the ultimate first person narrator

I’m not a huge fan of first person narration. In fact, I will admit that I often pick up a book and put it down immediately upon discovering that it is in first person.

A few exceptions: first, novels that are written in alternating first person narration often work quite well. The most recent novel I can remember reading that really pulled this off was Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper. Each person in a family terribly disrupted by the serious illness of one of the kids takes a turn, and with every turn the reader’s understanding of the story evolves.

There’s one approach to first person that I truly like, and that’s the unreliable narrator.

The way to think about this, or at least a way that worked for me when I was teaching this stuff, is to imagine that the story you’re reading, the narrator whose words you are reading are not being addressed to you, but to a police officer or judge or some other authority figure. You’re listening to somebody spin a story. A narrator who has got more than the usual stake in getting their side of the story across. We’re not talking the grandma narrator, the one who just wants to amuse you with funny stories of her girlhood. We’re talking grandma in the pokey, and the first time she sits down with her lawyer.

The first grandma might start:

We were poor, but I didn’t know that until I first went to school and found out that other little girls wore dresses that weren’t made out of flour sacks.

Grandma in the pokey might start:

It took you long enough to get here. Surely you must realize there’s been a mistake. If I shoot a man between the eyes — and I’m not denying that I did just that — you had best believe I was acting in self defense. To let that man live even another minute would have been the death of me.

The first grandma may have a great story to tell, and she may write it down and sell it and find a niche audience and do very well. This Mitford-type approach is not so much my cuppa tea. I’m far more interested in the second grandma, grandma with a gun. She’s got a story to tell, but it’s only going to be one layer of a very complicated story, and I’ll have to pay close attention because now and then she’ll let her guard down and I’ll get a glimpse of what was really happening, how she came to shoot her neighbor, the one who grew prize winning dahlias, between the eyes.

You can think of a lot of scenarios where the narrator is going to be unreliable. Joan’s car is sitting in the garage with one fender smashed in, a ticket on the windshield, and the unmistakable smell of a common Illegal Substance wafting out a broken window. And the gas tank, which was full yesterday afternoon at three, is on empty.

Joan walks upstairs to the bedroom her twin daughters share and wakes them less than gently. They peek at her from underneath the covers.

Speak, says Joan. And it better be good.

And the speak. Oh boy, do they.

All first person narrators are unreliable to some extent. They are limited by their own observations and memories, by necessity. But a true unreliable narrator is exciting. That narrator is a cat in a sack. Maybe a really mad cat with very long claws and a score to settle. Maybe a desperate little cat whose been lying so long to protect herself that she’s forgot how to tell the truth. Or maybe an evil cat, one who likes to mess with your mind. Purr and slash, just for the hell of it.

Two unreliable narrators come to mind first. Eudora Welty’s “Why I live at the P.O.” is a wonderful short story with a narrator who will stick around in your head for a long time. And then there’s Stephen King’s Dolores Claiborne. Dolores is a fantastic unreliable narrator, because she herself isn’t completely sure what happened, and what she wants to happen. She’s got strong opinions and she’s not afraid to tell you exactly what’s on her mind. Or at least, the parts she can bear to speak out loud.

Any unreliable narrators you’re especially fond of?

9 Replies to “the ultimate first person narrator”

  1. Dr. James Shepherd from Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. He’s the first one I’ve ever encountered so he stuck in my mind as a perfect example.

  2. Jake Danser in The Confession by Dominic Stansberry. This book is one of the Hard Case Crime books with the fun pulp covers.

  3. The vampire Lestat in the Ann Rice Book of the same name, actauly there were a few in the Ann Rice books, though they weren’t exclusivly first person…I think, bin a while since I’ve read them.

  4. Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird is still my sentimental favorite in this category.

    For me the problem isn’t 1st person narration; it’s *compelling* and well-crafted 1st person narration. I adore, for example, what Charlaine Harris has done with Sookie Stackhouse in her Southern Vampire series, and I think it’s essential to have a telephathic protagonist narrate her own story, because that’s where the dramatic tension is centered. On the other hand, it’s grown very tiresome for me to have Betsy narrate the MaryJanice Davidson Undead series, in part because Betsy’s growth as a character has been relatively slow (or maybe it’s just that the books are too short to notice) and the joke of having a non-genius character embrace her own shallowness isn’t so funny anymore.

  5. I am curious about the Eudora Welty story you mentioned (having never read it before five minutes ago)- why is the narrator especially unreliable? I realize that she is telling the story, shaping it to fit her needs, but is she flat out lying? Or am I misunderstanding the unreliable narrator?

  6. TT — that’s the question. Is she lying? How can you tell? What do the lies tell you about her and the situation?

    To everybody else, a confession: I have never read a single Agatha Christie. Not one.

  7. I liked Penelope in Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad, where she justifies her conduct during Odysseus’s absense and upon his return when her 12 maids are hung for covorting with the invading soldiers. Very quick, complex read with an incredibly untrustworthy narration from Penelope, and it was particularly funny how she described her cousin, Helen :)

  8. Ivy Rowe from Fair and Tender Ladies (Lee Smith). She weaves this incredible tale all the while telling us how she “misremembers” things. Wonderful book.

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