Tag Archives: unreliable narrator

Robert Louis Stevenson – The Master of Ballantrae (1889)

A sprawling jumble of things are crammed into this pretty stellar novel: adventure, family saga, historical fiction, pioneer exploration, buried treasure, etc. Centers on the Durie family, comprised of the father Henry (Lord of Durrisdere), his second son Henry (the current Lord), and his first son James (The Master of Ballantrae). The tension between the two sons is the main plot-mover, which is narrated almost entirely by Mackellar, a servant in the house of Durie. He is drawn rationally and morally to the cerebral but week Henry, but is drawn affectively to the morally corrupt, romantic “master of the arts and graces,” Katherine, a wealthy Scotitsh noblewoman, marries Henry despite loving James. James (who is presumed dead) returns to the house of his fathers, despite being a wanted man in Scotland,  after traveling on a pirate ship with the Irish Jacobite Francis Burke (some of the narration is pulled from his MS). After insulting his brother one too many times, they have a duel, where James seemingly kills him. But he doesn’t die. He escapes and travels throughout the orient, mostly India, where he picks up the Indian servant Secundra Dass. He returns and Henry and his wife (and two children) go to New York. Mackellar watches over James, but they eventually follow. Once there, James leads an expedition to recover the treasure he buried after escaping from the pirate ship with half the booty. An attempt to take the treasure all for himself, he buries himself alive. When Henry, refusing to believe that his brother has died, journeys back to his grave, they find Secundra Dass digging him up (he has learned to swallow his tongue). He comes to life for a single moment, and Henry and James die simultaneously. Mackellar writes their epitaphs, which reveal his conflicted sympathies.

Voice vs. wirting: can think of as elaborate competition for mastery between Mackellar’s “will to narrative” and the protean capacities of the Master charm, elude and evade any sort of simple representation by way of song, polygotism, etc. The final engraving could be read as MacKellar’s final victory, but the tune of his intended story has changed so much that the Master appears to have rewritten the story. Also, the tombstone will hardly ever be read, hidden as it is the in the American widlerness.

Life and Renewal: A pretty damning critique of 19th century tales of renewal. Can compare to Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend, where drowning in Thames becomes the means for narrative rebirth. Or even to the end of Mill on the Floss, where the two characters are sublimated into some sort of aesthetico-natural landscape. Not so here. James keeps coming back to life, but to end…he cannot successfully write himself into a lineage or a history that would make such rebirth socially payoff--and their being swallowed by the American landscape seem less a moment of aesthetic colonization, than the withered failure of a line.

Servant narrator: Mackellar can be read in conjunction with Gabriel Betteridge (Moonstone) and Nelly Dean (Wuthering Heights). They became useful means (devices) for refracting the differences of their masters–for instance, that one need choose between two masters becomes an issue because it is shot through the consciousness of Mackellar. He not only struggles between two masters, but also between modes of narration: between the tragic decline of the House of Durie and the more sympathetic-practical modes of realism. And there is a related tension between tragedy and the story of the story itself, which constantly threatens to fracture that tragic glaze.

The Master: As much as we are supposed to sympathize with the Master, we should also recognize that Stevenson is hollowing out the trope of the Byronic hero–or at least disassociating the literary heroism from political constancy (James gets immunity in Scotland by becoming a political spy for England).

Inheritance and history: In Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff interrupts the family chain of inheritance, which is then restored in the end. But here the family line is “interrupted” by none other than the heir himself.

Charles Dickens – Great Expectations (1860-1)

The orphan Pip is brought up by his sister and her husband Joe Gargery, a blacksmith. One night Pip encounters a convict in the cemetry, and he does him an act of kindness which the convict, who will turn out to be Magwitch, Mr. Provis and Mr. Campbell all in one, will never forget. He soon goes to Miss Havisham’s house to be a playmate with Estella. He starts to become ashamed of himself and his lower-cultured childhood friends. He becomes and apprentice with Joe, and works alongside Orlick, who is a sort of double that plays out all the crimes that Pip almost commits but never does. [An instance of shadowing the protagonist with doubles, sorta like Bertha Rochester and Jane Eyre.] Pip receives an inheritance (via Jaggers) from an unknown source, but he assumes it is from Miss Havisham. This enacts the processes of accumulation that correlate with the field of desire associated with Miss Havisham.  But he soon gets into debt and it is revealed that Abel Magwitch–and it is further revealed that he is the father of Estella (her mother is Molly, Jagger’s housemaid). Pip tells Havisham this story, she stands to close the fire and dies from her injuries, despite Pip’s attempts to save her. Magwitch is arrested and dies; Pip is about to be put into debtor’s prison, but he gets sick, and then is nursed back to health by Joe. He returns to Joe’s home, where they have had a child named Pip [cf. Sydney Carton at the end of Tale]. He visits Stalis house, where he meets Estella. It’s ambiguous whether they marry or not.


Guilt vs. desire – One can frame Pip’s two worlds according to this tension. Pip is marked by guilt from the very beginning, as his actual inheritance. The world of desire, or lack, is associated with Havisham and Estella. Cognitively adjusting to the knowledge that his inheritance comes from guilt rather than desire entails a confrontation with a world of crime that does not square with the tenants of individuality and subjectivity he had adopted in the middle part of the book. Rather, crime seems somehow universal: Magwitch somehow emerges from the landscape, he is an atmosphere of sorts. Pip himself will toggle between these two spheres.

Is Pip being a bad reader because he has not yet grown up? (structure of dramatic irony to deal with how these things can be known at all) Contrast this with Maisie (does not give signification, only registers impressions). As an example of better reading by way of negative contrast: Magwitch shows Pip how he acted poorly towards Joe. But where do we locate this knowledge?

In David Copperfield, the impetus to give full signification (retrospective and fully) is the same impulse as in Great Expectation (Pip as narrator does know things that phenomena subject does not know) but sometimes we just get the narrated Pip and we see his ignorance negatively. In the end, Pip the narrator and narrated converge but there is not a full knowledge. Indeed, the reduplication of Pip as a young boy points to the “bad infinity” that could ensue: the second Pip is able to effectively truncate the narrative with a new beginning. And to the degree that “family” is posited as a source of final cohesion, it should be noted that Pip is excised from that family.

Two ends in Great Expectation: 1. very clear that Estella and Pip don’t get married 2.  you don’t know whether they get married or not, structurally undecideable.

More broadly: Can think of Thackeray, Dickens and Trollope as obsessed with evidentiary character of narration, must give an account fo how the narrative has come into being. On the other hand, Eliot, Hardy and James fully accept the arbitrary nature of the narrative–they can’t justify it, so they just start. [in Hardy in particular, one has the sense that anyone walking along a road could furnish the novelist with a story]


Joseph Conrad – Lord Jim (1900)

Marlow tells the story of Jim, whom he first sees in a court room, being tried for jumping off the Patna even though the Patna did not sink. Jim is torn up over this because he has romantic ideals that he tries but cannot fulfill–but it’s actually not so clear, since at times it seems that it is simply Marlow attempting to write Jim in to a heroic story. Jim is disgraced but Marlow and his friend Stein get him a job on the island Patuma, which is wehre he become “Lord Jim.” He rids the island of competition, meets a woman named Jewel, and is well liked and respected by all the natives. However, some guy named Brown shows up and tries to take the island over. Jim drives him away, but Brown manages to sabotage a group of islanders before leaving, killing the king Doramin’s son. Jim resigns himself to his fate, and his shot by Doramin.

The epiphany in Conrad, and the impossibility of representation. Contrast the following descriptions of Jim’s face with the knoweldge conveyed in Kurtz’s “the horror!” What is the different statuses of knowledge? In Lord Jim, the chinese box narration withholds clarity all together, retrospective and otherwise:

To watch his face was like watching a darkening sky before a clap of thunder, shade upon shade imperceptibly coming on, the gloom growing mysteriously intense in the calm of maturing violence. (chapter six)

The muscles round his lips contracted into an unconscious something violent, short-lived, and illuminating like a twist of lightning that admits the eye for instant into the secret convolutions of a cloud. (chapter ten)

He heard me out with his head on one side, and I had another glimpse through a rent in the mist in which he moved and had his being. (chapter eleven)

It is hard to tell you what precisely she wanted to wrest from me. Obviously it would be something very simple—the simplest impossibility in the world; as, for instance, the exact description of a cloud. (chapter thirty-two)

A good opportunity to talk about narrative vs. story, and about the readerly contracts necessary for creating a distance between the narrative and the story. So Marlow keeps saying “one of us” (connect to Forster’s ONE and Ford’s GOOD PEOPLE) as a way of implicating the reader in the Western tradition of the quest, for example:  Marlow is attempting to show the reader that that narrative is appropriate to the story.

Stein and the butterflies, rendered as aesthetic objects. Talk about Jim as a butterfly of sorts.

The trope of the abyss: here it is first and foremost an abyss of non-meaning. Track how this differs from both New Grub Street and Howard’s End.

Samuel Beckett – Watt (1953)

In section 1, Watt replaces Arsene as a servant in Mr. Knott’s house. Arsene give a huge farewell speech that describes his time while in the employment of Mr. Knott. Along with Erskine, who covers the first floor duties, Knott begins working for Mr. Knott  (though, working on the ground floor, he never sees him), preparing a big pot of highly mediated food (87),maintaining the charitable relationship to the famished dog (including keeping other famished dogs in a Kennel),  etc. Most of the text focuses on the paradoxes of knowing–insignificant events trigger arbitrarily terminated series of repetition, such as the 12 ways Watt attempts explain Knott’s alimentary contentment.  “But in the first week Watt’s words had not yet begun to fail him, or Watt’s world to become unspeakable” (85). This looks forward to the next two chapters, but not before an extended description of the Lynch family, which maintains the kennel. They are one of the many impoverished families all around, all of them dysfunctional in some way (the twin sons are Con and Art). Later on, Murphy mysteriously breaks into Erskine’s room, where he finds  a broken bell and a painting. Watt eventually runs in Knott but they simply look at a worm in the ground for a while. The third chapter switches to a different narrator (Sam). Here we hear some of Watt’s tortured locutions: “Of nought. To the source. To the teacher. To the temple. To him I brought. This emptied heart. These emptied hands. This mind ignoring”, etc. We also get series of iterations spiraling out of control…as if the narrative has become subjected to mathematical functions intent on churning out every possible variation. Exhaustion begins to pervade the text. Chapter 4 recounts Watt’s journey to Mr. Knott’s house, thus screwing up the temporality of the novel. He watches a sunset. The final addenda includes scraps that were supposedly meant to be a part of the story, ending, famously, with “No symbols where none intended.”


In contrast to the many novels and poems that have their reference to grounding historical events, psychological trauma, and other transcendental signifiers, Watt seems to reverse this by giving us too much. Rather than sparseness of image, richness of symbol (however fractured), Beckett trivializes the idea of referentiality all together by taking the Signifier and twisting and contorting it until it longer functions. [Interesting in terms of the contrast between Freud and Lacan…the latter taking the Signified as that which produces something like the It…] The final line, “No symbols where none intended” takes on a certain ethical force; could be read as “No violence where none intended.” Thus the “over-production” of prepositions, participles, conjunctive combinations, etc subverts what would normally be thought of as literature’s productive, metaphoric function: the symbol.

A caged beast born of cages beasts born of caged beasts born of caged beasts born in a cage and dead in a cage, born and then dead, born in a cage and then dead in a cage, in a word like a beast.

Such a formulation displays what it takes to make a simile work–and by showing this, the simile both functions and dysfunctions. Carrying language’s “possibility” to absurd extremes dramatizes language’s self-closure.

Also interesting is the epistemological limits set by the modes of transmission: Arsene tells Watt, Watt will someone else, and all of this will be relayed to this by way of Sam (the name of the author should not be missed, since Sam is always making excuses for his incomplete and imperfect portrayal of Watt):

And so always, when the impossibility of my knowing, of Watt’s having known, what i know, what Watt knew, seems absolute, and insurmountable, and undeniable, and uncoercible, and it should be know that I know, because Watt told me, and that Watt knew, because some told him, or because he found out for himself. For I know nothing, in this connexion, but what Watt told me. And Watt knew nothing, on this subject, but he was told, ot found for himself, in one way or another. (128)

In other words, when all the secrets out, the function of the secret is shown to be arbitrary, constructed, fabricated, unreal. The secret has secreted, taken on a form, and dissipated (cf. Deleuze, Henry James).


Joseph Conrad – Heart of Darkness (1899)

Unnamed narrator introduces Marlow. He tells a story on the Nellie, a ship floating on the Thames. The story begins: he can’t find a job, but eventually takes one that will involve traveling into the interior of the Congo as the captain of a ship, where he will help with the ivory trade. He says good-bye to his aunt and sets off. He arrives at the “Central Trading Station.” run by a dubious “Manager.” The boat sinks and Marlow suspects him of sabotage. Marlow keeps hearing about Kurtz. He eventually goes up stream with a small crew. They are attacked, but eventually arrive at Kurtz’s station. With his astounding “eloquence” he has convinced the natives to treat him like a god. He is deathly ill, so Marlow takes him on board. Just before he dies, he gives Marlow some papers, and pronounces “The horror! The horror!” Marlow returns to London where he seeks out Kurtz’s “Intended.” He cannot bear to tell her his final words. He lies by telling her that he last said her name.

Bureaucracy – The opening section is largely about the inefficient bureaucracy plaguing the Imperial project. The manger is the definition of Weber’s bad bureaucrat. Michael Levenson reads the tension between good and bad social forms (between crippling bureaucracy and Kurtz’s “charisma”) being supplanted by “a nightmarish choice between social venality and passionate license,” and “ends by offering the individual moral psyche as a slim third term between these weighty alternatives” (Norton, 403). Marlow is the one who seeks to cultivate this third term, which manifests itself in the style of the narrative itself:

Conrad longs to overcome the separation between fact and value; he longs to see value lodged securely in fact–“the redeeming facts of life”–so that the individual need not rely on the rickety apparatus of social ethics. (404)

Opposed to an ethics of the social, “Conrad” asserts the sensuous as the domain of judgment–which includes the second and third critique. 

This can be connected with the self-conscious attention to the “surface of things” in both Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim, as well as in the Preface to the Nigger of Narcissus:

Fine sentiments be hanged! I had no time. I had to mess about with white-lead strips of woolen blanket helping to put bandages on those leaky steam-pipes–I tell you. I had to watch the steering and circumvent those snags and get the tin-pot along by hook or by crook. There was surface-truth enough in these things to save a wiser man. (38)

This falls more or less into Ian Watt’s reading of Heart of Darkness as an education in impressionistic narration. The closing bars of the novel portray the Thames with a vividness learned in the heart of darkness. Conrad, narrator, Marlow: the three join in the truth of cohesive artistic project.

But this reading does not account for the “lie” that Marlow tell to the Intended. The nameless fiancé stands in for the outer limit which a bourgeois  ideology fixes on Conrad’s art. The “horrible” truth must be suppressed in order to sustain the narrative overcoming of the fact-value distinction. In this sense, the act of narration participates in the violence of historical imperialism. What was at first “just a hole” (14), becomes “ostentatious holes to bury stuff in” (50), and then finally Kurtz’s unmarked grave: “the pilgrims buried something in a muddy hole” (69): sensory impression, empirical report, ideological concealment. Perhaps this also could be rounded out into a critique of intentionality (the Intended)  in general (cf. Levinas, M-P, ALF).

The problem of endings is  also a way to talk about Kurtz’s cry “the horror, the horror.” Marlow wonders: “Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge?” Marlow recalls, “It was as though a veil had been rent” (68). Talk about how this “rent” and glimpse into “complete knowledge” is withheld in Lord Jim. Also, compare Marlow’s question to the one asked by Yeats in “Leda and the Swan”: did she take on is knowledge. These are questions about history, about the violence of history. About the possibility or impossibility of narrating that violence. Connect this with Benjamin’s “The Storyteller” and also to Arendt’s comments on “Action” in The Human Condition.

Maps (page 11) – Marlow and Conrad are both obsessed with the colonial map–with the spread of the colonial flag, but also with the blank spaces that represent opportunities for the adventure that is writing itself. Connect this with Naipaul’s A Way in the World, with Moretti’s work on the bildungsroman, and with Peter Brook’s stuff on plotting and mapping in the novel.

Life as (Modern) Art: “that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose” (69).

The heart as a symbol and device  in Conrad, Yeats and Ford Maddox Ford.




An attempt on Conrad’s part to overcome the fact-value distinction. We have contrast between good and bad bureaucracy in the opening, that turns into a contrast, in the second half of the novel, between rigid social control and unrestrained passionated license. Between these two alternatives, Conrad tries to insert his impressionism. which would imbue sensuous judgment with moral judgment–a sort of compression of the second and third critiques. Curiously, for the novel to emerge into this aesthetic reality (so that Marlow can read the Thames as a “heart of darkness,” a social commentary in itself) Marlow needs to lie to the intended. He lies in order to conceal the violence that makes possible Kurtz’s knowledge into socially suitable form.

This connects to other books in which Imperial violence is forceful repressed, as in, for instance, Howard’s End and Mrs. Dalloway.

This connects in very interesting ways to some of Conrad’s non-fiction…he is constantly trying to bring the whole into the particular….every line must carry the full weight of the whole…first line of the Preface. But also, in his work on Henry James, we see Conrad trying to claim for the novelist the position of an historian: an historian of human experience. in this way, we can connect Conrad’s desire to merge fact and value to Yeats’ attempts to render history aesthetic in Easter 1916 and Leda and the Swan.