Notable literary figure David Lodge published a work entitled The Art of Fiction. This work focuses on a variety of literary features and analyzes their usage and effect in works of fiction. One key section in his work is the section written about The Unreliable Narrator. The unreliable narrator refers to the narrator of a work in which, either through context or otherwise, it is made clear that the narrator cannot be relied upon to tell the truth of the story.
If everything he or she says is palpably false, that only tells us what we know already, namely that a novel is a work of fiction (Lodge 154)
Most often, the unreliable narrator is used in First Person narration, as an omniscient narrator is seldom unreliable. However, this is not written in stone. It is possible to have an unreliable narrator who is a third person narrator.
One example of a writer who uses the third person unreliable narrator to enhance the meaning of his works is Mark Twain. In several of his works, the unreliable narrator is used not only to add to the story, but also to serve the entire purpose of the works writing.
The point of using an unreliable narrator is indeed to reveal in an interesting way the gap between appearance and reality (Lodge 155)
This directly ties into the first two stories written by Mark Twain, entitled “The Story of the Bad Little Boy Who Didn’t Come to Grief” and “The Story of the Good Little Boy Who Did Not Prosper”, an omniscient narrator serves as a subtle but definite version of the unreliable narrator. The statements and comments provided by the narrator are not untrue or misleading; rather, they convey a sense of ultra naivete that the reader can spot and use to understand the meaning of the work.
In the first story, “The Story of the Bad Little Boy Who Didn’t Come to Grief”, the unreliable narrator is used to provide a commentary on the simple Sunday-school morals that the church provides. Throughout the work, the narrator follows the actions of a ‘bad little boy’ who doesn’t follow the rules, and who lies and cheats and steals as he sees fit. The narrator, rather than simply describing the actions of the boy or denouncing them, consistently declares his shock at the way the boy (Jim) could get away with the bad things that he did. He regularly compared it to the sunday school books, in which some kind of divine intervention would deliver the bad children with karmic retribution for their misdeeds.
The tone of the narrator is always that of surprise. He or she is shocked that Jim can go through life unpunished. The regular comparisons to the sunday school books are a message from the author; Twain is using the narrator to convey to the reader how foolish it is to believe in and teach these books to children. The entire story hinges on the naivete of the narrator and how it makes him an unreliable commentator. By taking it to such an extreme, Twain makes it clear that the intent is to show how foolish it is to share in the narrator’s unwavering trust in the morals of the church, and by extension, how foolish the church was in delivering these morals to children, especially when the adults at the time were often being rewarded for those same negative actions. In the same vein, he manages to criticize the church for measuring success in materialistic terms and teaching that message to children. In this story, the narrator gives the story a purpose; without him or her to comment and draw comparisons, the story would have no purpose.
The inverse of this happens in the story “The Story of the Good Little Boy Who Did Not Prosper”. In this story, the (apparently same) narrator compares the actions of a good boy with the actions of the Sunday school books. This time, as the boy attempts to do good, misfortune and suffering befall him at every turn. The boy himself regularly attempts to model his behavior after the Sunday school books, getting into more and more trouble, culminating in his unfortunate death in a massive explosion. Once again, the narrator comments on how unusual it is for the story of a good and pious child to end as it did. This time, the message is even less subtle and more obvious, almost being stated outright in the ending of the story. It reads true in the following quote:
“Thus perished the good little boy who did the best he could, but didn’t come out according to the books. Every boy who ever did as he did prospered, except him. His case is truly remarkable. It will probably never be accounted for.”
The point of an unreliable narrator is… to show how human beings distort or conceal the latter. This need not be a conscious, or mischievous, intention on their part (Lodge 155)
This, more human usage of the unreliable narrator occurs in two of Twain’s other works. In the case of the story “Extracts From Adam’s Diary”, Twain tells the story in the perspective of Adam, discovering Eve and the world around them both before and after the apple was eaten. In this story, the unreliable narrator is used interestingly – the telling of the story in this way provides a context about the story of mankind’s fall from heaven by providing a new context for all of the works. By telling the story in this manner, through the eyes of an adapting Adam, it defamiliarizes the infamous story and allows the reader to see it from a new perspective. When Adam is confused by Eve, we understand the story further. When Adam first discovers Cain, he is confused by its existence, comparing it to a fish, a kangaroo, a bear, and eventually a boy. Throughout the story, the reader is made to re-examine what was already known through the lens of an individual experiencing it for the first time. This recontextualization of the work provides the reader with context for the fall of man – Eve was not tempted in the way that the bible depicts her, but curious about an unknown. Adam was not ashamed in the way the bible depicted, but uninterested. By using such an inexperienced narrator to describe such a well known event, the audience gains a new understanding about the story of the bible. We begin to question religion as a whole and its depiction of Adam and Eve.
This is taken even further in the story “Eve’s Diary”. In this story, we repeat the events of “Extracts from Adam’s Diary”, only changing to the perspective of Eve. Once again, the same story is told through the eyes of a different narrator and the narrator’s inexperience, like with the narrator of the first two stories, allows the reader to realize the “truth” about these classic stories. Here, we see Eve’s intentions when pursuing Adam, and why she would name all things and ‘pester’ him so. We understand her perspective and gain a newfound understanding of why she ate the apple, not as an act of rebellion or succumbing to temptation, but simple inexperience.
It is that action, of revealing something which the audience was not aware and adding to the fabric of the story, which is described by Lodge as the purpose behind using the unreliable narrator. It is to this end where Twain uses it so expertly in his short stories, in order to infuse a meaning into the work that would be otherwise impossible to add.
Lodge, David. The art of fiction. Vintage, 2011.
Twain, Mark. The best short stories of Mark Twain. Edited by Lawrence I. Berkove, Modern Library, 2004.