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Senior: 11 & 12: Unit 1: Narrator as Character

What is 'Narrator as Character'?

In the first person point of view, the narrator is a character in the story, dictating events from their perspective using "I" or "we."

First person narration allows you to "get personal" with your audience. It's as if one of the characters is speaking directly to his or her audience; we're able to listen in on their thoughts. The audience will understand how the narrator is feeling and how he or she interprets the events taking place around them.

Different Types of Narrator as Character

  • First Person - the story is told from the first person "I” personal point-of-view, usually that of the main character.
  • Interior Monologue – first-person, train of thought “overheard” by the reader (NOT spoken out loud as is a monologue), or sometimes “overheard” and reported by an omniscient narrator; other times it occurs as stream of consciousness (“The Jilting of Granny Weatherall”).
  • Subjective Narration - first person, narrator seems unreliable, tries to get readers to share his/her side or to assume values or views not usually presumed by the reader.
  • Detached Autobiography - first person, reliable narrator that guides the reader. Narrator is main character, often reflecting on a past "self” – sometimes an adult recounting an event from childhood. When it is the latter, it is important to notice “how” the adult voice affects the child’s story.
  • Memoir or Observer Narration - first person, narrator is observer rather than main participant; narrator can be confidant(e), eyewitness or "chorus" (provides offstage or background information). This narrator can be reliable or unreliable.

From: CDS

Death, Narrator of 'The Book Thief', by Marcus Zusack

NPR's John Ydstie interviews Markus Zusak:

YDSTIE: What made you decide to have Death himself, or Death itself, narrate this story?

Mr. ZUSAK: Well, I thought I'm writing a book about war, and there's that old adage that war and death are best friends, but once you start with that idea, then I thought, well, what if it's not quite like that? Then I thought what if death is more like thinking, well, war is like the boss at your shoulder, constantly wanting more, wanting more, wanting more, and then that gave me the idea that Death is weary, he's fatigued, and he's haunted by what he sees humans do to each other because he's on hand for all of our great miseries.

YDSTIE: As Death introduces himself at the beginning of the book, it's some of the most wonderful and evocative writing, I think, in the book, and I wonder if you would read something from page four for us.

Mr. ZUSAK: (Reading) I could introduce myself properly, but it's not really necessary. You'll know me well enough and soon enough, depending on a diverse range of variables. It suffices to say that at some point in time I'll be standing over you. As genially as possible your soul will be in my arms (unintelligible) will be perched on my shoulder. I will carry you gently away.

At that moment, you'll be lying there. I rarely find people standing up. You'll be caked in your own body. There might be a discovery, a scream will dribble down the air. The only sound I'll hear after that will be my own breathing and a sound of the smell of my footsteps.

The question is what color will everything be at that moment when I come for you? What will the sky be saying? Personally, I like a chocolate-colored sky, dark, dark chocolate.

From: NPR interviewer

What is an 'Unreliable Narrator'?

An unreliable narrator is an untrustworthy storyteller, most often used with 'narrator as character' stories in the first person. The unreliable narrator is either deliberately deceptive or unintentionally misguided, forcing the reader to question their credibility as a storyteller.

Types of Unreliable Narrator

  • The naiive and innocent because of young age, lower than normal intelligence, an inability to deal with reality, or a learning disability.
    • Bruno in 'The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas': young and naiive narrator who doesn't understand the horror of the concentration camp.
    • Scout in 'To Kill a Mockingbird' is also young and naiive. She tells her version of a grown-up story through her limited understanding and experience.
    • 'The Room', by Emma Donoghue - the strange and poignant view of a child held in a monstrous situation.
    • Christopher Boone in 'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time': Has autism, so reveals a distorted view of reality. What he sees and does not see differs from most people, and as he begins to investigate the death of a dog, he focuses on some details and completely misses others.
    • Forrest Gump, though an adult, obviously has a learning impairment, and is extremely innocent and naive, so  doesn’t always understand the bigger picture of what’s going on around him.
  • The outsider may be new in town or of a different racial or socioeconomic background than the rest of the characters in the story. The narrator may be prejudiced by friendship and loyalty, or  race, class, politics, culture or gender. 
    • Nelly from 'Wuthering Heights' - the servant who makes her dislike of Catherine quite clear and even when Catherine does deserve some sympathy.
    • Mrs DeWinter from 'Rebecca' - through her interpretations the audience starts second-guessing everything. 
  • The Picaro (prone to exaggerating the truth or bragging to make their story sound better). 
    • Gaston from 'Beauty and the Beast' is not the actual narrator of the story, but claims to be a lot of things, which might not be true. 
    • Moll Flanders, the main character in the book 'Moll Flanders' by Daniel Defoe, was born to a mother in prison, but lies about her social standing in order to wed wealthy men and inherit their money.
  • The insane, hallucinatory or mentally unstable
    • Holden Caulfield in 'The Catcher in the Rye' is both mentally unstable and naiive. 
    • Pi in 'The Life of Pi' - His outrageous animal story is what his mind likes/chooses to believe over such a dramatic event that is losing his mother in a violent way and a shipwreck
    • Rachel from Paula Hawkins’ 'The Girl on the Train' is a narrator who is struggling with alcoholism and depression. 
  • The blatant, outright liar - Alex in 'A Clockwork Orange' is a depraved, violent, psychopathic drunk liar.

NOTE: Nick Carraway in 'The Great Gatsby' is a mixture of several types of unreliable narrator. In some ways he's an outsider, biassed by his friendship with Gatsby. As well, sometimes he's slow-thinking and naiive, and sometimes he has a minor problem with dishonesty and obscuring the truth.

Nick Carraway, Narrator of 'The Great Gatsby', by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Nick Carraway, Jay Gatsby’s sort-of friend, is the perfect mournfully sardonic narrator for one of American literature’s most enduring novels. The supposedly innocent bystander; the less charismatic best friend; the hapless fan or scholar whose own life recedes in the shadow of their subject of adoration is a popular narrative form.

From: Publisher's Weekly

Holden Caulfield, Narrator of 'The Catcher in the Rye', by J. D. Salinger

The Catcher in the Rye will be remembered as one of the most intriguing stories of all time. It uses first person narration to relay some of the teenage angst most of us experience. Here's a glimpse at how the main character, Holden, feels:

Where I want to start telling is the day I left Pencey Prep. Pencey Prep is this school that's in Agerstown, Pennsylvania. You probably heard of it. You've probably seen the ads, anyway. They advertise in about a thousand magazines, always showing some hotshot guy on a horse jumping over a fence.

It's worth mentioning the concept of reliable versus unreliable narration (A narrating character or storyteller in a literary or other artistic work - such who provides inaccurate, misleading, conflicting or otherwise questionable information to the reader or audience at this point. Some might say Holden Caulfield is not a reliable narrator because he's far from objective. He seems increasingly jaded about the world around him. You'll note a lot of  sarcasm with underlying waves of anger in his retelling of the story of his life.

Turns out (spoiler alert) he's retelling these events from a mental facility, making his recounting utterly unreliable. Others would most likely have a different version of the events Holden lays out.

From: Examples of Narration

Dr Watson, Narrator of the 'Sherlock Holmes' stories, by Arthur Conan Doyle

Given the title, you'd think Sherlock Holmes was told from Holmes' perspective. Arthur Conan Doyle chose a different approach. Holmes' sidekick, Dr. John Watson, is actually the one engaging in first person narration.

From A Scandal in Bohemia:

I had seen little of Holmes lately. My marriage had drifted us away from each other. My own complete happiness, and the home-centred interests which rise up around the man who first finds himself master of his own establishment, were sufficient to absorb all my attention, while Holmes, who loathed every form of society with his whole Bohemian soul, remained in our lodgings in Baker Street, buried among his old books, and alternating from week to week between cocaine and ambition, the drowsiness of the drug, and the fierce energy of his own keen nature.

From: Examples of Narration

Adso, Narrator of 'The Name of the Rose', by Umberto Eco

Detective fiction has a long tradition of an Average Joe narrator who relates the adventures of a whimsical genius investigator—a tradition that goes all the way back to the mystery genre’s inception with Edgar Allan Poe’s Auguste Dupin stories and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. With The Name of the Rose (1980)Eco offers a hyper-intellectual pastiche of that archetype with a murder mystery set in a 14th century Italian convent in which a bumbling Benedictine novice, Adso, describes the crime-solving antics of his master, a monk named William of Baskerville.

From: Publisher's Weekly