The unreliable narrator

The omniscient narrator, I often hear, was prevalent in the fiction of the 19th century, but, as we became more sophisticated – or, to be more specific, as we stopped believing in God, and hence, in the possibility of omniscience – we found ourselves more in sympathy with fiction that is told from the perspective of a narrator with a limited viewpoint, or even an unreliable one.

I have heard such a view often expressed, and am sceptical – as, indeed, I am of any pat explanation of any complex issue. In the first place, not all of us have stopped believing in God. In the second place, the unreliable narrator, though admittedly more common in twentieth century fiction than previously, is by no means a modernist invention: Defoe’s Roxana is narrated from the perspective of a very unreliable narrator (as are, I think, though admittedly to a somewhat lesser extent, Robinson Crusoe and Moll Fanders); Gulliver is increasingly unreliable as he becomes increasingly unhinged; and the unreliability of narration is itself among the major themes in possibly the earliest major prose narrative in European fiction, Don Quixote. Indeed, given that the more fantastic episodes of The Odyssey are related in Odysseus’ narrative, one may even consider Homer to have pre-empted all subsequent writers when it comes to this “unreliable narrator” lark.

Most importantly, I think, fiction in which the author enters at will into the minds of the various characters continues to be written to this day, and is widely read; and I’d be very surprised if even the most dogged of atheists has ever found anything incongruous in such narrations on the ground that God doesn’t exist. We are, after all, so adept in suspending our disbelief over so many things when it comes to fiction, that a little matter of an author who knows what all the characters are thinking is hardly likely to prove a major stumbling block. No – if we want to know what the attraction is of the unreliable narrator, we need to dig a bit deeper than this.

Even if we consider the traditional Victorian novel, the high point, as many would have it, of narration from an omniscient viewpoint, we may find passages such as this:

Possibly there was some unrecognised agent secretly busy in Arthur’s mind at this moment – possibly it was the fear lest he might hereafter find the fact of his having made a confession to the Rector a serious annoyance, in case he should not be able to carry out his good resolutions? I dare not assert it was not so. The human soul is a very complex thing.

[From Part 1, Chapter 16 of Adam Bede by George Eliot]

“Possibly … possibly … I dare not assert …” Even in a novel often regarded by many as the epitome of a narration from an omniscient perspective, George Eliot confesses that the human soul is too complex to ever be fully dissected. And at this point, she steps back from omniscience.

And this creates an inconsistency. How can she know certain things hidden from mortal knowledge, but confess uncertainty on – or even ignorance of – others? This is an inconsistency we find frequently in omniscient narrations. Even Tolstoy, who has possibly analysed a greater range of characters to a greater depth than has any other novelist, can but remain silent when Karenin, his life falling apart, his mind in turmoil over all sorts of things, breaks into a spontaneous smile on seeing his wife’s illegitimate baby. There comes a point when even Tolstoy must acknowledge, as George Eliot does, that the human soul is a very complex thing – too complex, indeed, even for his gaze.

Of course, Tolstoy could have invented some reason or other for Karenin’s smile. Or, more easily, he may not have had Karenin smile at all. But Karenin must smile here. Tolstoy may not know exactly why Karenin should smile at this point, but he knows that he must. Tolstoy’s imagination has led him where his analysis cannot quite follow. And where even Tolstoy’s analysis cannot follow , what chance do we lesser mortals have?

For Tolstoy knew – as did all writers of stature – that there is a mystery at the heart of human existence, a mystery in the recesses of the human mind. That is not to say that one should not probe for reasons: after all, the certainty that we shall never understand all the mysteries of the universe does not prevent scientists from attempting to uncover as much as they can. And, paradoxically, the more they uncover, the more mysterious the universe seems to be, and more wonderful: relativity and quantum physics have made the universe appear more mysterious and more wonderful, not less. The human mind also is just such a mystery: the more we understand about it, the more we uncover, the more mysterious, the more wonderful, it appears. And if fiction is to hold up a mirror to nature, then the best fiction must mirror this sense of mystery – this mystery that, paradoxically, becomes more profound the more we understand.

Shakespeare knew this also, of course. Hamlet, the most contemplative and circumspect of all characters, could also commit rash acts in the heat of the moment, and yet remain, as a character, a coherent and unified entity. How Shakespeare achieved this has been analysed and discussed for centuries, and, while analysis and discussion have undoubtedly deepened our understanding, they have but made the mysteries at the heart of Hamlet’s character appear even more extraordinary. Hamlet knew this as well, of course: when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern attempt to tease out of Hamlet his mystery, he mocks them:

Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you make of me! You would play upon me; you would seem to know my stops; you would pluck out the heart of my mystery; you would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass: and there is much music, excellent voice, in this little organ; yet cannot you make it speak. ‘Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe?

And Hamlet’s mockery has haunted commentators ever since. The more intently we analyse, the more we understand, the more we realise the impossibility of plucking out the heart of Hamlet’s mystery. The closer we come to this heart, the more inscrutable it seems.

And this, I think, is the attraction of the narrator with limited perspectives, or of the unreliable narrator: the omniscient narrator – unless, like George Eliot or Leo Tolstoy, they step back from their omniscience once in a while – has to know everything; and when the author knows everything, there is no mystery; and the mirror held up to nature diminishes what it purports to reflect. The technique of using a narrator with a limited perspective, or even with an unreliable perspective, allows the author’s imagination to penetrate into regions where even the author’s understanding cannot quite follow. The creations of the greatest authors remain mysterious even to the authors themselves.


35 responses to this post.

  1. I don’t want to step on obooki’s toes – this is his specialty – but the people making those claims about the 19th century novel – and I’ve read them plenty of times myself – are not only obviously unfamiliar with the 18th century novel, and the pre-novel novel, but they are clearly also unfamiliar with Jane Eyre or Vanity Fair.

    Your idea at the end is useful. I would suggest, though, that some unreliable narrators actually suggest omniscience – the all-knowingness of the actual author. Charles Kinbote’s narration conceals all sorts of mysteries, but the ingenious Vladimir Nabokov has the solution. The mystery is still crucial, but the reader, in this case, is invited to solve it.


    • I think you’re right: Bertie Wooster may think he is getting his own way, but the omniscient Wodehouse behind Bertie Wooster knows otherwise, and telling the story from the unreliable perpective of Bertie adds to the joke. But yes, there is certainly an omniscient writer behind the unreliable narrator.

      Nabokov loved his puzzles and games, and yes, I agree, he too was an omnscient narrator standing behind the unreliable narrator. His most famous work features, of course, a very notable unreliable narrator, and, quite clearly, despite Humbert Humbert’s intelligence, Nabokov understands various things that his narrator doesn’t. And it’s hard to imagine how this novel could have been written any other way.


      • Yes, but isn’t the point about Nabokov’s approach that he never pretends his books are anything other than artificial constructs? With their formal games and self-referential jokes, they flaunt their fictionality. For an author to be omniscient in his artificial domain has no bearing on the question of the knowability or otherwise of the real world. The same cannot be said for what is claimed as ‘realist’ fiction.

      • Don’t you think that Lolita, for all its games and jokes, is depicting a “realistic” world, albeit from a very limited – and hence unreliable – perspective? Nabokov is pretending that a man called Humber Humbert (or who calls himself by that name) exists, or had existed. He pretends that this Humbert Humbert had various experiences in the real world of motels and of roads and of automobiles and of people of various sorts. He pretends that the story he is narrating really is true, really did happen.

        Fiction must surely require at least some level of pretence on the part of the author. If the fictional word becomes utterly divorced from the real world (and I appreciate there are different degrees of this) – if, to use the Shakespearean metaphor, it no longer holds up a mirror to nature – then such fiction becomes no more than a parlour game. (Which is how much modern fiction strikes me, to be honest.) A George Eliot and a Vladimir Nabokov differ in terms of the level of pretence: neither, I think, can drop all pretence entirely, and still remain an author of fiction.

        I do agree with you that “for an author to be omniscient in his artificial domain has no bearing on the question of the knowability or otherwise of the real world”. It is for this very reason that I find myself dissatisfied with claims that the technique of the unreliable narrator gained in popularity as a consequence of our diminishing belief in the possibility of omniscience in the real world.

  2. Yes, I was thinking of commenting, but didn’t know really where to begin.

    The essential problem to me is that the analogy doesn’t really work. If God created the world and all things in it, just as the artist creates his world and all things in it; to suppose then God didn’t create the world, that there was in fact no consciousness behind its creation – obviously this can’t be carried across into the analogy of the artist, since the artist still has created his world. (If you argue that the artist doesn’t know as well as God what he’s doing in his act of creation – that he doesn’t really have omniscience, but creates through a kind of intuition – this is also to move further from the original analogy, but doesn’t bring us any closer to an analogy of a godless world).

    Then there’s an entirely separate matter, which is the relation of the artistic world to the real world, especially as regards other people’s minds. Obviously in the real world we are not able to see directly into other people’s minds – but a lot of the time we are able to suppose what goes on in there (some of us, to a greater or less extent). It’s a fairly reasonable guess of the artist’s that much of what goes on in other people’s minds is the same as what goes on in his mind – so this is the basis for creating these minds of others in his work. (If he doesn’t wholly understood the functionings of his own mind, then he can translate this to his understanding of his characters – as perhaps the Eliot and Tolstoy above).

    A lot of all this can be seen also as the difference between 1st and 3rd person narratives. Crudely, the c18th has a lot of 1st person narratives, the c19th has a predominance of 3rd, and then the c20th perhaps tends back towards 1st. Obviously 1st person narratives tend to have a narrower viewpoint.


    • The idea that the technique of the unreliable narrator has become prevalent as a consequence of a lesser belief in divinity is one of those thinghs that, in my experience at least, gets trotted out – although I suppose I should have done some homework first and cited some instances of what I was setting out to debunk. Your debunking is somewhat more comprehensive and methodical than mine.

      This was one post where I set out to write about one thing (the unreliable author), but went off on a tangent to write about something rather different – the relation of the artistic world to the real world, and to what extent even the artist understands the artistic world he or she has created. Not being a creative type myself, I really have no idea what creation entails. When writers depict other peoples’ minds, are they really depicting their own? Or, at least, certain aspects of their own? If so, Tolstoy’s mind contained virtually all of humanity. However, the alternative is just as unlikely: it seems equally improbable that any writer can project his or her own self into the mind of someone in completely different circumstances, and whose thought processes are radically different. I have no idea, and it’s pointless trying to conjecture: and I suspect that the authors themselves find the whole thing equally puzzling. But artists do, I think, often find their intuition leading them into areas they hadn’t intended. Famously, Anna Karenina ended up being a quite different character from the one Tolstoy had initially envisaged; and there is a lovely story of Pushkin, while writing “Eugene Onegin”, saying: “Tatyana has turned Onegin down – I hadn’t expected that of her.” Whether these flashes of insight come from some part of the artist’s own mind of which the artist had not been fully aware, or whether the artist has the ability to leap across into minds different from their own, I really don’t know; but I do not think that artists can always rationalise their artistic decisions. It is for this reason, I think, that writers often drop the claim of omniscience: they find too much even within their own creation that they cannot quite account for.

      But of course, as Amateur Reader points out above, this is not the only reason. Presenting events from an unreliable perspective while maintaining their own omniscient perspective in the background can create a variety of interesting and intriguing effects – from “Pale Fire” to “Right Ho, Jeeves!”. (And when was the last time you heard those two books mentioned in the same sentence? 🙂 )


  3. I would suggest, though, that some unreliable narrators actually suggest omniscience – the all-knowingness of the actual author.

    Could we go further than this though, do you think, and suggest that all unreliable narrators necessarily imply omniscience – the all-knowingness of the actual author?

    The basic way to create an unreliable narrator after all is to insert into the text what, for the lack of a better term, I shall call “dramatic irony” – that the narrator is mistaken about something about which the author and the reader know the truth. He can only be “unreliable” because the author is deliberately undermining his credibility.

    In this case, therefore, if:

    unreliable narrators necessarily imply an omniscient creator


    twentieth century literature uses unreliable narrators


    twentieth century literature necessarily implies an omniscient creator (and therefore a belief in God, a well-ordered world, life after death, the authority of the church, the divine right of kings, a meaning to life etc).


    • I think it is certainly the case that the author knows and understands more than does the unreliable narrator. But it doesn’t follow that the author is omniscient. Ford Madox Frod understands more than the narrator of The Good Soldier, but I don’t think Ford Madox Ford understands everything. The unreliable narrator thus becomes a convenient device: using this device saves Ford from having to pretend that he does understand everything.


  4. So I think your conclusion, church and divine right aside, is pretty close to the actual spiritual beliefs of Nabokov, who may be a special case. But your logic is impeccable.

    I just want to leave room for the possibility of an accidental unreliable narrator, one whose creator is just as unreliable, who is, say, a lucky dimwit. Of course, I am not going to draw any grand socio-religious conclusions from such a creature.


  5. Posted by alan on September 11, 2011 at 7:35 pm

    Please give me an example of a reliable narrator, in something non-trivial.


    • How about Tolstoy in War and Peace or in Anna Karenina? Or George Eliot in Middlemarch? Or Jane Austen in Emma?

      I think what I mean by the “unreliable narrator” is the narrator who quite clearly does not perceive all that needs to be perceived, or who does not understand all that needs to be understood. With the unreliable narrator, the reader cannot take what the narrator says at face value, and is thus forced to try to read between the lines to see further than the narrator does. The converse of this are instances where the narration is intended to be taken at face value – or, at least, where the narrator makes use of irony, the irony is conscious.

      Consider, for instance, the famous first line of Pride and Prejudice:

      It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

      This is obviously ironic, and the irony is intended: Austen knows how absurd the statement is, and she underlines the absurdity of it by declaring it to be a “fact universally acknowledged”. But if the novel were to be narrated by Mrs Bennet, she would speak this line without realising its absurdity, and in this case, the irony would be on the part of the author, not of the narrator. The narrator in such a case would be classed as an “unreliable narrator” – someone who doesn’t have an adequate grasp of what is going on. But the novel, as it stands, is narrated very much by a “reliable narrator”, who is fully aware of what is going on.

      In short, an “unreliable narrator” doesn’t perceive or understand enough for the narrative to make sense in its own terms; whereas a “reliable narrator” does. My point is that even the “reliable narrator” can be led into certain areas by their imagination, or by their intuition – call it what you will – where their analytic powers cannot quite follow.


  6. I’ve never seen a particularly strong correlation between monotheism yielding to atheism/agnosticism and the move away from reliable narration. I think if anything it parallels a move away from the widespread 19th century belief in the possibility of rational, objective knowledge, towards the age of relativity and quantum uncertainty, where suddenly objectivity seems like an impossible dream.

    Of course these things are always more complex than that. The 19th century had its own currents of opposition to rationalism and objectivity – from the Romantics down to Nietzsche and beyond.


    • There possibly is a correlation between “monotheism yielding to atheism/agnosticism” and “the move away from reliable narration”, but of course, correlation does not necessarily imply causality. There is similarly a correlation between increased use of the unreliable narrator and our increased understanding of relativity and quantum mechanics, but once again, I remain unconvinced that this correlation indicates causality either.

      Of course, what exactly did cause the increased use of the unreliable narrator must remain a matter of conjecture, as nothing may be demonstrated scientifically. At best, correlations may be cited, and some may appear interesting, but it is something I had drummed into my head during my statistics lectures: “correlation does not imply causality”. I’m sure there is also a correlation between increased use of the unreliable narrator and increased incidence of carbon in the earth’s atmosphere…

      Even if were to accept that there is less confidence tha npreviously in the possibility of objectivity in the real world, I do not see what bearing this should have in a fictional world. As you say yourself in another post in this thread, “for an author to be omniscient in his artificial domain has no bearing on the question of the knowability or otherwise of the real world”.

      Personally, I am inclined to ascribe the increased use of the unreliable narrator to internal rather than to external causes: once the author realises that he or she is not omniscient even within his or her fictional world, the unreliable narrator becomes a useful device whereby the pretence of omniscience, even within the fictional world, need not be maintained. But no – I cannot prove this: it’s just a hunch.


      • Well I don’t see how any hypothesis about cultural cause and effect can ever be definitely established. To demonstrate that a condition is both “necessary” and “sufficient” for an outcome requires repeatable experiments, which cultural history – indeed, history generally – does not afford.

        One could concoct numerous theories about the unreliable narrator phenomenon – perhaps modern writers felt their readership was more sceptical than earlier generations; less inclined to accept authority (eg, post WWI?). Perhaps they saw an opportunity for making their readers feel smarter, being able to “read between the lines”? Who knows?

        But I do feel there was a massive shift in mindset from the era when people thought science was on the brink of learning all there was to know, to the one in which they realised there were vast areas, hitherto unsuspected, where it hadn’t even got started – and worse still, that there were theoretical limits to what even could be known. I’d be very surprised if such a landmark shift wasn’t reflected in literature.

        I find it striking how many different manifestations there were of this phenomenon in quite disparate areas at roughly the same time. Russell’s Paradox, Godel’s Theorem, the Church-Turing thesis, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. Beyond maths and physics, you could even argue that Freud’s theories of the unconscious play a part; perhaps even Cubism in the arts.

      • Hello Mike, I agree fully that we cannot prove anything in these matters, and I wasn’t searching for a proof. Searching for causes in cultural history, or indeed in any kind of history, cannot be considered a science for the very reason that you give. The best we can do is to examine the issues, and try to understand as best we can given the evidence the possible, or even probable, causes. This is obviously not an exact science, and it leaves much room for legitimate disagreement. I merely wanted to establish that correlation in itself indicates nothing – but in saying that, I was probably just stating the obvious.

        I feel it is very tempting and very easy to discern general patterns, and then look for evidence to back up what one perceives to be a “general pattern”: such evidence is, inevitably, selective, and makes the “general pattern” we had earlier discerned appear more marked than perhaps it is. While I accept that the incidence of narratives from the perspective of an unreliable narrator has been greater in the twentieth century than in previous eras, I do feel it important at least to bear in mind two points: the first is that the “unreliable narrator” is by no means a twentieth century invention; and the second is that even in the twentieth century, novels continued to be written from an “omniscient” perspective; indeed, I’d guess that the vast majority of novels written even to this day are written from the perspective of a “reliable narrator”. Of course, I accept we are talking about correlations and not about direct mappings, but given these two points, it may be argued that the correlation itself is not, perhaps, as strong as it is sometimes taken to be.

        However, in the absence of empirical data, let us proceed on the assumption that the correlation is significant enough to warrant us looking for possible causes. But before we look for these causes, let us examine what exactly we mean by the “omniscient narrator”, and the “unreliable narrator”. I take the former to mean that the narrator can enter at will into the minds of his or her characters, and be able to understand precisely, within the context of the fiction he or she is creating, the reasons for each event. Leaving aside those works where the events are sufficiently simple as not to require any great level of understanding, I don’t think there is any such thing as an “omniscient narrator”: even the likes of Leo Tolstoy or George Eliot, often considered epitomes of authorial omniscience, find themselves acknowledging a lack of full understanding of their own creations.

        On the other hand, we have the “unreliable narrator”, who, at best cannot enter into minds other than his or her own, or who, at worst, misreads what he or she experiences. But, as Amateur Reader and Obooki say above, there always stands behind such an unreliable narrator the true author, who, if not necessarily “omniscient”, knows much more at an objective level than does the ostensible narrator. This is inevitably the case: we can only discern unreliability of the narration if there exists somewhere, even if implicitly, a benchmark that is reliable.

        Let me elucidate what I mean with a couple of examples. In War and Peace, Tolstoy tells us that Vasily Kuragin spoke to his daughter in an affectionate tone not because he felt particularly affectionate towards her, but because he had observed other fathers speak to their daughters in such a manner. Obviously, Tolstoy has entered the character’s mind, and this places him towards the “omniscient” end of the spectrum. It may be that Tolstoy has misread or has misunderstood Vasily, but since there is no level of objectivity – implicit or otherwise – in the narrative beyond Tolstoy’s voice, we have no reason not to take what Tolstoy says at face value.

        Now, let us compare with this one of the many passages in Wodehouse where Bertie Wooster, the narrator, thinks he has overruled Jeeves, and is having his own way. Although we hear no voice other than Bertie’s in the narration, we know from the context that this is not the case; this is because standing behind Bertie is Wodehouse himself, and Wodehouse knows better than Bertie. In short, Tolstoy’s narrative voice is authoritative because there is no-one standing behind Tolstoy, as it were, to cast doubt on the veracity of what he says; but on the other hand, Bertie’s narrative voice we know is unreliable only because behind Bertie’s narrative voice, there is a voice far more knowledgeable, far more perceptive, and far more authoritative. Indeed, the voice behind Bertie’s voice isn’t really that far removed, if at all, from our old friend “the omniscient narrator”. (Or as near to “omniscient” as to make no difference.) This being the case, the “omniscient narrator”, the author with authority, has not disappeared at all: he or she is merely hiding behind a front. If this is so, the shift towards a higher incidence of the use of the “unreliable narrator” does not indicate an underlying shift away from the belief in the possibility of objectivity; rather, it is merely a technique that presents objectivity in a different way. Bertie thinking that he has got the better of Jeeves does not imply that we can no longer believe in the possibility of an objective truth, because we are all aware that it is an objective truth that Jeeves is getting his way, and that Bertie isn’t smart enough to understand it, let alone prevent it. Humbert Humbert says that it was Lolita who seduced him, but we can discern this is unreliable because behind Humbert Humbert stands Nabokov who knows at an objective level that Humbert Humbert is mentally diseased; the narrator of The Good Soldier mistakes the motivations of the other characters, and we can discern he is mistaken because behind this narrator stands Ford Madox Ford, who knows at an objective level how unintelligent and insensitive his narrator is. And so on. Without the writer who can view things objectively standing behind the “unreliable narrator”, we’d never be able to discern any unreliability in the first place.

        So I’d argue that if we’re looking for causes for the shift towards the use of the unreliable narrator, there is little point in looking at shifts in how we regard the concept of objectivity: this is because fiction, even when narrated by an unreliable narrator, has never really stopped believing in objectivity. What we are looking for is the cause of increased incidence of a particular technique – i.e. not so much a new way of seeing the world, but, rather, a new way of representing it.

  7. In the c19th, science improved people’s lives very little and yet they were apparently very optimistic about it; in the c20th it improved people’s lives a lot, and yet they’d apparently become very pessimistic about it. A strange lot mankind.

    A few notes about the relativism demonstrated by science:

    Einstein’s theory of relativity is a demonstration of objectivity – both of the universe and our examination of it. It states that there is one thing that can be shown to be objective and that is the speed of light, and that EVERYTHING moves at the speed of light. A corollary to this is that, no matter the relative position from which you observe the universe, you will always come to the same conclusion about it.

    Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem basically states that certain systems (like mathematics) are incomplete because there are things about them that are true but which are impossible to prove from within the system itself (a possible example is Goldbach’s Conjecture). Gödel’s theorem says nothing about the limits of human knowledge, since it is only concerned with limited systems (like mathematics). Gödel himself believed that the universe was rational and objective and that everything was provable. He is (along with Einstein) about the last person to quote in any demonstration of relativism.

    The phenomena of quantum mechanics are understood by nobody whatsoever and its meaning is entirely open to debate, see here:

    I would classify all theory of quantum mechanics under the degenerate name of philosophy – which I define as, speculation about things to which we don’t know the answer. If you believe anything based on quantum mechanics, you might as well believe in God.

    Paradoxes in general are indications that the ideas we have are badly formulated.

    To be honest though, I don’t think people’s lives or their thoughts more generally are much bounden by scientific principles which they generally only have the vaguest notion of in the first place.

    If you want a much more likely cultural change than either religion or philosophy / science, then what about social changes, democratisation, the collapse of aristocracies, the disappearance of stable life-long communities?


    • I think we should be careful to distinguish relativism from relativity, though certainly people seemed to confused the two in the early days.

      It’s fair to say Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity assumes there is an objective reality; it’s also fair to say that it insists that things look different to different observers, and that there are limits to what can be known at any point in spacetime (nothing outside the ‘light cone’); also that it challenges the idea of any point of view being the definitive “God’s eye” view (far more so than Newtonian relativity). This point was not lost on the clergy, as any number of speeches and newspaper articles from the 1920s confirm. Distorted though they may have been, the implications of GR entered the popular imagination and cultural debate in a way that’s hard to imagine these days.

      The point about Godel’s Theorem is that it quashed the optimism of Hilbert’s conjecture – David Hilbert, and men of his ilk, were confident that algorithms could be developed to “automatically” determine mathematical truth, establishing firm foundations for mathematical research; Godel upset the applecart in a massive way.

      “If you believe anything based on quantum mechanics…” Well at least there is plenty of empirical evidence to back up QM’s rather disturbing claims. The same cannot be said for any deity.


  8. Also, chaos theory has proven that the world is essentially chaotic. Ha ha ha!

    Actually, I don’t see that one so much anymore. It used to be very popular in the more theoretical precincts of the humanities.

    Scientists should really be more careful with their metaphors. If imaginary numbers were called Q numbers they would not tempt people to substitute the name for the thing itself.

    Another possible cause – a crazy one! – for the relative shift by fiction writers from an omniscient third person model to either some stricter version of limited third or one of many varieties of first is that they were responding to, arguing with, attempting to build upon, rejecting the methods and ideas of earlier fiction writers.


    • Another possible cause – a crazy one! – for the relative shift by fiction writers from an omniscient third person model to either some stricter version of limited third or one of many varieties of first is that they were responding to, arguing with, attempting to build upon, rejecting the methods and ideas of earlier fiction writers.

      I personally find this a more fruitful field of enquiry than trying to relate shifts in literary technique to causes outside literature. I get the feeling (and I emphasise, this is no more than a personal hunch- I cannot prove any of this) that 20th century novelists looked back on the achievements of the 19th century novel, and decided that there was nothing more to be done on that particular piece of ground – that there was no point taking on Tolstoy at his own game, as it were. So they had to move on, and find new ground for themselves – not as a rejection of what had gone before (the major modernist novelists – Joyce, Proust, Woolf, etc. – all revered Tolstoy ), but, on the contrary, as an acknowledgement of the stature of past achievements.

      In the early years of the 20th century, Constance Garnett’s translations of the 19th century Russian writers made a huge impact. English-speaking novelists were, all of a sudden, faced with a body of work – Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Chekhov – that they must have realised was unsurpassable in terms of artistry. Just as symphonists after Beethoven felt intimidated about composing symphonies of their own (Brahms acknowledged explicitly this sense of feeling intimidated), and felt that they had to move on to new ground so as not to be in competition with the unsurpassable achievements of the past, fiction writers of the twentieth century also felt they had to move on, and find new ways of expressing reality. Not, perhaps, depicting a new understanding of reality that makes past understandings redundant, but new ways of expressing – although I’m sure Mike will disagree with me strongly on this last point.


  9. I don’t think it’s true there must always be an omniscient author winking at us from behind an unreliable narrator. Fair enough, this approach is used with single-viewpoint first-person narratives (Lolita, Flowers for Algernon, etc); but there is another approach, and that is conflicting multiple-viewpoint fiction. With this approach, several narrators present contradictory versions of events – thus we know they are unreliable – but there is no need for the author to drop hints about “what’s really happening”, and there is not necessarily any reason to privilege one perspective over another.

    In certain radical 20th century novels, there is no implied objective truth at all. In the later novels of Robbe-Grillet (“Repetitions”, for example), radically conflicting narratives are presented, and it’s not even clear if they are being presented by different narrators or the same one contradicting himself. A less extreme manifestation would be Fowles’s multiple-choice endings for “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”.

    I think we must also bear in mind that an omniscient author and an omniscient fictional narrator are not the same thing. An author exists outside of (and ontologically “above”) the fictional world, which cannot be said for a fictional narrator.


    • I think it is true that there is always a knowing narrator behind the unreliable narrator when that unreliable narrator is the only narrator of the novel (and I think this is the case with most novels written that make use of the “unreliable narrator”). Novels from multiple viewpoints are, I agree, a bit different, because here the unreliability is made apparent from the contradictions in the different narratives. But I am frankly struggling to see in what way this is different from the epistolary novels of the 18th century. Novels such as Clarissa or Les Liaisons Dangereuses are also narrated from a multiplicity of viewpoints, each with a different perspective, and without an authorial voice to favour any one perspective over another. Is this really such a modern innovation? Is it really such a startlingly new idea that different people will have different perspectives on the same thing? In Shakespeare, Cleopatra describes Antony as a sort of demi-god, whereas Octavius refers to him as an “old ruffian”. In what way does narration from multiple perspectives mark a shift in the way we understand the world?

      In addition, has the move towards narration from multiple viewpoints been so conspicuous as to require explanation of its causes? Faulkner’s As I Lay Dyig is still regarded as an experimental novel; Robbe-Grillet’s works are still often regarded as avant-garde rather than as mainstream; the double ending of The French Lieutenant’s Woman is famous precisely because this sort of thing is unusual rather than the norm.

      As for the advances in scientific thought, as you say yourself in your last post, the ideas of Einstein and of Goedel (insofar as I understand them – i.e. not very far at all! 😉 ) tell us that we may not perceive the complete and objective truth from our human perspective, but not that the concept of a complete and objective truth is invalid. So if we could hypothesise an all-knowing being (let’s call this being God for convenience!) then it is possible for that God to know everything. This being so, I don’t know that it requires too great a suspension of the reader’s disbelief to accept a narrative from God’s viewpoint. And the fact (I think it is a fact) that the vast proportion of fiction written even today is written from an objective third person perspective, and the fact that 19th century novels remain as popular as ever, do seem to me to indicate that even after Einstein and Goedel and Heisenberg and all the rest of them, an all-knowing narrator causes modern readers no difficulty at all.


      • Posted by Carolyn Deverson on September 19, 2011 at 5:12 am

        Probably your first sentence here is saying what I am about to say really. I suppose all first-person narrators are unreliable in the sense that they can’t see everything that goes on. I am reading a light crime novel at the moment in the first-person. There’s nothing ‘unreliable’ in what he says, but he comes from everything from his point of view, that of a detective on the railways, living at the beginning of the 19th century, new to his job and uncertain of what it involves, in awe of his suffragette wife, etc.

        But what is called ‘unreliable narration’, I think, is much more deliberate. The author is inviting the reader to see beyond what they are being told. At times in my novel (especially when the narrator is talking of his wife) the modern-day reader is obviously being invited to smile at his attitudes, but we aren’t expected to be fathoming out what is truly happening and what is not, in the way we are in an unreliably narrated book. The one I always think of is The Remains of the Day and even more so, Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller.

        Characters like Becky Sharp and Flashman are not quite what they show themselves as being and a child narrator like the young David Copperfield doesn’t see everything the reader does, but I couldn’t consider them unreliable narrators (Becky isn’t the actual narrator but we do see things as she does at times); that seems to me to need a certain slyness on the part of the author. A pretence to start with that the narrator IS seeing things truly, which only slowly changes for the reader.



      • Sure, I agree there are different degrees on unreliability. In one sense, all first person narratives are unreliable up to a point, since it is impossible for a narrator from a single perspective to see the whole picture. But whereas we can take Jane Eyre’s narration more or less at face value, we have to look well beyond Roxana’s narration to make any sense of it. The young David Copperfield is unreliable up to a point, whereas the older David Copperfield is far more reliable.

      • I don’t think it’s any great secret that the modernists (and even more so the postmodernists) raided the 18th century for literary techniques. The Bloomsbury Set self-consciously announced themselves fans of all things 18th century – perhaps unsurprising, since they defined themselves so strongly as anti-Victorians. BS Johnson, and other experimental writers of the 1960s (particularly US postmodernists), acknowledged their debt to Tristram Shandy.

        I don’t think anyone’s saying unreliable narrators were a new innovation; but that there was a definite shift towards them (or perhaps *back* towards them).

        It occurs to me another kind of ‘unreliable narrative’ that we haven’t discussed is the ‘found document’ type. Probably also dating from the 18th century, if not before.

      • Hello Mike,

        As I understand it, your position is as follows (and please correct me if I have misunderstood you at any point):

        “The has been a marked shift in literary styles in the 20th century from what had gone earlier; and, to a significant degree, this shift was caused by new scientific and philosophical ideas which declared that it was impossible for mankind ever to have a complete understanding of the universe. As a consequence of these ideas taking root, the technique of the omniscient (or near-omniscient) narrator was, to a significant extent, replaced by other narrative techniques in which no single perspective could be seen as being authoritative, or having greater authority than do other perspectives.”

        I have been careful to say in my above summary that the modern ideas that may have caused the apparent shift in writing techniques are not that “everything is relative” or that “there is no such thing as objective truth”: on the contrary, Einstein’s relativity, for one, does insist on absolute truth, insofar as the speed of light is a constant regardless of frame of reference. But several scientific and mathematical ideas of the 20th century do tell us, I accept, that the objective truth, even if it exists, is not completely accessible from any human perspective. The question is to what extent, if any, this has caused a shift in literary techniques.

        My own view is that it has had very little effect indeed. Let me try to enumerate my reasons:

        1. In the first place, has there really been a significant trend at all? I stand by my contention that narratives from the perspective of a single unreliable narrator have not banished the omniscient narrator at all, but have merely placed the omniscient narrator at one remove from the narration. This leaves us narrations from multiple viewpoints. But has there really been a marked shift towards narratives from multiple viewpoints? The vast proportion of fiction written in the last hundred or so years, from the populist end to the highbrow and everything in between, has been dominated either by first person narratives (which do not, as I say, banish the concept of omniscience by any means, even when the first person narrator is unreliable); or by third person narratives that are happy to enter at will into the minds of any of the characters. Narratives from multiple perspectives are still often regarded as avant garde: they are certainly not the norm. If it is true that modern scientific and philosophical ideas have transformed writing styles, I’d have expected this transformation – this shift – to have been far more pronounced than it seems to be.

        2. I think we agreed that modern narratives from multiple perspectives are not conceptually different from the epistolary novels of the 18th century. This being the case, I do not see how the shift (assuming there has been a significant shift) towards narrative from multiple perspectives can be ascribed to the emergence of ideas that hadn’t been present when this kind of narrative technique had previously been popular.

        3. Fiction concerns itself primarily with humans, their behaviour, their motivations, and their interactions with each other. It is not obvious to me that the uncertainty involved in, say, determining simultaneously the position and momentum of sub-atomic particles, is applicable to the field of human behaviour and of human interactions. Except, perhaps, by analogy: but that analogy appears to me far-fetched.

        4. It is debatable whether these various scientific and philosophical ideas – Einstein’s relativity, Russell’s paradox, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty theory, etc. – are well enough understood by most readers of fiction as to alter their literary expectations, or by most writers of fiction to alter their techniques. I do not, however, insist upon this particular point, since I do accept that even misunderstandings can produce effects at least as powerful as those produced by proper understanding. I do doubt, though, that these ideas, whether correctly or incorrectly understood, are in the forefront of peoples’ minds when reading fiction.

        5. If these new ideas have indeed altered readers’ expectations to such an extent that new literary techniques had to be developed to accommodate these new expectations, it is hard to see how it can be possible for modern readers, with these altered expectations, to relate to traditional Victorian novels, instead of seeing them merely as historical curiosities. And yet, it is obvious that Thackeray, Dickens, Eliot, the Brontës, Trollope, Hardy, etc. all remain as popular as ever. The very fact of their continued popularity (insofar as all Victorian fiction can be lumped together into one monolithic entity – which they can’t, of course!) argues against the concept that the expectations of modern readers are radically different from that of readers of the past. (Not that they have remained identical, of course, but the reasons for any change are unlikely to be scientific ideas. For instance, modern readers tend to prefer faster tempi than did Victorian readers, but this is more easily ascribed to the influence of cinema and television rather than to the Church-Turing thesis.)

        6. 20th century scientific and philosophical ideas, wonderful and often startling though they are, are not the first wonderful and startling ideas in human history. So if we are to ascribe changed literary styles to the emergence of modern physics, we have to ask ourselves why it is that Copernicus’ ideas of the solar system, Cartesian geometry, Newtonian mechanics, Darwin’s theory of evolution, Marxism, etc. etc. did not in turn bring about new literary techniques. That the dog didn’t bark on those occasions argues that the link between scientific and philosophical ideas on the one hand, and literary techniques on the other, is spurious.

        7. And finally, by the principle of Ockham’s Razor, a simpler hypothesis takes precedence over the hypothesis that the changes in literary techniques had as an important causal factor the scientific ideas that had emerged in the 20th century. And this simpler hypothesis is as follows: twentieth century writers moved towards new ground when they observed that the achievements of the nineteenth century could not be surpassed on their own ground. Austen, Tolstoy, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, Eliot, James et al, had achieved all that was possible to achieve on their own terms: modern authors had therefore to define new terms. As evidence for this simpler hypothesis, I cite the fact (it is a fact as far as I’m aware) that all major twentieth century writers have admired at least some of the giants of the previous century, even though some may have claimed otherwise: Bloomsbury-ite Virginia Woolf, for instance, virtually idolised Tolstoy (“the greatest of all novelists”, she called him) and George Eliot; Lawrence greatly admired Hardy and Melville; Graham Greene said once that he prepared for writing a new novel by re-reading a couple by Henry James; and so on. In short, whatever shift there has been (and I do accept there has been a shift, if not perhaps as prominent as is sometimes claimed) may be ascribed not to the emergence of new scientific ideas, but to the age-old process of writers reacting to and building upon past achievements in their own field.

  10. Posted by alan on September 18, 2011 at 10:13 pm

    I don’t understand this much either, but the impression I get is that rules like the ‘uncertainty principle’ and other limits suggest that complete knowledge is impossible, even in principle, by whatever hypothetical being. I think that the distinction between ‘completeness’ and ‘objectivity’ is often confused. Whether this is relevant to this discussion, I have no idea.


    • I think the discussion is about the possible relevance or otherwise. In brief, can the shift in literary style be attributed, at least in part, to changes in scientific thought?
      I personally remain sceptical. Despite my academic background, my understanding of scientific thought in the last hundred years isn’t at all profound, but, as far as I understand it, neither Einstein nor Goedel denied the existence of an objective viewpoint: rather, it is the case that they thought this objective viewpoint not to be accessible to the human perspective. Einstein certainly believed in the possibility of objectivity: the speed of light is, after all, constant, no matter what one’s frame of reference. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty principle is different in that, at a quantum level, the position and the momentum cannot simultaneously be ascertained – not that human beings cannot ascertain them, but that they cannot simultaneously be ascertained from any frame of reference. But it frankly stretches my credulity that such a little-understood scientific theory can cause a radical shift in writers’ styles, and in readers’ expectations.
      In addition, I question the extent to which there has been a radical change in writing styles in the first place. Narration from an all-knowing third-person perspective still seems to me to be the norm, and writers who depart radically from that norm – e.g. Robbe-Grillet, B. S. Johnson – are regarded as avant garde rather than as mainstream. Even Ulysses, published nearly 90 years ago, continues to be popularly regarded as “too modern”. That the general readership has not yet caught up even with modernism does indicate to me that modernism was not a response to readers’ altered perceptions of the world.
      I’d question also whether twentieth century styles of writing that are clearly different from what had gone before necessarily reflect any underlying difference in the way we perceive the world, rather than being merely a different means of depicting it. The more I read modernist writing, the more it seems to me a continuation (albeit by different means) of what had gone before, rather than any radical break.
      But even if we were to accept that modern writing styles are radically different from what had gone before, I’d nonetheless question that this is due to changes in scientific thought. The advances in scientific thought in the 20th century have been extraordinary – possibly mankind’s greatest achievement of the last century – but there have been shifts of scientific thought before of a comparable stature: understanding of our place in the solar system, for instance; or the emergence of Newtonian mechanics; or Darwin’s theory of evolution. All of these have radically changed the way we view the world, and our place in it; and yet, none of them has initiated new literary styles. If we are to ascribe the emergence of modernist writing styles to changes in scientific thought, we must also account for the various occasions on which the dog didn’t bark.


  11. Posted by alan on September 21, 2011 at 10:30 pm

    “it frankly stretches my credulity that such a little-understood scientific theory can cause a radical shift in writers’ styles, and in readers’ expectations.”
    Hmmm. not sure. It is possible for popular misunderstandings to have a wide currency and wide impact – the works of Darwin and Marx come immediately to mind…


  12. Humbert is definitely an unreliable narrator, and the same is at the core of Pale Fire, and perhaps Pnin too.

    I wonder, shall we consider Tristram Shandy to have a similarly unreliable storyteller, or does the fact that he doesn’t even consider himself too reliable let him off that hook?


  13. Posted by alan on September 25, 2011 at 11:00 pm

    Tom Paulin sees the influence of scientific theories in 19th Century literature.
    I’ve got a collection of Hardy’s poems with an introduction by Paulin where he claims he can see the influence of science diminishing the comforts of religious belief and sees Hardy as restating the feelings expressed in Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’.
    But we are getting off piste here…


    • I have no doubt that scientific and philosophical ideas influence the content of literary works, but I remain to be convinced that they influence the form and the style.

      Even when it comes to content, we must be careful about generalising. We hear, for instance, that scientific ideas weakened belief in religion in the twentieth century, and that thisis reflected in twentieh century literature. And yet, many of the major figures of 20th century literature were very religious people – from Graham Greene to Flannery O’Connor to François Mauriac to Muriel Spark to Evelyn Waugh to Rabindranath Tagore to Paul Claudel to Boris Pasternak to T. S Eliot …. etc. etc. What is the point of generalising about such matters when there are so many exceptions of such prominence?


  14. Sorry Himadri I may not be able to come back in future – because I am not getting your posts – nor those of another person – I have asked WordPress to help – but all I get is WordPlay


    • Sorry to hearyou’re having technical problems, Patricia – not being a techie myself, I’m afraid I really am the last person to help with this sort of thing. But you could, I suppose, just bookmark thi sblog, and drop in whenever you can.


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