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Elizabeth McKinney

Dr. Pitts
World Literature
The Truth about Narratives and Narrators
One of the best examples of irony in human culture is our search for truth in works of
fiction. We are constantly looking for a certain version of reality in the stories we read. The
problem with this search where the irony appears is that narrative truth does not exist. There
can be no factual truth in fiction, and we find lies in even the most accurate autobiographies.
Peter Goldie wrote a book titled Narrative, Truth, Life, and Fiction, in which he said fiction can
aspire to be true to life, to have poetic truth, and much else besides, but none of these aspirations
are aspirations to be true period (153). This leads to the question of reliable narrators: if there is
no narrative truth, can we believe anything the narrators tell us? If a literary work, fiction or
nonfiction, is meant to aspire to be as true as possible, the narrator should also be reliable.
Its important to define the terms in question. According to An Introduction to Literature,
Criticism and Theory, a narrator is the person or persona who is telling a story (Bennett and
Royle, 324-25). This definition is expanded into types of narrators: a so-called omniscient
narrator appears to know everything, an intrusive narrator gives his/her own comments and
opinions on the story . . . a first-person narrator presents himself or herself in the story as I, a
third-person narrator speaks of him or her characters as she, he, etc. (324-25). This book also
defines an unreliable narrator as a narrator who cannot be trusted for some reason (e.g. he or she
is prejudiced, exaggerating, lying) (324-25). The book further defines narrative as the
recounting of a series of events and the establishing of some (casual/temporal) reaction between

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them (324). Tilmann Koppe and Tom Kindts article Unreliable Narration With a Narrator and
Without says a narrator is deemed unreliable if his account deviates from the norms of the
work (81). Later, Koppe and Kindt say a narrative is unreliable if the narrative cannot be
trusted or if a fictional narrator distorts the fictional facts (82).
Narrative truth is very complex, but in its most basic form, it is the accuracy of a story.
According to Maya Benish-Weismans article Between Trauma and Redemption: Story Form
Differences in Immigrant Narratives of Successful and Nonsuccessful Immigration, narrative
truth is revealed to us through word choices, the repetition of some elements and omission of
others, and narrative structure (954). In fictional works, the story can have some parallels to
reality, but since they are fiction, these parallels cannot be realistically true. Even in nonfiction,
we find that narrative truth is often nonexistent. One of the best examples of this is the fake
autobiographies that are becoming increasingly more prevalent. One of the earliest false memoirs
we have records of is Davy Crockett. This autobiography takes the form of a journal and tells
the story of his journey from Tennessee to San Antonio. The truth is that this is a biography
written about Davy Crockett by Richard Penn Smith and Charles T. Beale.
There are also different kinds of narrative truth. There is the broad narrative truth, which
is how accurate the writing is in general. There is also historical narrative truth, which concerns
how closely the narrative follows the history of the actual events in the work. Emotional truth is
another factor; it occurs when the narrators emotions influence his or her perspective, which in
turn influences how the reader interprets the story. Finally, there is fictional truth: in a fictional
work, the parts of the story that are consistent with the fictional world in which the story takes
place are considered true, in the context of the story.
Even in autobiographies that are proven to be historically accurate, it is easy to see where

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the narrative truth might be inaccurate or misleading. Authors emotions and opinions can cloud
their judgment of events, which garbles how the event is presented to the reader. Memory also
plays a role in this issue. Even a person with a photographic memory cant remember everything
exactly. Memories are lostespecially memories from childhood. Memories are tainted from
injuries, drugs, or illness. While autobiographies may be mostly accurate and totally sincere, they
cannot possibly be completely true.
The distortion of the idea of narrative truth is seen best in fictional works with unreliable
narrators. A very well-known example of an unreliable narrator is Chief Bromden from One
Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, written by Ken Kesey. The author intended this novel to be
emotionally true and somewhat historically accurate, but by creating an unreliable narrator, the
author makes the novel narratively untrue. The Chief suffers from a mental illness most likely
schizophrenia and often experiences symptoms of this disorder while telling the story. Because
of his schizophrenia, he will often hallucinate and see other characters growing or shrinking or
the walls oozing with slime. Another way the Chief is unreliable is that he spends most of the
novel pretending to be deaf and dumb; he does not speak or react to anyone who speaks to him.
He can hear and speak, however, so he is committing a lie of omission by pretending he cannot.
Although the reader knows that he can both hear and speak, the reader is unaware of what else he
is omitting from the story. This makes the Chief an unreliable narrator and therefore makes the
reader hesitant to accept his story at face value.
On the other hand, there are narrators who were written to be reliable but ultimately
distort the narrative truth in the literary work. One example of this is Tambu, the narrator in Tsitsi
Dangarembgas novel Nervous Conditions. The reader thinks Tambu is reliable and telling the
truth because she is young and appears to have a childlike innocence and sense of honesty. It is

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also clear that this novel is fairly historically accurate. All of the events that are recounted are
certainly plausible.
By reading just a little bit closer, however, it is easy to see that Tambu lets her emotions
guideand cloudher storytelling. According to the other two types of narrative truth
fictional and emotionalTambus story is true fictionally but it is difficult to determine whether
it is emotionally accurate or not. Tambu often lets her emotions subjectify her narrative truth.
This therefore impairs the perception the reader has of the events in Tambus story. For example,
Tambu disagrees with the idea of her parents wedding from the moment she hears about it. Every
time she mentions it in the story, she says something negative about it and even refuses to attend.
It isnt until the wedding is over and Tambu sees pictures from the ceremony that she says I was
sure I should have gone. But I had not seen them before I had made my decision and the decision
at least was mine (Dangarembga 168). Here, Tambu almost acknowledges that she let her
emotions get in the way of her objective judgment, but she doesnt let herself accept that and
continues to tell the story subjectively. This distorts her emotional truth, because the reader can
see her hesitation, but it also mars the fictional truth, because the reader is presented with
Tambus mostly negative thoughts, rather than also getting the positive side of the wedding. This
scenario shows that Tambu is unreliable as a narrator because instead of presenting the emotional
parts of her life objectively, she lets her feelings get in the way. This forces the reader to see her
perspective instead of being able to choose which side of the story he or she agrees with.
Bennett and Royle quoted Barbara Hernstein Smith in their book, who said that instead of
reading a work as a series of events,
. . . we need to ground our understanding of narratives in terms of someone telling
someone else something that happened (Smith 1981, 228). The significance of this

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proposition is that it directs our focus from the events or actions themselves to the
relationship between the author or teller and the reader or listener. As Jonathon Culler has
put it, to tell a story is to claim a certain authority, which listeners grant (Culler 1997,
89). (58-59)
If we consider Hernstein and Cullers way of reading, we have to look at a story as a part of a
conversation between the author and ourselves. In order to accurately measure the storys merit,
we must consider our relationship with the author. Does the author owe us anything? Is there
any reason for the author to lie to us? The answers to these difficult questions can help us, the
readers, decide how much we are willing to believe from the author.
If narrative truth does not exist in fiction, and does not exist entirely even in nonfiction, it
is difficult to determine what we can believe, and this makes it even more difficult to perceive a
narrator as completely reliable. This does not mean we should be skeptical about everything we
read. We do need to remember that works of fiction, even though they can be based on actual
events, people, or places, are not real, and should not be read as nonfiction. Even nonfiction,
though, needs to be taken with a grain of salt and a dose of research. In a world where
information is abundantly available to anyone who wants it, we need to remember to take a step
back and look at a work objectively when we are looking for any amount of narrative, emotion,
fictional, or even historical truth in a literary work of any genre.

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Works Cited
Benish-Weisman, Maya. "Between Trauma and Redemption: Story Form Differences in
Immigrant Narratives of Successful and Nonsuccessful Immigration." Journal of CrossCultrual Psychology 40.6 (2009): 953-68. Web. 19 Dec. 2013.
Bennett, Andrew, and Nicholas Royle. An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory. 4th
ed. Great Britain: Pearson, 2009. Print.
Goldie, Peter. Narrative, Truth, Life, and Fiction. N.p.: Oxford University Press, 2012. Oxford
Scholarship Online. Web. 11 Dec. 2013.
Koppe, Tilmann, and Tom Kindt. Unreliable Narration With a Narrator and Without. Journal
of Literary Theory (18625290)5.1 (2011): 81-93. Humanities International Complete.
Web. 11 Dec. 2013.