In David Lodge’s work, The Art of Fiction, Lodge describes and explains certain aspects of fictional writing and how they impact the story as a whole. One of the chapters of the book discusses the impact of the unreliable narrator, which I will discuss in the following paragraphs.
An unreliable narrator is a narrator whose credibility has been compromised, and their narration can not be taken at face value. Lodge describes the unreliable narrator as an effective and creative tool to illustrate the contrast between face-value appearances and reality. He believes that unreliable narrators add an interesting viewpoint to the story, add a sort of flavor, and may add story/ character depth to those unreliable narrators.
However, Lodge puts forth one main restriction on the unreliable narrator: unreliable omniscient narrators cannot have 100% of the things they say be false. This is because if 100% of what they are saying is a lie, then it is fiction within a novel of fiction. Lodge points out the issue with this by stating: ”…That only tells us what we know already, namely that a novel is a work of fiction. There must be some possibility of discriminating between truth and falsehood within the imagined world of the novel, as there is in the real world, for the story to engage our interest.” (Lodge, 155) So though the unreliable narrator is an exciting tool at the hands of an author, it should be utilized with this information in mind.
The concept of the unreliable narrator can be seen in various works of fiction, such as Paradise of the Blind by Duong Thu Huong. The novel is in first person and is from the point of view of a young Vietnamese woman named Hang.
Hang can be argued to be an unreliable narrator because of two aspects: her method of narration and naivety.
Hang’s unreliable narration is noticeable in the way she discusses communist society. She utilizes stories from her mother’s past or what she observed as a young child. However, for much of the novel she is describing her mother’s experiences, thus she is describing an experience that is not her own and one she was not present for. For example, in the beginning of the novel Hang recounts her mother’s suffering when she was forced to leave her husband Ton as he was part of a landowning family which conflicted with her family‘s communist ideals. (Hang, 19-24) Hang tells the story with great detail, dialogue, and emotion, however at the time Hang was not even alive. For example, she says “But Uncle Chinh only nodded and gave a grunt. There was something odd, condescending, about his behavior.” (Huong, 22) This is a very specific instance she recounts even though she did not experience any of it, see any of it, or hear any of it in person. This is significant because it means that she may not know the exact context or the exact feelings evoked, leading to a possibility of false truth, either by omission or ignorance of events. The full picture may not be given to us, and thus the audience cannot accept Hang’s words as the full and complete truth, effectively characterizing her as an unreliable narrator.
Additionally, as she recounts her experiences with communism, she does so with an air of naivety. Throughout the novel she discusses her past in communist society, but she is not aware of how communism or other life factors around her affect her. She is unaware of the circumstances surrounding her very own story/ her mother’s and thus may be considered to be an unreliable narrator. This unreliable narration of naivety adds interest to the story because a child provides a story that is raw, unfiltered, and hard-hitting. If Hang was to be totally knowledgeable and show no innocence, the ability to feel for Hang’s character would be reduced, as her naivety and innocence as a child is what makes her endearing and her suffering that much more painful. For example, in the very first chapter of the novel, Hang hears her neighbors talking about a man named Ton and laughing at her mom about her relationship with this man. Hang is a young child, only ten, and very innocently asks “Who’s handsome Ton?” (Huong, 18) She states the neighbors mocked her after they heard her question and runs off, only to find out from her mother a while later that ‘handsome Ton’ was actually Hang’s father. Chapter two informs the reader that Hang’s mother left Ton because Ton came from a landowning family, which conflicted with her family’s communist ideals, as stated earlier. Hearing this story, the audience feels for naive, young Hang because she is a young child who lost her father due to harsh communist beliefs. (Huong, 19-24) Quotes from the situation such as “I was almost ten years old once I learned about my father,” (Huong, 18) display the power of her unreliable narration, because this child is innocent yet still suffers, and she does not even know why it is happening or what the cause is. Her naivety— the very thing which makes her an unreliable narrator—allows readers to connect with her. She may be categorized as an unreliable narrator, but as Lodge himself says, “If (s)he had been reliable, the effect would, of course, have been incredibly boring.” (Lodge, 157)
The unreliable narrator creates twists to the story and keeps readers constantly intrigued. Huong executes this to her advantage, creating a character with lessened credibility, but strengthened emotional value and sympathy as well, who remains memorable and unique in the minds of readers.