Chapter IV of Henry Fielding’s novel Tom Jones (1749) begins with a description of the home of a Mr. Allworthy, as seen from the crest of a hill above the house. It’s a beautiful May morning, with the sun gorgeously illuminating the scene. In our mind’s eye, with the help of the narrator of course, we see not just the Allworthy house but the valley below, the surrounding woods, and a distant ridge of mountains whose peaks here and there poke into puffy clouds. It’s like a scene from a painting at which we can safely gaze—until, suddenly, Fielding’s narrator catches himself with an expression of alarm:
Reader, take care, I have unadvisedly led thee to the Top of as high a Hill as Mr. Allworthy’s, and how to get thee down without breaking they Neck, I do not well know. However, let us e’en venture to slide down together, for Miss Bridget rings her Bell, and Mr. Allworthy is summoned to Breakfast, where I must attend, and, if you please, shall be glad of your Company. (43-44)
Of course the Reader is not in any real danger, no matter how imaginatively immersed she or he might be in the book. The narrator’s sudden sense of caution is a rhetorical flourish, a kind of playful, imaginative banter that adds a little spice and lubricant to the reader-writer relationship. But it also tells us a lot about the relationship that Fielding thinks of himself as having with his reader. The reader is clearly in his hands—under his protection, so to speak. He is the gentlemanly tour guide who points out the sights to us, explains what we are looking at, and accompanies us at every step so we don’t get into too much confusion or trouble.
It’s hard to imagine a narrator in a 21st Century work of fiction (or even a 20th Century one for that matter) adopting this tone and attitude toward the reader—at least if we rule out the possibility of parody or irony. It may be that we have become too suspicious of the motives behind others’ words, or maybe just too aware of the complex subjectivity of the human individual, to place ourselves so unreservedly in the care of another–even if that “other” is a fictionalized narrator. It would seem that in our own skeptical century the kind of trust one invests in the “authority” of a narrator is a relic of a pre-modern age, one woven from a very different social and philosophical fabric than our own.
Fielding’s work is often contrasted with that of his contemporary, Samuel Richardson, whose novels reflect a much more modern attitude toward storytelling. Richardson’s major works (Pamela and Clarissa) are epistolary novels–they are made up entirely of letters exchanged among the various characters in the story. There is no narrator to guide us, to tell us whom to trust, what to think of the actions and thoughts being described, or how to orient ourselves in the surrounding landscape. In other words, there is no one there to “help us down the hill,” as Fielding’s narrator stands ready to do. In fact, we are not on a hill at all, but down in the murky morass of tangled individual human perception, motives, and power struggles.
As Ian Watt notes in his book The Rise of the Novel, the contrast between Fielding’s work and Richardson’s reflects a paradigm shift that was vexing Western societies in the mid-Eighteenth Century. An older social and epistemological order–one in which aristocratic elites were regarded as the custodians of the interests of the wider society—was gradually, painfully giving way to an emerging capitalist-democratic order in which individuals were responsible for their own interests, including their own understanding of themselves and the world around them. (The American and French revolutions that occurred at that century’s end were maybe the clearest and most dramatic expressions of this paradigm shift.)
In other words, the reader’s relationship to events and characters in a novel began much more to resemble his or her relationship to events and people in real life. The reader is much more “on his or her own,” so to speak, in trying to assess the motives of characters, the significance of events, and—most relevant for my discussion here—the trustworthiness of the narrator, especially when that narrator is a first-person storyteller who is also a participant in the story.
To illustrate the profound change that has occurred since Fielding’s time in our expectations regarding the narration in fictional works, consider the assertion of Nick Carraway, the narrator of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. At the end of Chapter Three, Nick pauses the action to tell the reader: “Every one suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people I have ever known” (59).
For most contemporary readers Nick’s assertion has the same effect as a politician’s denial that he is a crook; the very fact that he says it raises red flags of skepticism in us. (If you Google this quote, you will find dozens of discussion threads with titles like “Is Nick Carraway Honest?” or “Nick Carraway: An Honest Liar?”) This is because we are aware that Fitzgerald intends us to take Nick not as an authoritative commentator who is above the action (“on the hill,” so to speak) but as a complex, fallible human being just like ourselves. That is to say, we may assume that his perceptions (including self-perception) are not infallible or disinterested, but are colored by emotions, values, and experiences particular to him as an individual.
(I think we can see right away how this is different, both in terms of Fitzgerald’s narration and our expectations, from the reader-narrator relationship that is cultivated in that passage from Tom Jones.)
I bring this up because I think our skeptical 21st-Century impulses tend to conflate the psychological and epistemological properties of a narrator like Nick, often at the expense of the larger significance of the story such a narrator might be telling.
If “objectivity” or authoritative commentary on events is what we want from a narrator, we’re not going to get it from Nick. Like us, his information is limited by his own perception, and much of it is compromised by the fact that it is hearsay from others in the story (Jordan Baker for instance) who themselves have a casual relationship with the truth. Furthermore, he announces his prejudice in favor of Gatsby at the very beginning of the story (even though he also tells us that Gatsby “represented everything for which I have unaffected scorn” (2).
Given the subjective and sometimes suspicious nature of Nick’s information, given his confused and divided feelings about the novel’s main character, Jay Gatsby, I think it is natural for us to question whether we can take him as the “honest man” he claims to be at the end of Chapter 3. Jordan Baker, who miscalculates Nick’s feelings for her, thinks not; near the end of the novel she says that she “guessed wrong” in thinking him an “honest, straightforward person” (177). My own feeling is that Nick is as honest as he knows how to be as a psychologically realized character whose knowledge and understanding—including of himself—are subject to normal human limitations and the extraordinary circumstances of his relationship with Gatsby himself.
But this is a different question from another one that I have frequently heard raised in discussions of the novel—that is, the question of whether Nick is a “reliable narrator.” When used in reference to character-narrators like Nick the concept of “reliability” is often confused and conflated with that of “honesty” or “objectivity.” At the risk of making a distinction that will seem too subtle to some, I will say that “reliability” is a quality that attaches to Nick as a narrator in a literary work (in other words, it is about his place in the novel as a whole), while qualities like “honesty” or “objectivity” attach to Nick in his role as a psychologically realized character in interaction with other characters.
In making this distinction I am relying on the critic Wayne Booth, who coined the term “reliability” (at least insofar as it applies to narrators in works of literature) and defined a “reliable narrator” as “one who speaks for an acts in accordance with the norms of the work” (158-59). What a “reliable narrator” provides is not accuracy or objectivity per se, but advocacy or faithful representation of the predominant values or concerns of the work as a whole. And by “work as a whole” we mean not just the words and thoughts of the narrator, but the meanings conveyed by all of the literary elements that make up a work of imaginative fiction–plot, character, symbolism, allusion to other cultural or historical references outside the work itself.
The example I’ve been discussing, The Great Gatsby, is a very subtle and complicated work, and one might put forward different hypotheses about what Booth would call its “norms.” But I’ll ask you to accept my own hypothesis about Fitzgerald’s novel, for purposes of illustration here.
One of the major conflicts in the novel is between what we might call the “old-money” worldview of the Buchanans and the “new-money” worldview of Gatsby. The Buchanans (especially Tom) are portrayed as spiritually empty, ruthlessly and unscrupulously clinging to their hereditary social and monetary privilege, closing ranks against possible usurpers like people of color and come-from-nowhere upstarts like Gatsby himself. For Tom money is all about power–especially about keeping it and using it to keep others down and under his thumb.
Gatsby by contrast sees money as an almost visionary medium, as something that can make “dreams come true,” even rekindling the long-lost dream of a love relationship with Daisy, Tom’s wife. Tom’s worldview makes him boorish, aggressive, paranoid, and ungracious; Gatsby’s worldview makes him (at least on the surface, and at least to Nick) civil, reticent, loyal, and generous. But, of course, Tom is a respectable citizen and Gatsby is a gangster whose friends make their cufflinks out of the molars of men they have had killed.
Nick is not just the narrator of the story; he is the “swing character” who observes the claims of both of these worldviews (and the characters who represent them) and who in the end must choose between them. In my own understanding of the novel there is no doubt which of these two contrasting characters–Buchanan or Gatsby–represents the predominant “norms” or values of the book as a whole. It’s Gatsby, despite his gangsterism and his visionary excesses. And Nick does choose to align himself with these values–in fact he declares his choice in the first few paragraphs of the novel.
Because he is the narrator, and because his own interpretation of the events he narrates points us toward rather than away from the dominant values or “norms” of the novel as a whole, he is (in my view at least) a “reliable narrator” in Booth’s definition. Nick may at times be a jerk or unfair to other characters (Jordan Baker for instance); he may at times finesse or even omit certain scenes that might cast himself in an uncomfortable light (for instance, the strange narrative gap at the end of Chapter 2, during which he may or may not have a sexual encounter with a man named McKee). But these things are simply evidence of Nick’s complex humanity, part of his function as a character in the novel, and raise issues that are separate from his performance as a narrator vis-à-vis the question of his reliability.
It’s not hard to imagine a version of the story of The Great Gatsby told by a third-person, omniscient narrator (one that looks more like Fielding’s narrator in Tom Jones, showing us the view from the hill, than Carraway’s often blinkered ground-level view). In fact, that’s pretty much what we get in the film versions (both Robert Redford and Leo DeCaprio), where the roving eye of the camera performs the function of the all-knowing, all-seeing narrator.
But most who know are familiar with the book come away from these film versions with the feeling that some essential qualities of the story have been lost, and that the expression of the story’s “norms” is somehow too obvious and lacking in impact when not experienced through the partly clouded window of Nick’s character. Fitzgerald wants us to apprehend the story’s norms slowly, with some effort of discernment, so that our understanding will feel more precious because it is hard-won. While Nick’s complex humanity may at times obscure or distract, I don’t think he ever really misdirects us with respect to the novel’s dominant norms or values. And that is what makes his narration reliable.
It’s also possible to re-imagine the novel as told from Tom Buchanan’s point of view, with pretty much the same facts in evidence. Tom might actually provide us with a more straightforward, factual, and complete account of Gatsby than Nick does; Tom certainly has more resources to ferret out “the truth” about the source of Gatsby’s wealth. But if the “norms” of the novel as described above were held constant, then Tom would function as an “unreliable narrator,” since absent a character transplant he would not be capable of “speaking and acting in accordance with the norms of the work.” And Fitzgerald would have to devise a way of signaling Tom’s unreliability–through plot developments, through the words of other characters, or perhaps simply through outright satirical exaggeration (and thus implicit critique) of Tom’s own personality and attitudes.
Unreliability of this sort is usually employed by authors for ironic effect, to highlight the norms of the work as a whole; an example of this would be Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance, in which the narrator, Coverdale, is a virulent misogynist whose narration only serves to intensify that novel’s predominantly feminist norms. On the flip side, we can look at Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-paper,” in which a woman is slowly driven mad by her doctor-husband’s paternalistic (and psychologically toxic) treatment of her post-partum depression. Even as her narration becomes delusional and insane (and thus certainly not accurate in an objective sense), it also faithfully, even powerfully, expresses the story’s norms of female aspiration, self-determination, and solidarity–thus making her a “reliable narrator” despite her descent into madness.
(For an in-depth discussion of these matters–including definitions that depart from or complicate the one I am relying on here–see the Dan Shen’s entry “Unreliability” at http://wikis.sub.uni-hamburg.de/lhn/index.php)
Booth, Wayne. The Rhetoric of Fiction. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1961.
Fielding, Henry. The History of Tom Jones: A Foundling. 1745. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 1975.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. 1925. New York: Scribner’s, 2004.
Watt, Ian. The Rise of the Novel. Berkeley: U of California P, 1957.