Academic journal article Style

Discordant Narration

Academic journal article Style

Discordant Narration

Article excerpt

Recent studies have recognized with increasing clarity the need to distinguish between two different kinds of unreliable fictional narration: a factual kind of unreliability that is attributed to a mis- or disinformed narrator, unwilling or unable to tell what "actually" happened (as in The Yellow Wallpaper, for example--see Fludernik); and an ideological kind that is attributed to a narrator who is biased or confused, inducing one to look, behind the story he or she tells, for a different meaning from the one he himself or she herself provides.[1] The second of these seems to me to diverge from the first to such a degree that it deserves separate discussion--a discussion the remarks that follow mean to initiate. It also deserves a different name, the one I have featured in my title.

"Discordant narration": this term, in addition to distinctively marking the divergence of this type from (factual) unreliability, intends to signify the possibility for the reader to experience a teller as normatively inappropriate for the story he or she tells. [2] It suggests the reader's sense that the author intends his or her work to be understood differently from the way the narrator understands it: in a way that can only be discovered by reading the work against the grain of the narrator's discourse, providing it with a meaning that, though not explicitly spelled out, is silently signalled to the reader behind the narrator's back. It intimates as well that the narrator, far from being conceived as the author's mouthpiece, is an expressly and artfully created vocal organ whose ideology clashes with his or her tale. We might, moreover, note at this point that the diagnosis of "discordance" can apply only to a fictional narrative, not to the kind of story-telling (oral or written) that presumes to refer to real facts: though we often apply the term "unreliable" to voices we regard as wrong-headed in non-fictional works (historical, journalistic, biographical, or autobiographical), the narrator of such works is the author, the author is the narrator, so that we can not attribute to them a significance that differs from the one they explicitly proclaim. [3]

As must be clear from what I have said to this point, the possibility of attributing discordant narration to a fictional work depends on a textual feature that may be clearly defined: it must be told by a narrator who audibly proclaims his or her subjective opinions. This feature can be handled in one (or both) of two different ways: first a narrator may verbalize his or her ideas gnomically, by way of generalizing judgmental sentences that are grammatically set apart from the narrative language by being cast in the present tense. [4] In Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, for instance, Marlow at one point interrupts the story of his encounter with Kurtz in the Belgian Congo by the following assessment of colonialism:

The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea in back of it, not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea--something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to. (10)

As certain critics believe, this and other such gnomic moments in Marlow's discourse make him into a self-deceiving, discordant narrator, who must be separated from his author (see, for example, Stewart 370).

Second, a narrator may also verbalize ideas adjectivally, by judgmental phrases that infiltrate descriptive and narrative language and that often apply to the other characters of the fictional world. In Wuthering Heights, for example, Nelly Dean, the highly conventional principal narrator, can not be called discordant on account of gnomic statements (which she hardly ever uses) but on account of a language typified by her calling Heathcliffe a "black villain" and Cathy "a wild, wicked slip" (42). …

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