Concept definition: Narrator
Michaela Castellanos, MA Intercultural Anglophone Studies
One of the central concepts in Narrative Theory is that of the narrator. Simply put, the narrator is the person who relates a story to the reader. However, the reader may not always realize that a narrator is even present. The French structuralist Gérard Genette claims that, even if only implied and not clearly noticeable, a third-person narrator is present in any story. It is important to realize that this type of narrator is not to be equated with the author (Bertens 57). For the analysis of the narrator in a story, several aspects play an important role: the narrative level, the extent of participation in the story, the degree of perceptibility, and the degree of reliability (cf Rimmon-Kenan 95-104).
A good place to begin is to consider the level from which the narrator tells the story. The term diegesis is used for the fictional world in which the story takes place. A narrator can be either extradiegetic or intradiegetic, meaning ‘outside’ or ‘inside’ of the world that is described to the reader. Whereas an extradiegetic narrator is “‘above’ or superior to the story he narrates,” the intradiegetic narrator is inside the fictional world created by the story. This means the narrator is always “also a diegetic character in the first narrative told by the extradiegetic narrator” (Rimmon-Kenan 95). Genette’s basic distinction between homodiegetic and heterodiegetic narrator (replacing the terms first-person and third-person narrator, respectively) is based on whether the person telling the story participates in it or not. Whereas a homodiegetic narrator takes part in the story in “some manifestation of his ‘self,’” a heterodiegetic narrator does not participate in the story at all (Genette qtd. in Rimmon-Kenan 96, italics mine) and merely tells the reader about events involving others. Such a narrator often has a quality that has been described as “omniscience:” He or she knows about events that happened before or after the time of the narrative present, is aware of the emotions and thoughts of the characters, and is present, even when the characters in the story are alone (cf. Rimmon-Kenan 96). An autodiegetic narrator is a homodiegetic narrator who tells his or her own story.
Narrative theorist Slomith Rimmon-Kenan also categorizes narrators according to their degree of perceptibility and reliability. An overt narrator is marked by his conspicuous presence. The narrator in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, for example, introduces himself to the reader (“Call me Ishmael”) and is therefore clearly established. A covert narrator, on the other hand, is not at all obvious to the reader. In cases where the narrator is maximally covert, or practically imperceptible, it may appear as if there is no narrator at all (Rimmon-Kenan 97). The degree to which a narrator is noticeable can also vary throughout a narrative; a narrator may not be clearly discernible in the beginning of a narrative, but reveal his or her presence later on. Neither does a narrator need to address the reader in order to make it known that someone is telling the story. A detailed description of the setting, for example, or the identification of characters indicates the presence of a narrator. Similarly, temporal summaries, definition of characters, and reports of what characters did not think or say are reported by a covert narrator. Interpretations, judgments, and generalizations not only give away the presence of a narrator, but can reveal more information about him or her; important clues about his or her values, moral stand, and prior knowledge that are not specifically addressed elsewhere in the story can be gleaned from such comments (Rimmon-Kenan 97-100).
Similarly stratified is the notion of the narrator’s reliability. Rimmon-Kenan defines the extremes on both ends of the spectrum:“A reliable narrator is one whose rendering of the story and commentary on it the reader is supposed to take as an authoritative account of the fictional truth. An unreliable narrator, on the other hand, is one whose rendering of the story and/ or commentary on it the reader has reasons to suspect.” (101, emphasis mine)To rank the various degrees of reliability in between, readers can look for signs of unreliability in a narrator. The fewer of these present in a narrator, the more reliable he or she is deemed to be. If a narrator displays limited knowledge, there is reason to take his or her narration with a grain of salt. A narrator who is personally involved, such as the narrator in Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” may have reason to conceal or add elements of the story. A “problematic value-scheme” is another red flag for taking his or her words at face value. Additionally, Rimmon-Kenan points to “contrasts and incongruities in the narrator’s language” as signals that the reader had better read between the lines. Whereas the (fictional) facts reported in such a manner may be correct, the difference in the way such facts are presented indicate that the narrator’s evaluation of them may not be reliable (103).
Unreliable narrators, as well as narrators whose reliability is at least questionable, draw attention to how a story is told, make the reader question the motives for telling it in the first place, and make the reader wonder about what is not being said. This makes them effective narrative devices that engage the readers’ creativity and encourage critical thinking. Analyzing the narrator of a story thus provides a great tool for discovering additional layers of meaning in a text. For an example of how this can be done, see our section Paths to Analysis.
Rimmon-Kenan, Shlomith. “Narration: Levels and Voices.” Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics. London: Routledge, 2007. 87-106. Print.
“Reading for Form II: French Structuralism, 1950-75.” Literary Theory. The Basics. London: Routledge, 2008. 41-60. Print.