What makes a narrator ‘reliable’? (Research digest)


Reading time: 5 minutes

Reliable and unreliable narration have been widely debated within literary scholarship over the last half century. However, as Terence Murphy notes, significantly more attention has been paid to trying to figure out how an impression of narratorial unreliability is constructed than has been paid to working out how and why a narrator might be believed to be reliable. Murphy also refers to Wayne Booth’s seminal book The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961) which contains Booth’s discussion of narratorial reliability and unreliability.  Here, Booth suggests that Nick Carraway, the first-person narrator of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1922), is a good example of a reliable narrator. On this basis, Murphy offers a brief discussion of the key critical debates around the concepts of reliability and unreliability, and also of the relative scope for perceived un/reliability of first-person narration in contrast to third-person narration, which is usually considered more distant and objective. Picking up the example of Nick Carraway, Murphy then suggests that there are five ‘determinants’ of reliable narration in first-person fiction, and argues that unreliability is created through departure from or absence of those determinants. He presents these five determinants as a model which can be used as a critical tool to discuss the relative reliability of any first-person narrator.

Murphy’s five determinants of reliability

1) Narration from a place of security, at the place where the narrator was born or has settled. Murphy points out that Carraway narrates from “back home” (Fitzgerald 1990 [1922]: 167), which, Murphy suggests, is testament to Nick’s maturity and freedom.

2) Use of the ‘middle’ style of standard English (as according to classical rhetoric), neither colloquial and marked by representation of accent and dialect, nor poetic, ornate, sophisticated and opaque. Nick’s language is of this ‘middle’ style.

3) Observer-narrator status. Nick Carraway is an example of a narrator who is not the main character in the story, but instead tells the story of that main character. Nick’s own role in the plot is limited.

4) Ethical maturity and a conventional moral stance. Nick Carraway has been through the trials of the First World War, which has tested and developed his moral beliefs, and which earns him respect.

5) Retrospective re-evaluation or re-interpretation of another character. Murphy contrasts plot structures which centre upon a hero’s journey, or upon a new self-realisation on the part of the first-person narrator, with plot structures which centre upon the observer-narrator’s re-evaluation of another character. In The Great Gatsby, Murphy argues, the climax of the plot is Nick’s re-interpretation and new understanding of Gatsby, which replaces Nick’s prior impressions.

Murphy’s discussion of each of the five determinants exposes some complexities and caveats within the model. Problems include issues arising in the case of the narrator who is reliably conveying his or her perspective, but whose perspective is naïve, or whose stance is psychologically or morally deviant. At the heart of these issues is the broader problem of the relativity and subjectivity of perspectives on events, and the relationship between notions of perceived reliability and the possibility of a single ‘truth’, or ‘true’ rendering of events. Murphy presents his own views on these issues, and coins some terms to help him handle them (such as ‘standpoint limitation’, related to multiple narrators). The model, and the critical complexities with which it engages, offer a useful springboard for exploration of narratorial un/reliability.

This is a digest of the following article: Murphy, T. P. (2012) ‘Defining the reliable narrator: The marked status of first-person fiction’, Journal of Literary Semantics 41, 67-87.

Using this in teaching and learning

You can use this research digest to support your teaching of AQA’s AS and A level English Language and Literature specifications in the following ways. 

  1. Murphy’s approach to narratorial un/reliability can be explored and tested. Here is one set of activities through which a class can explore his ideas.
  • Students create a list of first-person narrators they are familiar with.
  • Students then rank those narrators according to how reliable they feel each to be.
  • Next, students rank them according to how many of Murphy’s determinants are present or departed from in each case.
  • Finally, students compare the two ranked lists to explore correlations and differences, and reflect on whether the relationship between the two lists of rankings supports or undermines Murphy’s claims.

2. An alternative method of exploring Murphy’s model would be to creatively recast the narration (AS level ‘Remembered places’, A-level ‘Writing about society’).

  • Students take the example of the narrator at the top of the second ranking created in activity 1 – that is, the narrator which most closely follows Murphy’s list of determinants – and identify a passage in a text where the most determinants are present.
  • Students then creatively rewrite that instance of narration in one of two ways:

i) Half of the students take care to systematically depart from each of Murphy’s determinants, to aim to create the impression of an unreliable narrator.

ii) The other half of the students rewrite the narration with the same aim – to create the impression of unreliable narration – but without attending to following or departing from Murphy’s determinants at all. Rather, they can follow their intuitions, and experiment with other possible strategies for creating an impression of unreliability (for example, flouting Grice’s maxim of quantity).

  • The students then compare their recast versions, discuss the stylistic choices they made in changing the narration from reliable to unreliable, reflect on how far they achieved their goal of creating an impression of narratorial unreliability, and consider what strategies or ‘determinants’ were most significant or successful in achieving that impression.
  1. Novels can have multiple narrators, as in the case of the frame narratives in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In such cases, two or more different characters might offer their perspective on the same event. Even in fiction with one single narrator, and also in drama with no narrating character, there are often multiple ‘tellers’: characters other than a narrator figure who relay to other characters short narrative reports of particular events. Two characters might narrate the same event at different times to different audiences, or might (collaboratively or competitively) co-narrate an event (AS level’Views and voices’, A-level ‘Telling stories’).

Students can explore instances of an event ‘told’ by multiple tellers, and can:

  • compare the relative impressions of reliability conveyed in each telling, and
  • reflect on the impact upon their interpretation (of the characters and the event) of the author’s choice to provide two tellings, and the choice of presenting them in the particular order given.