From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
A narrator (female narratress) is an entity within a story that tells the story to the reader. It is one of three entities responsible for story-telling of any kind. The others are the author and the reader (or audience). The author and the reader both inhabit the real world. It is the author's function to create the alternate world, people, and events within the story. It is the reader's function to understand and interpret the story. The narrator exists within the world of the story (and only there—although in non-fiction the narrator and the author can share the same persona, since the real world and the world of the story are the same) and presents it in a way the reader can comprehend.
A narrator tells the story from their point of view.
The concept of the unreliable narrator (as opposed to Author) became more important with the rise of the novel in the 18th Century. Until the late 1800s, literary criticism as an academic exercise dealt solely with poetry (including epic poems like the Iliad and Paradise Lost, and poetic drama like Shakespeare). Most poems did not have a narrator distinct from the author. But novels, with their immersive fictional worlds, created a problem, especially when the narrator's views differed significantly from that of the author.
Types of narrator
A writer's choice of narrator is crucial for the way a work of fiction is perceived by the reader. Generally, a first-person narrator brings greater focus on the feelings, opinions, and perceptions of a particular character in a story, and on how the character views the world and the views of other characters. If the writer's intention is to get inside the world of a character, then it is a good choice, although a third-person limited-omniscient narrator is an alternative that doesn't require the writer to reveal all that a first-person character would know. By contrast, a third-person omniscient narrator gives a panoramic view of the world of the story, looking into many characters and into the broader background of a story. A third-person omniscient narrator can tell feelings of every character. For stories in which the context and the views of many characters are important, a third-person narrator is a better choice. However, a third-person narrator does not need to be an omnipresent guide, but instead may merely be the protagonist referring to himself in the third person.
A writer may choose to let several narrators tell the story from different points of view. Then it is up to the reader to decide which narrator seems most reliable for each part of the story. See for instance the works of Louise Erdrich. William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying is a prime example of the use of multiple narrators. Faulkner employs stream of consciousness by narrating the story from the first person view of multiple characters. Each chapter is devoted to the voice of a single character after whom it is titled.
An unreliable narrator is a force behind the power of first person narratives, and provides the only unbiased clues about the character of the narrator. To some extent all narrators are unreliable, varying in degree from trust-worthy Ishmael in Moby-Dick to the mentally disabled Benjy in The Sound and the Fury and the criminal Humbert Humbert in Lolita. Other notable examples of unreliable narrators include the butler Stevens in The Remains of the Day, Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, Chief Bromden in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Verbal Kint in the film The Usual Suspects. One of the most famous examples of an unreliable narrator in American literature is Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby. All of Henry James's fiction is based on the narrator's point of view and the limitations of their narrations and the motivation behind what they reveal.
Unreliable narrators aren't limited to fiction. Memoirs, autobiographies and autobiographical fiction have the author as narrator and character. Sometimes the author purposely makes his narrator persona unreliable such as Jim Carroll in The Basketball Diaries.
- Film theory
- First-person narrative
- Literary criticism
- Literary theory
- Point of view (literature)
- Style (fiction)