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The narrator is the lifeline to storytelling. Without a trustworthy and reliable narrator, readers question what is being told. Novels that experience unreliable first person narrators that cloud facts and manipulate readers cause an array of issues. Without a guiding hand that not only embraces the reader with honestly and dependently, the connection between what is real and what is twisted is uncertain. Life of Pi, The Gathering, and Midnight’s Children all experience the erratic first person narrator; because of this point of view, readers constantly have to struggle in connecting to the character’s motives, beliefs, and stories. When novels are told with deception, the relationship of trust between the reader and narrator diminishes. It is important that the relationship remains consentient, otherwise, interest is lost. Analyzing and comparing first person narration in each of the novels, it will be proven that the point of view contaminates the reliability and in turn, forces readers to step back with doubt and disbelief of intentions, facts, events, and emotions.
To begin with, the narrator’s voice in The Gathering distracts readers from the story’s main dilemma: recalling and piecing together Liam’s molestation and deciphering how that affected his death. Yet, Veronica, through recalling past events from her perspective, only confuses the readers when their focus should be on Liam. Because Veronica is telling the story about her brother, readers are unsure whether she too was molested. The lack of certainty from her memory creates a cloudy narration where Liam, who is the story’s muse, is left out of focuses because the point of view shifts to Veronica’s possible incident, instead of focusing on her brother. Veronica was not the best choice as a narrator because she turns and twists the camera to herself, instead of Liam.
The opening paragraph we sense Veronica is unsure about what happened. In fact, she says, “I am not sure if it really happened” (p.1). Right off the bat, readers are second guessing the validity of the story she is about to tell from her childhood. The fact that she doesn’t know for sure if it (molestation) happened makes the readers unsure about her reliability as a narrator. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that the main character is Liam; the plot revolves around his childhood molestation and recent suicide. The narrator even senses that the novel should be about Liam when she states, “So if I want to tell Liam’s story, then I have to start long before he was born” (p. 13). Yet, instead of simply focusing on her brother’s life in a linear way, Veronica switches the perspective, several times, to her own life: her kids, her husband, and even her college romance. Her “narrative can therefore be said to correspond to the double telling” (Harte p. 189). She tries to tell her brother’s story but only does it half heartedly because she focuses the other half on how the trauma affected her life.
Perhaps it is because “there are eleven months between me (Veronica) and Liam” does she feel ownership to his life, since, “sometimes I think we overlapped” (p.11). Veronica doesn’t not focus on her brother’s molestation but tries to build her life around HIS experience since she feels their lives are one. Veronica does not acknowledge that the rape happened to Liam only. Instead, she assumes that she was raped too. Yet, somehow, her memory forces her to forget. Veronica makes her unreliability as a narrator clear when trying to remember what “is true” (p.144). Here Veronica tells us, “even though I know it is true that this happened, I do not know if I have a true picture in my mind’s eye” (p.144). Veronica narrates the story, not on facts listed to bring understanding or realization to her brother’s death, but on what she remembers, what she knows, or what she feels.
By taking away attention from her brother’s molestation, readers are less conscious to the seriousness. Since it is “Liam’s suicide that causes her to evaluate the origins and extent of her shattered subjectivity” does she even consider the molestation in need of comprehending. (Harte p. 189). Veronica associates herself with her brother’s life, trauma, and death. Yet, because she is not removed from the narration, she becomes too intertwined with piecing together the puzzle of the summer; this cloud’s her reliability as a narrator. If she is not trustworthy enough to tell Liam’s story without comprising what actually happened, she serves no purpose- other than manipulating the reader’s attention to herself.
While a sister, or brother even, is the best choice to help give details about Liam’s life, the siblings should be so close in age. If Veronica remains the narrator, she needs to be more distant from Liam. This is especially true during the summer of the molestation. If the narrator told us about Liam from a third person limited perspective only, meaning that we don’t hear as much about Liam’s feelings, piecing together what really happened by Nugent would be more believable. If the realization is more believable, readers would feel sympathetic to Liam and not the narrator. This is important because Veronica “owe (s) it to Liam to make things clear” (p.223). The significance of Liam’s molestation needs to be taken seriously. The only way to give his life credit, and in turn give recognition that the rape occurred, is to have a narrator that is not selfish in finding and describing his account. We, at least, owe that to Liam.
The narrator’s voice in The Gathering distracted readers from Liam. Because Veronica is telling the story, readers are unsure whether she too was raped. The confusion takes away from Laim and his death. Veronica was not the best choice as a narrator because she turns and twists the camera of reader’s attention to herself, instead of Liam.
Life of Pi, like The Gathering is told in first person. Because he is the only narrator, readers see what he does; the problem is, Pi’s reactions and over simplistic method of analyzing events are unrealistic. Pi is an unreliable narrator and because of that, the book is not represented as well as it could have been if the story was told from a third person omniscient point of view.
The first section of the book is positioned to force the readers to believe in God, but which one? Since Pi believes in three religions at once, we see him as not fully committed to one. Pi is projecting his unreliable quality by believing, whole heartedly, that he can continue living with three religions. Even his mother tries to convince him that multiple religions is not realistic when she says, “if you’re going to be religious, you must either be a Hindu, a Christian, or a Muslim” (p. 73). It is unrealistic that three religions would be comfortable with him serving each. Pi has disregarded the commandment, “Don’t Worship any other God” that is the backbone of Christianity. Because of his desire to worship many religions, he in turn forces the three religious figures to argue for his faith. Pi is unreliable in that he cannot choose one religion despite knowing having multiple religions is a “no-no”.
Another place where Pi proves to be an unrealistic storyteller is when the ship sinks. He waits in the life boat thinking, “the night vanished as quickly as the ship” (p.111). In fact, he tells a sea turtle, “go tell a ship I’m here” (p.123). His entire family, all his animals, all the crew, all the other passengers, and the huge ship just sank and his emotion is calm enough to tell a turtle to find help while he sits in the life boat for three days- barely moving, waiting. That is an unrealistic reaction to the catastrophic situation. He over simplifies events and by doing so, makes readers question, “what’s wrong with him?” Even to back track to before the ship sank, Pi was walking around at night, by himself, because he heard a noise and wanted to go exploring. That is not believable. In fact, readers question if he was really thrown out of the ship and if the animals in the life boat were real because the conflict and events leading up to the sinking seemed to pass without any distress or seriousness.
As the book goes on, the readers follow, blindly, because of the drive to know what comes next. Yet, readers face the same unreliable narrations as Pi tries to survive. For example, Pi survived 227 days at sea. However, Pi describes his activities as almost relaxing and enjoyable. On page 190 he relates his daily schedule to transpire like a fishing trip. He has become, at this point, so comfortable with his situation, that he has “rest and restful actives.”
Surviving, almost conclusively, off the water and its marine life, Pi never states the sickness from eating raw meat for that long. He is very graphic in his relations of Richard Parker’s crap in his mouth yet never exposes himself to being sea sick. He is making certain things simplistic, and by that, almost covering them up by not exposing the difficulty in surviving. Even while eating, Pi does not show the readers the harsh reality of living off the ocean. He is too calm when he says, “I enjoyed my meal as I watched the sun’s descent into a cloudless sky. It was a relaxing moment” (p. 174).
Pi tries to make his situation simple to convince himself, and the readers, his circumstances are not bad or permanent. His lack of seriousness proves he is unrealistic and therefore unable to narrate the storyline with vividness and accuracy. The only reasonable conclusion the readers are left to draw is that Pi wants to be seen as masculine, independent, and able to survive: sickness, over indolence in emotions, and panic that will alter ability to live.
The most obvious place in the book that comments on Pi’s unreliability as a narrator is during chapter ninety one and ninety two. Here, Pi sees another human, who is also blind making his way through the ocean. The man said, “Is someone there” three times. Even Pi questions his sanity when he says, “I conclude that I had gone mad. Sad but true. Misery loves company, and misery calls it forth” (p. 242). Readers are tempted to believe that the person was part of Pi’s imagination. As the conversation goes back and forth, they two talk about figs. In fact, Pi says, “the branches of the trees are bent over, they are so weighed down with figs” (p. 243). Pi is imagining a tree with figs to feed his inner desire not only for food but for lack of human contact. On page 245, Pi states, “madness of the mind is one thing, but it was not fair that it should go to the stomach.” This quote is important because it shows his recognition for insanity. By realizing his “madness”, he proves he is not qualified to narrate the events accurately. Pi’s fictional observation of the tree proves his mind is not sane; because his mind is not sane, how can we believe his narration?
The worst part is when Pi tries to deny his madness, in doing so, he actually adds to it. On page 246, Pi says, “I knew it. I wasn’t hearing voices. I hadn’t gone mad. It was Richard Parker who was speaking to me!” The ironic part is Pi tries so desperately to convince the readers he is not insane by using a talking animal to justify it. At this point, readers are certain Pi is losing his mind. Richard Parker, who “had chosen an hour before we were to die pipe(d) up” (246). Pi was so close to starvation and death that his mind developed a fictional conversation with a tiger as a way to comfort him, as a way to calmly let his life sink onto obligation. It is not believable that he would have a conversation with a man that turned out to be a talking tiger. Pi, once again, shows the readers that he is not fit to tell the story as it actually happened. Since the story is told from an unreliable narrator, we question every action, quote, or sound. Without a third person narration, the story becomes a series of questionable events and insane characters.
If Life of Pi was told from a third person point of view, the readers would be more likely to believe the events, especially if it was third person omniscient. Omniscient point of view, also known as ‘all knowing’, is based purely on observation. Because the novel would be seen from a reliable source, readers would not question validity. Pi is not fit to be the sole provider of information. The novel needs to be told from an omniscient point of view in order for readers to trust the actions. As seen above, Pi offers more confusion and unreliability than successfulness. The only way readers would trust Pi would be to have someone else tell his story. Without a narrator that is trustworthy, readers question the events, characters, and in turn the book as a whole.
Pi is an unreliable narrator because he denies truth to beliefs, events, or realities. Readers question his actions because his response is not typical. His unreliability questions the seriousness of the book’s topic and author’s motivation. Without a serious narrator, readers are left to deny everything and anything from an unreliable source.
Like Life of Pi and The Gathering, Salman Rushdie’s novel Midnight’s Children is also told using first person. Like the other two novels, it too faces unreliable narration. The novel describes ordinary events as magical; for example when Salman describes his grandfather’s nose-bleed: “Aadam Aziz hit his nose against a frost-hardened tussock of earth…three drops of blood plopped out of his left nostril, hardened instantly in the brittle air and…transformed into rubies” (Rushdie, 4). The mockery of the characters forces the narrator to be seen as unreliable.
In fact, according to Linda Hutcheon, “narrators in fiction become either disconcertingly multiple and hard to locate…or resolutely provisional and limited – often undermining their own seeming omniscience” (Hutcheon p. 11). This is demonstrated in the first book of the novel, where Rushdie’s narration moves backwards and forwards in time, with events from future decades taking place during the earliest part of the story. Naturally, this disturbance of time and story-telling convention breaks down the authenticity of both narrator and author. Rushdie’s novel is that of an unstable authenticity. “Saleem gets numerous historical events and dates muddled up as he tries desperately to convince his readers that he is at the centre of India’s history'” (D’Cruz). Readers cannot trust a narrator that confuses date, linear events, and describe characters in an exaggerated way.
The narrator is generally truthful and frequently omniscient. Within Midnight’s Children, this is not the case: at one point, the narrator actually confesses that he has lied: “To tell the truth, I lied about Shiva’s death. My first out-and-out lie – although my presentation of the Emergency in the guise of a six-hundred-and-thirty-five-day-long midnight was perhaps excessively romantic….That’s why I fibbed…I fell victim to the temptation of every autobiographer, to the illusion that since the past exists only in one’s memories” (Rushdie p.619). In fact, Saleem says “What’s real and what’s true aren’t necessarily the same” (Rushdie p. 103). Through this device, Rushdie makes the reader question every detail of the narrative, and becomes unstable.
His relationship with Padma, the novel’s voice of the reader, is also affected by his inability to accurately describe his story. Padma; like a reader, Padma edits and comments upon Saleem’s creation, resisting his attempts to write a story as he chooses: “I must interrupt myself. I wasn’t going to today, because Padma has started getting irritated whenever my narration becomes self-conscious, whenever, like an incompetent puppeteer, I reveal the hands holding the strings” (Rushdie p.83). Because he cannot provide his reader with an authentic history, he gives instead recollections, myths and half-truths: “Instead of satisfaction, he offers her sublimation; instead of History, he offers Padma his histories. By overtly producing these histories for her, Saleem subverts both the causality and continuity of what is traditionally conceived of as patriarchal History” (Hutcheon p.162-3). Saleem repeatedly interrupts his own narrative, for example, he says, “Nose and knees and knees and nose…listen carefully, Padma; the fellow got nothing wrong!” (Rushdie p. 114). Saleem’s inability to combine the subject within history means that he removes authenticity from his tales.
At one point Saleem asks himself “am I so far gone, in my desperate need for meaning that I’m prepared to distort everything to re-write the whole history of my times purely in order to place myself in a central role?” ( Rushdie p. 190). First, he wants to impress Padma and his son with his life story. He explains that “this is what keeps me going: I hold on to Padma. Padma is what matters” (Rushdie p. 337). As he admits, he is “needing-to-be-loved” (Rushdie p. 392), and by crafting his story carefully he can impress Padma with his worth. The uncertainty and anxiety is exaggerated when Padma leaves him. Shortly after he says, “I feel confused . . . in her absence my certainties are falling apart” (Rushdie p. 187).
His other motivation for acting, and acting quickly is his desire to finish the story before his life ends. In the first page he explains, “time (having no further use for me) is running out. I will soon be thirty-one years old. Perhaps. If my crumbling, overused body permits” ( Rushdie p. 3). The “perhaps” suggests his uncertainty with his own mortality he is not certain how much more his body can permit, and throughout the story he says that he “must rush on” (Rushdie p. 475), so that he can finish before an uncertain death. It has become obvious from the examples presented that Saleem is not a reliable narrator; his rush to tell his story and impress Padma clouds his truthfulness as an author.
The significance of having a first person narrator that is unreliable is that readers are left to swift through which details are true, as they process through the book. Readers must understand that the relationship from narrator to readers is rendered differently from a first person view, opposed to a third person point of view. The “so-what” aspect is that novels, such as the three discussed, contaminate the overall interaction. When a narrator exaggerates, lies, manipulates, over-simplifies details, or even uses another character’s trauma to give attention to her own life, the purpose of the novel becomes shady. Novels that use other points of views smooth the transition between reader and author by offering a safe and stable narration.
First person narrations can be tricky when readers are forced to follow them as the only guide throughout the pages. First person storytellers are similar to a blind person giving a tour in a cave; we trust them enough because the shinny name tag says “follow me” but we drag our fingers across the walls, verifying that we really are in cave. It is necessary when reading novels with first person that we recognize the untrustworthiness can reflect negatively on how we see other aspects of the novel. For example, when a narrator describes other characters interacting but we don’t believe the narrator, we in turn do not believe that the other characters look they way they do, talk they way described, or even care about the conversations as much as we could is the narrator was reliable.
Novels need a stable relationship to bond the reader to the story; without a sense of security and trust, readers will not care about characters, events, or the purpose. There is a defiant struggle that must be overcome when trusting unreliable narrators to safely get us out of the cave alive. These three books have proven that caution must be taken when dealing with an untrustworthy point of view.
Life of Pi, The Gathering, and Midnight’s Children all experience the first person narrator; because of its point of view, readers constantly have to struggle to trust. When this happens, the relationship of trust between the reader and narrator is compromised. By comparing first person narration in each of the novels, it was proven that the point of view contaminates the reliability. These three novels shine light on the confusing complexity that has to be overcome when an unreliable narrator takes our hand and drags us through the pages. The narrator will try to deceive us, confuse us, and even manipulate us in believing the exaggerations, but, we must move forward through the pages as smoothly as possible, if not for the narrator, then for Liam, Padma, and Richard Parker’s sake.
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