Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Unreliable narrators

In the Manchester Guardian, the British novelist Harry Sutton tosses off an unreliable list of the ten best unreliable narrators of all time. Only two of the ten are British, suggesting that perhaps it was not off base to assert that “American novelists have relied upon the first person, and have produced more and greater ‘I’ works, than the British.”

At all events, Sutton awards top honors to Lolita, which provokes Neil Verma to wonder whether Humbert Humbert even belongs on any such list (hat tip to Verma, by the way, for bringing the Guardian list to my attention). Sutton, whose fiction I have not read, maintains that Humbert is “intent on justifying his appalling crime,” but this is just not true.

It would be far more accurate to say that, from the beginning, Humbert is keenly aware of the need to justify his crime, because he too experiences its horror. Throughout the novel, his self-justifications are undercut by the acknowledgment of his own monstrosity. And by the end, Humbert has abandoned any pretense that sex with children is the “patrimony of poets” and “not crime’s proving ground.” He identifies the true evil—removing a voice from the chorus of children at play.

Is Humbert unreliable, then, when seeking to justify himself, but reliable when acknowledging his monstrosity and atoning for his crime? Merely by balancing Lolita atop the heap of unreliable narrators, Sutton has succeeded in calling the whole category into question.

Compare Humbert Humbert to Huck Finn, for instance. (Sutton unaccountably drops Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to tenth place, three rungs below The Catcher in the Rye, which is founded upon the sixty-seven-years earlier novel.) At a crucial moment in Twain’s novel, Huck finds himself “a-trembling” and in a “close place,” because he’d “got to decide, forever, betwixt two things,” and he “knowed it.” He must decide between committing the crime of assisting a runaway slave, which every inch of his moral sense opposes, or turning his friend Jim over to the law, against which his feelings rebel.

The difference between the two narrators is that Humbert knows that his decision “betwixt two things” is false. His self-justifications are difficult to take seriously, precisely because they are punctured by the uprising of conscience, which Humbert is honest enough to admit. They are evidence, not of his unreliability, but of his weakness, his moral failure to restrain himself.

But Huck on the other hand fully believes that his decision “betwixt two things” is a genuine moral dilemma—the law versus friendship. The reader knows better. By 1884 the Fugitive Slave Law had been dead letter for twenty years, and the moral issue of slavery had been settled. Huck’s decision is as false as Humbert’s, but while Humbert tries to persuade the reader that prohibitions on sex with children are little more than moral fashion, no reader of Twain is under any illusion that assisting a runaway slave is immoral. Huck is himself a slave to moral fashion, while Humbert is among those who would manipulate fashion to his own desired ends.

The difference between them, then, is that Humbert Humbert is a narrator who designs and shapes his own narrative, while Huck Finn is himself shaped by the narrative as he is swept along, faithfully recording what happens around him. Humbert’s “unreliability” (if it can be called that) lies in his weakness of character; Huck’s in the discrepancy between moral fashion and moral right.

It may be time to rely upon a different literary term.


M said...

I've also been bothered by the notion of an "unreliable" narrator, which implies that there's an objective, True story to be told outside of the character's subjective experience. An unreliable narrator can't just be somebody who is telling the story from his own perspective, it has to be somebody who is purposely and intentionally manipulating the "facts," or who is perhaps acting as or writing as an omniscient narrator when he has no true omniscience. Of course, how one would determine what a fact even is is an entire new can of worms.

I would not categorize Humbert as an unreliable narrator, largely for the reasons you talk about in this piece. And scanning through my bookshelf, I'm having a hard time applying the label to any narrator...

M said...

I guess, I'm wondering if any narrator from at least 20th-century fiction and beyond can be categorized as even a "reliable" narrator.

Also, it seems that the Greeks were concerned with the reliability of their narratives, as they had to legitimate their storytelling through invocation to the muse.

Andrew Wood Acting Studio said...

Agreed. The "unreliable narrator" mem has always seemed smug and shallow to me. No one is reliable all the time, and because someone is unreliable in some particular matter does not disqualify her testimony in other matters. The claim about an unreliable narrator always seemed to falsely reduce the problem of the reader's relationship to what she is reading, rather than illuminate it.

What is of interest is the relationship between the narrator's desires vis-a-vis the reader, and the relationship of those desires to what is narrated. To the extent that there is unreliability, it can spring from such a variety of motives and take such a multitude of forms that it is effectively meaningless as a classification, at best a family resemblance.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

Myers is right about Humbert Humbert, and the Guardian list is peculiar, but I don't understand why the commenters are so eager to throw out the concept entirely.

What else am I supposed to do with The Tin Drum or The Good Soldier? Or Villette - do not trust that woman! I can't use reliability as a way to distinguish Charles Kinbote from David Copperfield?

vanzare apartamente cluj said...

Creating a top like this,"unreliable narrator", I believe to be lack of inspiration or just a big desire to receive attention....