The Glasgow Review Issue 3
Unreliable Narrators: Poor Things and its Paradigms
So soon as the plain tale began to evolve into the novel, narrative prose developed sub- structures which complicated their parent form. The effect was to allow to the various events narrated appreciably more than their apparent signficance. One of the most successful of these sub-structures was the device of the unreliable narrator. This was used for more than two hundred years before its existence was explicitly defined for the first time by Wayne C Booth in his seminal study, The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961).
The unreliable narrator will appear imperceptive when confronted with a situation subject to decoding different from his own. This decoding constitutes an interpretation brought about by evidence in the narrative not available to him, but recognized by the reader. Thus, there occurs a complicity between text and reader, from which the unreliable narrator is excluded.
In an extreme instance, an unreliable narrator may be identified as one whose vision is disturbed. What he sees as reality, the reader will reject as delusion. The unreliable narrator takes as fact that which the evidence in the text contradicts. His word cannot therefore be accepted by a reasonable person. The unreliable narrator may not be insane, but he may, if we take the text as 'centre', be eccentric. The unreliable narrator tends to be embittered (rather than disillusioned); paranoid (rather than wary); inexperienced (rather than innocent); self-absorbed (rather than self- aware).
Henry Fielding affords an early example. The eponymous hero of Tom Jones is provided with a counterpoise in the shape of the Man of the Hill. This old gentleman's story has sometimes been thought an excrescence upon the main plot, and so it would be, if we were to take his word at its face value. Yet the plain facts of his story show him to have been a drunkard, a lecher, a thief, a gamester, and worse. More than that, he has learned nothing from his various experiences. He has travelled the world, but admits to have spoken with none but postilions. He professes an enthusiasm for nature, but tells us nothing of his observations. Now approaching the end of his life, he lives as a recluse, incongruously dressed as Robinson Crusoe in cap, boots and the skins of animals. Though he claims to be secure in the unfrequented spot where he lives, Tom Jones first encounters him being attacked by ruffians.
The Man of the Hill is a mass of contradictions. He extols God, but assures Tom that he deprecates Christians in favour of Turks. He praises all parts of Creation except mankind, whom he denounces. When Tom points out the extreme limitation of the old man's acquaintance, he replies ad hominem, that a person as young as Tom cannot be expected to know anything. His discourse reveals an ignorance of himself, and consequently of human nature at large, which has trapped him in this shallow cynicism. The game is given away at every step by the gap between his assumption that his arguments are valid and the hollowness with which they are voiced. At the climax of his revelations the prose, were it not in character, could be typified as turgid and grandiloquent, larded as it is with adjectives such as 'glorious', 'immortal', 'eternal', 'stupendous', 'divine', 'ineffable', 'incomprehensible', 'glorious'. The Man of the Hill assumes the mantle of wisdom, but shows himself to be morally blinkered.
The cynical attitudes here deployed serve as a contrast to the personality of Tom Jones. Unlike the Man of the Hill, Tom seeks acquaintance with people in every walk of life and, as the novel proceeds, develops into a maturity which is the reverse of cynicism.
Fielding was, in many respects, the master of Dickens, who used the technique of the unreliable narrator on several occasions. None of these is more telling than 'The History of a Self- Tormentor', which occurs as a quasi-independent episode in Little Dorrit. Here the unfulfilled Lesbian, Miss Wade, tells her own story with a paranoid slant that prevents the reader accepting her overt interpretation.
At school, Miss Wade admits to focusing her attention exclusively upon one particular girl. The girl in question, however, has other friends, and 'could distribute, and did distribute, pretty looks and smiles to every one among them'. It is plain that Miss Wade is obsessional. That emphasis on 'distribute' would begin to sow suspicion, even in a trusting reader. As a young adult, Miss Wade goes as a governess to the family of a poor nobleman. Here, she feels her ascendancy over the children to be undermined by 'a nurse...a rosy-faced woman always making an obtrusive pretence of being gay and good-humoured'. All 'pretence' is in Miss Wade's own mind. The reader may infer that the children are put off by her tension, not by any activity on the part of the nurse. In fact the nurse attempts to protect her, warning the children, 'Don't make a noise, my dears, her head aches'.
The reader has only Miss Wade's word for it that such attentions are hypocritical, and the exaggerated tone of her narrative precludes belief. As with the Man of the Hill, the drift of Miss Wade's vocabulary is symptomatic of unreliability. Words of negative import obtrude in these domestic situations: 'misfortune', 'suspicion', 'perfidy', ''gonies', and the like. Indeed, an overt violence breaks out: 'rather than suffer so, I could so hold her in my arms and plunge to the bottom of a river - where I would still hold her, after we were both dead'; 'I would burn my sight away by throwing myself into the fire, rather than I would endure to look at their plotting faces'. Such statements disperse the credit of the person voicing them.
One would assume from this that the gap between narrative levels, reliable and unreliable, is clear. There have been cases, however, when an insufficiently alert reader could have been confused. Such an instance occurs in Robert Louis Stevenson.
The protagonist of The Master of Ballantrae is never fairly set before the reader. He appears as seen by two equally unreliable narrators. One is Ephraim Mackellar, a painstaking Edinburgh graduate, steward to Lord Durrisdeer, whose limits are delineated by his methodical prose style. He proves himself to be obsessionally hostile to Lord Durrisdeer's elder son. This elder son, the Master of Ballantrae of the title, is a fugitive from the Stuart rebellion of 1745. Consequently, he has been disinherited. As though anxious to find one redeeming trait in the hated Master, Mackellar attests - not once but several times - a high opinion of his enemy's courage. He says of the Master, 'He was no coward' (Chapter I); 'a man more insusceptible of fear is not conceivable' (Chapter III).
This view is endorsed by the other narrator, the Chevalier Burke. He signals an extent of unreliability through his habit of forgetting names, dates and locations. The facility of his nature is suggested by an easy and colloquial style. Burke fails to understand the reason for the Master's flight from Alan Breck Stewart (Chapter III); he is astonished by the Master's hysterical outburst when lost in the wilderness (Chapter III); he cannot fathom why the Master pretends not to know him in 'that city, the name of which I cannot call to mind' (Chapter VII).
But the answer proves to be basic: the Master is a coward. Mackellar, in his introversion, assumes all fighting men are courageous; the Chevalier, an easy-going adventurer, simply does not understand the nature of pusillanimity. Yet the facts, as retailed by the book, contradict both these narrators' interpretations. So far as he can, the Master always avoids outright conflict. When unavoidably locked in a duel with his brother, who has usurped his title, the Master fights foul (Chapter V). We can infer from the narrative of the Chevalier that the Master also shirks a tussle with that bold warrior (Chapter III).
It is true that Mackellar doubts the possibility of this last evasion. But why should we take his word for anything? After all, he has ascribed to the Master every other weakness of human nature. Were the Master allowed to tell his own story, a quite different interpretation could come to light.
In this novel, at least, Stevenson shows himself not so much the disciple of Sir Walter Scott as the precursor of Joseph Conrad. He is a prime influence, moreover, on Alasdair Gray, together with that other virtuoso of unreliable narrative, Vladimir Nabokov.
Nabokov's novel, Pale Fire, ostensibly consists of the edition of an autobiographical poem written by an American professor, John Shade - now deceased - together with an enormous mass of misleading notes by his editor, Charles Kinbote. The editor proposes that his reader arm himself with two copies ('Foreword'), presumably to compare the text with its gloss. This duplication, however, is not necessary. Eclectic though the notes may seem, they form a coherent narrative. This narrative, however, is given a slant which is unacceptable.
The editor is another example of unreliable narrator, as may be seen from the tone pitched early on: 'My free and simple demeanor set everybody at ease' ('Foreword'). This self-ascription of charming nonchalance could in itself raise suspicion, and, in fact, the 'demeanor' of Dr Kinbote usually causes the maximum of embarrassment.
There is a characteristic gap, then, between the unreliable narrator's idea of himself and ascertainable reality, as implied by other evidence in the novel. Kinbote proclaims 'the glorious friendship that brightened the last months of John's life' (note to line 71), though this is not perceived either by Shade's wife or by his obituarist. Unabashed by that circumstance, Kinbote refers to Shade as 'my dear friend' (note to line 873); 'my poor friend' (note to lines 887-888); 'my dear friend' (note to line 894); and speaks of 'my dear friend's fate' (note to line 1000). In the foreword, Kinbote proclaims 'John Shade valued my society above that of all other people'. He does not, however, seem to see how much this is qualified by another attestation: 'This friendship was the more precious for its tenderness being intentionally concealed'. What evidence is there of tenderness? Kinbote is not invited to Shade's birthday party, though many other colleagues are (note to line 181). Shade and his wife conceal from him their holiday retreat (note to line 287). They invite Kinbote to their table exactly three times in five months, in polite reciprocity to the three invitations they have been unable to avoid, out of a dozen or so extended (note to line 579).
Undeterred by this distance in courtesy, Kinbote loses no opportunity of intruding upon Shade. 'My binoculars would seek him out and focus upon him from afar in his various places of labor: at night, in the violet glow of his upstairs study _ in the forenoon, lurking in the ruptured shadows of his first-floor study _ on a hot day, among the vines of a small arborlike portico _ [on] a hot, black, blustery night. I stole through the shrubbery to the rear of their house _ where I could see Sybil and John _ Sybil was alternatively huddle-shaking and blowing her nose; John's face was all blotchy and wet' (note to lines 47-48). The unreliability of the narrative lies in the gap between these facts as given and the narrator's interpretation. This is not the friendship he has claimed, but something more akin to obsession, even voyeurism.
The same note on the poem has the narrator coming unannounced through Shade's back door (it 'was ajar') and launching himself into the back parlour. There the poet is reading his latest lines to his one genuine confidante, his wife. To that invasion Shade's reaction is understandably hostile: 'An unprintable oath escaped from him and he slapped down on the table the stack of index cards he had in his hand'. Kinbote manages to gloze over even this reaction in a manner which preserves his self-regard. Nevertheless, the reader can see the pattern. Kinbote continually thrusts himself upon Shade, and Shade's New England manners provide no defence against such intrusion.
The key hiatus, however, is that between Kinbote's delusion that Shade's poem concerns Zembla, the country of which Kinbote says he is the monarch in exile, and the pallid reality - which is no more than Shade's uneventful life put into verse. There is no warrant for Kinbote's supposition 'I felt sure at last that he would recreate in a poem the dazzling Zembla burning in my brain' (note to line 42). Yet the supposition is reiterated: 'he was reassembling my Zembla!' (note to line 802. On discovering that this is not so, Kinbote is horribly disappointed: 'how stupidly I believed that Shade was composing a poem, a kind of romaunt about the King of Zembla _ Oh, but I cannot express the agony!' (note to line 1000). He suspects the poet's wife, Sybil, of making him tone down or remove from Shade's fair copy 'everything connected with the magnificent Zemblan theme with which I kept furnishing him' (note to lines 47-48). There is, of course, no evidence of Sybil interfering.
Although the poem is not about Zembla, Kinbote uses his notes to the poem 'Pale Fire' as a means of telling Zembla's story - not, as he himself says, in terms of 'a few fragments _ mainly to Canto One' (note to line 42), but fully and substantially; and also, the reader has to believe, inaccurately. The poem itself is discursive; the notes are discursive to the point of mania. Doubts have already been expressed as to the extent of Kinbote's sanity: a rival scholar says 'The manuscript fell into the hands of a person who _ is known to have a deranged mind' (note to lines 376-77). It certainly is clear that Kinbote twists the poem in the direction of Zembla whenever he can. 'That crystal land' becomes an allusion to 'my dear country' (note to line 12). 'Stilettos of a frozen stillicide' Kinbote believes to have been prompted by the fact 'that the poet and his commentator [i.e., himself] first met on a winter day' (note to lines 34-35). The fact may be correct; not so its present application.
After all, Shade never shows any curiosity regarding Zembla, nor does he respond to the details that Kinbote, in their forced encounters, insists in pressing upon him. Only once is that far-off country mentioned in the poem 'Pale Fire', and that is as a metaphor for the elderly poet shaving himself: 'Old Zembla's fields where my gray stubble grows' (line 937). The 'Zembla' here comes, not from Kinbote's confidentialities, but from 'The Essay on Man' - on which Shade, with a book about Alexander Pope behind him, is some kind of authority. The inference taken by the reader must be that Shade is a kindly old pedant with a mildly self-indulgent domestic life far removed from the narration of the unreliable Kinbote.
In Pope, Zembla is merely a figure of speech for the far north. This is echoed in the index to the novel Pale Fire, which is a kind of commentary upon Kinbote's commentary. The reader will conscientiously work through this and, as is the alphabetical nature of such compilations, discover the final entry: 'Zembla, a distant northern land'.
There is, in fact, a geographical Zembla: 'Novaya Zemlya...an archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, off the NE coast of the Soviet Union: consists of two large islands and many islets' (Collins English Dictionary, 1979, 1982). Nowadays, for 'Soviet Union', one would have to read 'Russia'. It is unlikely, however, that any social organization such as the one described by Kinbote could possibly exist in so remote and frozen a latitude. There is, of course, the possibility that Zembla as portrayed in his notes by Kinbote is itself the figment of a disordered imagination.
Peculiar though the novel may seem, Pale Fire has both forebears and progeny. It stands as a protoype for Poor Things. In fact, Alasdair Gray's break-through into post- modernism is actually an extension of Nabokov's modernist technique. The one text, Poor Things, embodies two distinct novels, according to which of two contrasting interpretations the reader chooses to accept.
This text is slanted in an idiosyncratic mode, partly derived from The Master of Ballantrae. What appears to be the basic narrative is given to the reader in a tone so pitched as to suggest that its speaker is an authoritative narrator in the book. The reader is told of this character's parentage, his life at university, his poverty, what he sees as his manly independence, and his friendship with Godwin Baxter. This impression of authenticity is initially confirmed by the method through which (imitating Stevenson) Alasdair Gray claims to be no more than the editor of these memoirs, in fact composed by a deceased public health officer.
Later, it seems that this health officer, Archibald McCandless, plays much the same part in the medical career of Godwin Baxter as that of the faithful Watson in the life of Sherlock Holmes. One of his functions as narrator is to give, concurrently with an impression of Baxter's genius, a sense of that surgeon's physical abnormality. In these terms, Poor Things A (as one possible approach to this narrative may be termed) is a piece of science fiction ingeniously set in the Victorian era. Indeed, in its imitation of Edgar Allan Poe, Mary Shelley, George du Maurier, Bram Stoker and Rider Haggard (of which the book itself takes note), and its persistent echoing of Stevenson, McCandless's narrative could almost be called a Victorian fantasy in its own right. The detail of circumstance and charm of style persuade the reader, in Coleridgean phraseology, to suspend disbelief.
This narrative, Poor Things A, informs the reader that Godwin Baxter purchased the body of a pregnant woman who drowned herself by jumping from a suspension bridge into the Clyde. He tells McCandless, 'I cleared her lungs of water, her womb of the foetus _ I kept the body alive at a purely cellular level' (Chapter Five). Nobody lays claim to the body, so Godwin Baxter, centuries ahead of his time, performs a transplant, taking the undeveloped brain of the foetus and fitting it into the skull of its own drowned mother.
Audacious as this conception may appear, it is given substance by the seemingly plausible narrative of McCandless. Only towards the end do doubts creep in concerning his judgment, and even then it is hard to believe other than this, that he records the facts as he sees them. His authenticity is bodied forth by the mien of 'Bella Baxter', and the characteristic way in which she speaks.
Her tall, beautiful, full-bodied figure seemed between twenty and thirty years, her facial expression looked far, far less. She gazed with the wide-open eyes and mouth which suggest alarm in an adult but in her suggested pure alert delight with an expectation of more. She wore a black velvet gown with narrow lace collar and cuffs. She spoke carefully, with a north of England accent, and each accent was as sweet and distinct as if piped on a flute: 'Hell low God win, hell low new man.' Then she flung both arms out straight toward me and kept them there.
The initial reaction of McCandless is that 'Bella' has suffered severe damage to the brain. But he accepts the explanation, that a new brain has been transplanted into her, proffered him by Godwin Baxter. He accepts this as a believer might take on the more far-fetched doctrines of Christian theology, because no other interpretation appears to fit the observed details. In this, the reader is with him.
The plot remains plausible, until McCandless's attempt to marry Bella in Chapter Twenty-One. At the ceremony McCandless finds a row of five men, unknown to him, sitting in the front pew. One of them, a tall thin figure of military bearing, declares that the marriage cannot take place. Up to this point, well on in the book, we have had 'Bella's' history placed before us in the persuasive attestation of McCandless. Therefore there is likely to be a strong disposition on the part of the reader to doubt the testimony of the military figure and his aides. These latter include a doctor, a lawyer, a private detective and an elderly gentleman claiming to be 'Bella's' father. The military figure himself claims to be her husband.
The narrative of McCandless appears to have been subverted. Nevertheless, at this juncture, it is possible that both Godwin Baxter and the General are 'correct'. The woman Bella Baxter may be in body the bride the General had married in 1880. She may, however, also be in personality the child whose brain has been implanted in that bride's body. There is a reluctance to credit the testimony of the five interlopers at McCandless's wedding ceremony, because the putative husband and putative father are two exceedingly disagreeable characters. The one is a poltroon, hypocrite and masochist; the other, a miser, tycoon and bully.
But there is less doubt as to subversion when the testimony of 'Bella' herself is put before us. McCandless's narrative finishes at Chapter Twenty-Four. There follows an epilogue in the form of a letter from 'Bella', writing as her alter ego, 'Victoria'. It is indicted well after the main events of the book, in straightforward declarative sentences addressed to 'posterity'. Her story comments adversely upon McCandless's memoir, and corroborates the account given of her youth by the unpleasant manufacturer, her father. In this version, Godwin Baxter originally appears as a doctor called in to give a second opinion regarding a marital predicament.
McCandless has described Godwin Baxter as a physiological monster. 'Victoria', on the other hand, sees him as virtually normal: 'a big sad-looking man _ ALL WOMEN AT FIRST SIGHT felt safe and at peace with him' ('A Letter to Posterity'). In her version, 'Victoria' has persuaded Godwin Baxter to take her in as his ward.
Baxter taught freedom by surrounding me with toys I had never known as a child and by showing me how to work instruments (then called philosophical instruments) which his father had used to teach him _ I loved him with all my heart and all my mind and all my soul so wanted to convert him to humanity'
('A Letter to Posterity').
Godwin Baxter explains to her that love is out of the question. He is extremely ill, and cannot be helped. This impels 'Victoria' to become herself a doctor, and Godwin practically forces her as a wife upon McCandless, partly to get her out of his way. McCandless and 'Victoria' start a Natal Clinic together. He writes the memoir that takes up the earlier part of the book; she is left to replace the memoir with her own story in which she claims that General Blessington was her first husband and McCandless only her second. She says:
You, dear reader, have now two accounts to choose between, and there can be no doubt which is most probable. My second husband's story positively stinks of all that was morbid in that most morbid of centuries, the nineteenth _ As locomotive engines are driven by pressurized steam, so the mind of Archibald McCandless was driven by carefully hidden envy _ Unluckily my Archie envied the only two people he loved, the only two who could tolerate him So in his last months he soothed himself by imagining a world where he and God and I existed in perfect equality _Then he deprived me of childhood and schooling by suggesting that I was not mentally me when I first met him but my baby daughter _ He knew his book was a cunning lie.
('A Letter to Posterity')
However unattractive the interlopers at the wedding may be, it would seem that they tell the truth about the life of 'Victoria', and that the narrative of McCandless does not. That is, if the reader accepts the 'Letter to Posterity' that Victoria has written as reliable. Nevertheless, the 'Letter to Posterity', for all its pithy directness, is itself subverted in such a manner as to admit the possibility that 'Victoria' is no more a reliable narrator than McCandless. This subversion takes place explicitly by means of a short paragraph, at the the end of the Notes which conclude the novel as a whole.
Dr. Victoria McCandless was found dead of a cerebral stroke on 3rd December 1946. Reckoning from the birth of her brain in the Humane Society mortuary on Glasgow Green, 18th February 1880, she was exactly sixty-six years, forty weeks and four days old. Reckoning from the birth of her body in a Manchester slum in 1854, she was ninety-two.
By means of this concluding paragraph, the text is prised open once more, to admit two distinct interpretations. The second possibility suggested by the paragraph in question has the effect of reinstating McCandless's narrative.
Matters are further complicated by aspects of nomenclature in the book. When 'Bella' is first seen in McCandless's narrative, she refers to McCandless as 'Candle'. Well, McCandless can be held to be illuminating in his narrative, and he also seems to be able sexually to satisfy the highly sensual 'Bella'. She also refers to Godwin Baxter as 'God'. In Poor Things B, Godwin Baxter is metaphorically a God-figure, who takes over a runaway wife and remakes her personality, inspiring her eventually to become, what was rare for a woman in those days, a doctor. In Poor Things A, Godwin Baxter is literally a God, who performs the miraculous operation of resurrecting a drowned body by implanting in it a foetal brain, a brain which he causes to grow quickly, a brain which gives rise to a whole new person. In McCandless's narrative, then, Godwin Baxter is a creator of life. Further, McCandless's narrative is interspersed with several letters from 'Bella' which are at no time disallowed by 'Victoria' under her general charge accusing McCandless of mendacity. These letters, in a mode akin to such dialogue as is attributed to 'Bella', refer to Baxter as a deity. For example:
How lovely, God, to waken all alone, and bath and dress alone, and eat alone. (Chapter Fourteen)
"All I know about that god," I said, "is what I was told by my own God - by my guardian, Godwin Baxter." (Chapter Fifteen)
When I returned to Park Circus he was dying already. I saw it in his shrunk figure and trembling hand. "O God!" I cried, "O God!"
('A Letter to Posterity')
So God is dead. It is clear that in Poor Things B, Baxter is so potent a figure as to create a mythology which develops into the optimistic socialism displayed in 'A Letter to Posterity'. It is equally clear that in Poor Things A, he is that mythology itself.
There can be no determined conclusion. What the reader looks at is a distinctively post-modern novel, one that would exercise the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, should the post- structuralists there ever happen to come across it. Both interpretations are possible: Poor Things A and Poor Things B are able to co-exist within the same text. But the text leaves us poised between the alternatives. The novel is either (A) about a woman remade by a doctor of genius or (B) about a woman rescued by a doctor of considerable talent.
This is an extreme instance of the unreliable narrator: either narrator may be unreliable, or both may be. The total structure of the novel is necessarily subverted, since each narrative contradicts the other. It is certainly not possible that both narratives can be reliable. However, there remains the possibility that either narrator may be taking as fact that for which no adequate evidence is available.Yet there is no sign of this in the language the narrators respectively use. Unlike its paradigms, Poor Things is able to render each of its alternative narrators convincing in their different ways. There is, in other words, no element that will necessarily sow suspicion in the reader's mind. Further, there is no evidence in either narrative to allow complicity between either one of the narrators and the reader. Consequently, no preference for the one narrator over the other can be established. This circumstance opens the door to a sub-genre of novel whose 'centre' is not implied by any evidence suggested in the text. Notwithstanding its antecedents, we are looking at a book which may well anticipate an unexpected phase in the convoluted history of prose fiction.