It is difficult to conceive the idea of a novel without a narrator. The only way in which you can know what happened is through them. Narrators have different levels of “power”, so to speak: there are ones who are only capable of telling you what they see, and there are others who can get inside a character’s mind and reveal their thoughts. Regardless, all of them have their own agenda.
Imagine if, for example, you had to tell your life story to someone. You would probably select certain parts, but you would not attempt to disclose every single detail. In other words, maybe you would omit the details that you do not want other people to know. This also happens with narrators; they select and disclose to us readers whatever information is necessary to fulfill a specific purpose. Some of them bluntly lie, others hide painful information, and others reveal details to make us believe something specific about a character.
Let us briefly examine 3 examples: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov; “A Painful Case” by James Joyce” and Emma by Jane Austen.
The narrator of Lolita is a pedofile who tries to convince the jury to have mercy on him. Humbert Hubert achieves this by downplaying his actions to lessen their impact. For example, when he revelas his and Lolita’s age, he states: “About as many years before Lolita was born as any age was that summer” (9). What age is that? Humbert Humbert uses overly embellished and complicated language to distract the readers and the audience, and to make everyone forget that he is a pedofile. This is his agenda.
The narrator of James Joyce’s short story “A Painful Case” states: “[Mr Duffy] had an odd autobiographical habit which led him to compose in his mind from time to time a short sentence about himself containing a subject in the third person and a predicate in the past tense” (78). Mr Duffy narrates his own story using a third person pronoun. Why would someone do that? What effect could this have in the reader and in Mr Duffy himself? Perhaps, detaching yourself from the narrative allows you to reflect on your own life in an “objective” manner. This could mean that portraying your own “painful case” can be achieved without having to relive a traumatic experience. Or perhaps it is used as a form of denial and separation. Answering these questions would expose the character’s agenda when acting as a narrator.
Finally, we have Jane Austen’s Emma. Emma is a young woman who has it all: she is beautiful, smart and many people love her. However, the sarcastic tone and the language used by the narrator makes us wonder if this is really the case: “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her” (771). The narrator uses adjectives such as “clever”, “handsome” and “rich” to describe Emma but then, she states that the character “seems” to unite these qualities. Does Emma really unite them? Does this statement have a tone of sarcasm? And in what way does she unite them? is it a positive or negative combination? How does the narrator want to make us feel regarding Emma?
Discovering and reflecting on the narrator’s agenda or intentions is one of the most enriching parts of reading a novel and it can change the interpretation drastically as opposed to what happens inside the text itself. As an indispensable literary element, the narrator filters what the readers have access to, with all the implications that this entails. It is impossible for a narrator to have a “neutral” position simply because, in the act of narrating itself, there is a purpose. The narrator chooses to share a story with an audience. Discovering the reason behind that is not only thrilling, but it can help readers have a better understanding of the text.
Austen, Jane. “Emma”, The Complete Novels, Ed. Ellen Ranson, Wordsworth Editions, 2004. Pp. 769- 1069.
Joyce, James. “A Painful Case”. Dubliners. Ed. Laurence Davies, Wordsworth Classics, 2001, pp. 77-84.
Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita. Vintage International, 1997.