconsiders a key assumption behind both factual and ethical reliability, that of a "continuity between narrator and character," and concludes that "the possibility of divergence between the character's functions and the narrator's function" exists (Narrative as Rhetoric 11012).(2) Neither Lanser's nor Phelan's work is inimical to Booth's; rather, their modifications and extensions reflect the resilience of these rhetorical categories. Some interpretive practices, however, have at times misused Booth's typology, embracing an "either/or" logic to validate a particular reading, even one at odds with a text's narrative dynamics. As a result, these interpretations tend to emphasize either unreliability of ethics or unreliability of facts and/or to characterize a narrator as either reliable or unreliable at any given moment in the narrative progression (even when s/he develops through the course of the progression).(3) Such has been the case with interpretations of Charlotte Bronte's Villette, especially those written during the 1980s.

II

The 1980s were a time when many feminist agendas, especially those of some Americans, sought to promote readings that empowered women (as authors, literary characters, and readers).(4) Villette lent itself perfectly to such a critical enterprise because of the myriad ways in which the text foregrounds female authority and autonomy. When we look at this body of criticism, two related patterns emerge: (1) the tendency to separate narrative events, be they of story or of discourse, into two types, those that reaffirm and those that subvert traditional power structures; and (2) the ritualistic invocation of the categories of un/reliability as a method to privilege the discourse over the story.(5) The first trend relates to ideological concerns about narrative authority. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, Karen Lawrence, Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz, and Brenda S. Silver all share a methodology that locates two distinct narrative tracks - that of story-events (progression toward heterosexual union) and that of discourse events (progression toward narrative authority) - and then places them in a binary opposition, privileging the track that might subvert patriarchal power (authority) over the one that could reaffirm traditional power structures (union).(6) These critics, despite their differences in focus, share the conclusion that the death of M. Paul Emanuel at the end of Villette signifies a rejection of both the cultural construction of heterosexual marriage and the aesthetic convention of the happy ending. In this view, Bronte's narrative ultimately privileges female autonomy and narrative authority. …

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