Postmodern Novels and the Unreliable Narrator

We discussed the elements of truth early in the class, but it was repetitive instances of the unreliable narrator that peaked my interest. An unreliable narrator is a narrator who is unreliable in giving the reader sufficient information to make judgements and may fail to report things correctly. The multiple occasions of an unreliable narrator in the postmodern novels we read seemed to be the major similarity between all of them, rather than they were telling a story based off another story. It was the similarities of misleading narration that I wanted to discuss between Robinson Crusoe, Foe, and Slaughterhouse Five. All the narrators present their own version of the truth, but their stories become unreliable when they either add, leave out, or change context of the plot.

In the famous novel Robinson Crusoe, there are a lot of instances where the reader is left questioning some of Robinson Crusoe’s actions while departed on his voyage as he refuses to reflect on some of his actions. In the beginning, the narrative is set up in the past tense as a story of memories. Because he is telling the story from memory and there are no reconciliations from any of the few extra characters presented, the reader must question the validity of Crusoe’s memoir. Crusoe was very brief about various topics in his story. Crusoe leaves the reader wondering why he decided to leave his family and home in the first place. He acknowledges that he disobeyed his father and ponders whether that was the best decision for himself throughout the novel. He refers to his disobedience as the ‘original sin,’ as he admits he could have avoided all the horrific events that happened to him, such as almost being captured by cannibals, if he never listened to his parents and never went on his voyage. As a reader it makes you debate whether Crusoe is wrong for leaving his home and family, and makes you question his loyalty all together. Although he did save an escaped prisoner named Friday from the cannibals by shooting two of them, he still disregards Friday as his servant, because he does not believe in God. Crusoe justified Friday’s presence by trying to convert him to Christian based on the old European idea of the ‘White Man’s Burden.’ Crusoe does not have success converting Friday to believing in God, and when Friday counters Crusoe by asking, “If God much strong, much might as the devil, why God no kill the devil, so make him no more do wicked?” (Defoe, 184). Crusoe ignores him and has no argument. Crusoe shows desire for good adventures on his journey, but because he is often self-centered and disregards other characters such as Friday, it makes the reader dislike him at times.

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Crusoe emphasizes religion in parts of his story, but his actions do not always show a strong will with God. He tends to only refer to religion when it he is in emergency situations, as his first reference to religion was after he became sick after his shipwreck. In distress, Crusoe reflects, “And in the violence, as well of the feaver, as of the dreadful reproaches of my conscience, extorted some words from me, like praying to God, tho’ I cannot say they were either a prayer attended with desires or with hopes; it was rather the voice of meer fright and distress” (Defoe, 78). This was the first time he feared for his life, and in a life or death situation, he reaches out to God by prayer. It makes sense that he starts a relationship with God early in his shipwreck since he is lonely and has no one else to talk to. As his relationship grows with God, he correlates any unfortunate events as karma from God to punish him for his ‘original sin’. It is in times of unfortunate situations such as when he shot the savages to save Friday or when he uses violence to regroup the ship that comes to rescue him; his actions do not always show a strong will with God. Crusoe’s attempts to connect with God do not come during uneventful days, but rather only in emergency situations showing his lack of desire to have a relationship with God, and this is evident when he admits, “But I was merely thoughless of a God, or a Providence; acted like a meer brutefrom the principles of nature, and by the dictates of common sense only (Defoe, 76). The narration of pro religion compared to being thoughtless of God makes the reader question if religion was only important to Crusoe when it was convenient for him. Even when Crusoe returns home and starts to interact with the main world, he fails to maintain faith in God. Daniel Defoe’s fictional autobiography of Robinson Crusoe left the reader a lot to interpret on their own, including the consistency and reliability of Crusoe’s narration. The open interpretation in what is known to be as the first fictional novel in literacy history, is what makes the book so great because there is so much to discuss, even though the reader may not always be validated or agree with Crusoe’s actions.

Moving on to Foe, Susan Barton was a nice change of narration, and it was pleasant to hear the view of a woman on Cruso’s island. Susan Barton’s original objective of trying to rescue her daughter had a lot of truth to it, and when Susan meets Friday and Cruso on the island she tells their stories as best she can from what little information she can gather from the bold Cruso and Friday, who is mute. It is Cruso himself who makes the reader question how Friday in Susan’s narration. Susan questions Cruso about who cut out Friday’s tongue, and he blames the slavers Barton questions why they would do such a thing to a child. She recalls, “Cruso gazed steadily back at me. Though I cannot now swear to it, I believe he was smiling” (Coetzee, 18). This makes the reader debate whether it was the confident Cruso who cut out Friday’s tongue. These observations in the first section are not unreliable, even though Barton even admits she does not remember everything clearly, she tries her best to tell a truthful story about the island. It is after they return to England after Crusoe dies that her narration becomes more unreliable. When her and Friday return, the only belonging of value they possess is the story from Crusoe’s island. Barton begins writing letters to an author named Foe to describe the story, but she soon realizes that with Friday’s inability to speak she can not correlate the whole story from both their views. This bothers her, and because of Friday’s tongue mutation his story can never be told. This also correlates with the idea of the unreliable narrator as Susan is worried that the story would not be complete without Friday’s view. As a storyteller I think J.M. Coetzee included the silent Friday in the story to underline the fact that not all stories are told how they actually happened, and many details can be left out similar to the idea of the unreliable narrator.

As Susan Barton tries to convey as much of the story to Foe as she can, Foe ultimately ignores some of the facts and persuades her to add extra action scenes into the story to make it more interesting. The trouble is, an exaggerated story is an untrue story. The most unreliable character in my opinion is the author Foe, because he tries to take Susan Barton’s letters and stories and twist it into a magnificent but untrue story about Barton reuniting with her long-lost daughter. This makes it hard for the reader to trust him. Foe also tries to include dangerous events such as cannibals and pirates into the story that Barton is telling, although Barton had never witnessed such dangers on the island. Foe is all about creating a story that sells, and not necessarily worried about the truth in Barton’s or Friday’s story. Because Friday cannot contribute his observations, Foe wants to make the story into how Barton crossed the sea searching for her daughter, then eventually finding and rescuing her daughter in a dramatic fashion. This results in the unreliable part of Susan Barton’s narration. Barton’s narration is very confusing and unreliable when she is confronted by a girl who introduces herself as her long-lost daughter, Susan Barton. Although the young girl tells a similar story as the older Susan Barton and she also goes into detail about Cruso’s island, the older Barton denies that this girl is her child. This leaves the reader confused on whether this girl is actually Susan’s lost daughter or if Foe sent this girl to shape the story he wanted to tell. The potential interference from Foe to construct the best story he can write leads to major questions on what is the truth and what is a result of the unreliable narrator.

Lastly, in the novel of Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, the unreliable narrator is evident in Billy Pilgrim’s narration after the first chapter. Vonnegut begins by narrating the book himself describing the challenges he was facing writing a book about his experiences in Dresden, Germany as Prisoner during World War 2. He conveys this challenge after he received a 3 book contract from Seymour Lawrence, “It is so short and jumbled and jangled, Sam, because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. Everybody is supposed to be dead” (Vonnegut, 24). Vonnegut has trouble recalling such horrific events from the war, and as a result he has trouble putting together a good, yet unheroic story about his experiences in the War. The idea of the book being an anti-war story was clarified early by Mary O’Hare, the wife of one of his old battle buddies, Bernard V. O’Hare, when she furiously assumes that Vonnegut is going to write the novel making the war seem glorious such as some of the action movies with John Wayne, she accuses, “You’ll pretend you were men instead of babies” (Vonnegut, 18). Vonnegut agrees that the book should not be made about heroics but focus more on all the innocent lives that were lost as a result of the war. Although he wanted to make to book an anti-war book, he is challenged by a movie maker named Harrison Starr even before he received Mary O’Hare’s advice. When Starr questioned him if his book on Dresden was going to be an anti-war book and he replied yes, Starr recommended instead he wrote an anti-glacier book. Vonnegut recalls, “What he meant, of course, was that there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers. I believe that, too” (Vonnegut, 4). So although his goal is to make the book turn people away from the idea of war based on his horrific experiences, he recognizes that no matter what he writes will not actually prevent wars from happening.

Following chapter 1, Billy Pilgrim is introduced and described by his ability to travel through time. Billy comes off as somewhat of a crazy when the reader is first introduced to them, and Vonnegut’s incorporation of the phrase ‘he says’ when describing his time travel makes the reader doubt his ability to time travel. The description of Billy’s Daughter’s concerns makes the reader doubt the saneness of Billy Pilgrim even more, as she seems surprised he is going on radio shows talking about being unstuck in time and being abducted by the Tralfamadore’s. Vonnegut did also start the story with, “All this happened, more or less” (Vonnegut 1). He leaves the opinion of whether the story is truthful or fictional up to the reader early in the book. This helps build the story because it intrigues the reader to try to find proof of whether it is fictional or factual, although being abducted by aliens and time travel is hard to prove.

The novel does not have a defined beginning, middle, or end. Major events are revealed in no dramatic fashion and usually way before they happen, such as Billy’s murder which is revealed in the middle of the novel. The novel is set up that way as Billy travels to different times of his life, resulting in the novel being very scattered. It isn’t the scatterness of the novel that makes Billy’s narration unreliable, but rather that Billy could very well have brain damage which is why he presents such crazy ideas and stories. It is the fact that even with the spoilers and the unreliable stories told by Billy Pilgrim, the book was still very intriguing and did an excellent job helping the reader shift from horrific events such as the bombing to less eventful scenes. The shift in chronological order made the material engaging, while also keeping the reader on their toes regarding any clues to what was the truth and what was fictional.

The unreliable narrator is a very strong reason that the novels Robinson Crusoe, Slaughterhouse Five, and Foe are so intriguing, because it keeps the reader wondering. All the narrators present their own version of the truth, but their stories become unreliable when they either add, leave out, or change context of the plot. The narration between Foe and Robinson Crusoe are somewhat unreliable because Susan Barton doesn’t tell the same story that Crusoe tells in his adventurous novel. Slaughterhouse Five uses a fictional character in Billy Pilgrim and his distraught thoughts to create separation between Vonnegut and the terrible occurrences of World War 2. All the stories have some truth to them, but in Robinson Crusoe’s instance they just leave some things out that the reader would like to know, as in Foe’s instance change the story completely to make it more interesting, or as in Slaughterhouse Five alter the narration to a fictional character to make a novel about such a violent event easier to read and write. The unreliable narrator creates a sense of a second story for the reader, but the glory is that with the unreliable narrator’s lack of concluding information, the reader gets to decide that story for themselves.

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Postmodern Novels and the Unreliable Narrator. (2021, Dec 17). Retrieved from