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Narrators of questionable credibility are common in American literature, forcing readers to think for themselves and make decisions about what to believe. Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw and Herman Melville’s Billy Budd: Sailor contain multiple examples of how the unreliable narrator can be used and interpreted. This analysis suggests that while the unreliable narrator is not exclusive to American fiction, the qualities it brings to novels make it especially appealing to the American mind.
From the opening lines of James’ novel, the credibility of the text is suspect. Relayed through the perspective of an unknown first-person narrator, the reader receives no information on the storyteller, other than the fact that he or she is in attendance at a Christmas party where stories are being told for entertainment. Coupled with the lack of information provided about the narrator, the atmosphere of the first scene creates questions. Because the party within James’ story revolves around tale-telling and ghost stories in particular, the reader has to wonder whether the story provided by Douglass that will consume the rest of the novel proper is being told merely as entertainment for the party or as a retelling of actual events.
With an unknown narrator and a questionable party atmosphere, the story that is to be told for the remainder of the novel seems to have lost its credibility even before it began. Because so many questions are raised at the beginning of the novel, the physical description of the manuscript and the story that surrounds it need to be convincing before the reader can trust the story. To achieve this effect, James has the character of Douglass provide an extensive back-story for his tale. Douglass notes that the manuscript “is in old faded ink and in the most beautiful hand…. A woman’s. She has been dead these twenty years. She sent me the pages in question before she died” (James 24). This selection is provided to reestablish both Douglass’ credibility and that of the novel. This passage tells the reader that Douglass has in his possession a physical copy of the story, and that it was written by another person. By including the extensive physical description of the manuscript, James effectively establishes Douglass as a credible source. There is no doubt as to the origins of the manuscript, and Douglass’ refusal to tell the story from memory assures the audience (both within the text and those reading the novel as a whole) that he is accurately recounting the events of the story.
While Douglass’ description and presentation of an actual manuscript attest to the validity of the story he is about to read, the structure of the novel has become convoluted by the time the novel even reaches Chapter I. Though the novel begins in first person, and the story that Douglass reads is told through first person, readers of The Turn of the Screw encounter several layers between themselves and the material. Rather than a straightforward account of events, the reader encounters an unknown narrator’s account of a man reading a woman’s diary. It is almost as though the reader is placed in a fifth-person perspective. This, again, creates credibility issues. Instead of experiencing the events of the novel and forming an opinion, readers are asked to form their interpretations based on the retelling of a retelling of one woman’s experience.
From here the novel is narrated in first-person by the Governess, a simpler format to read. This simplification does not, however, eliminate the novel’s credibility questions. The Governess’ first-person account of the events at the Bly estate is the only information on which readers can base their judgments, and her credibility can be questioned early in her account. Upon meeting Flora, the young girl that would be in her care, the Governess is taken on a tour of the house in which she will be staying. On this tour, the Governess describes the house as “a castle of romance inhabited by a rosy sprite,” but then as “a big ugly antique but convenient house, embodying a few features of a building still older, half-displaced and half-utilised” (James 32-3). The first images present a glorified portrait of the estate, while the second conveys a harsh reality. This scene warns readers that the Governess seems to slip seamlessly between fantasy and reality.
As the Governess’ story progresses, she begins to believe that she sees ghosts within the estate. At the end of Chapter III, she tells of how she witnessed, from a considerable distance, a “man with no hat” inside the house (James 40). This encounter is her first mention of the ghost, but because the Governess and the apparition are “too far apart to call to each other,” there is some doubt as to what the Governess could have actually seen (James 40). The Governess waits until Chapter VI, which presumably occurs a couple weeks later, to disclose her encounter to the only other adult on the estate, Mrs. Grose. The discussion between these two women is strange to say the least. In this discussion, the Governess provides many more details about the man than she did in her account of the actual encounter. The lone detail of a hatless man remains constant, but the Governess seems to be taking her cues from the questions that Mrs. Grose asks. At one point, in response to Mrs. Grose’s question about the handsomeness of the ghost, the Governess writes, “I saw the way to help her. ‘Remarkably!’” (James 48). This one line, when read with the rest of the exchange between the two women, shows the Governess taking her description from information presented in Mrs. Grose questions. The Governess description to Mrs. Grose relies heavily on the powers of suggestion, and the event has become further exaggerated.
The Governess’ reliability is tested further in her encounters with the children she has been hired to watch. Chapter XIV presents a conversation between Miles and the Governess which seems like a matching of wits. At one point in the discussion, the Governess admits, “I felt I might perhaps after all succeed in keeping my wits about me” (James 84). This passage suggests that the Governess could just as easily lose her sanity as she could keep it. A simple discussion about the behavior of a child has challenged the Governess’ sanity, and she has no problem reporting that fact. The case against the Governess’ reliability seems to be mounting, and the ghosts look increasingly to be figments of her imagination.
Because the Governess is usually alone when she sees the apparitions, it is difficult to ascertain the truth about their existence. James uses the Governess’ questionable narration as well as the distance he has created between the reader and the material to generate a sense of mystery around the novel. By employing an unreliable narrator, James effectively destabilizes the narrative to force the reader to make judgments about the text. The Turn of the Screw allows readers to decide what to believe for themselves.
Herman Melville’s Billy Budd: Sailor was published in 1924, some twenty-six years after the publication of James’ novel. The narrator is a seemingly omniscient combination of the first-person and the third-person. Throughout the story, the anonymous narrator seems to merely report the events that transpire, while also providing insight into the thoughts of the characters on which the story reports. Upon Billy Budd’s impressments in Chapter One, the narrator reports that the Lieutenant who had come to take Billy viewed Billy’s farewell salute as “a covert sally on the new recruit’s part, a sly slur at impressments in general, and that of himself in especial” (Melville 49). Of the same scene, the narrator also reports that Billy’s intentions were “by no means of a satirical turn” (Melville 49). This early exchange demonstrates what would seem to be an omniscient narrator. In this scene, the narrator is able to report the inner thoughts of two characters – a trait that is usually only available to the omniscient.
The omniscience of this narrator soon manifests itself as self-awareness. The narrator directly addresses his audience at the end of Chapter Two when he says, “the story in which [Billy Budd] is the main figure is no romance” (Melville 53). In addressing the genre of the story that he is telling, the narrator has crossed into a different plane. This admission forces the reader to acknowledge that, though the story is not a romance, it is still a story which must be assigned a genre. In suggesting genre to the audience, the narrator acknowledges that his story must follow certain conventions. As the story progresses, the narrator seems to be building a melodrama by pitting goodness against evil.
The narrator juxtaposes the pure goodness of Billy Budd with what he classifies as pure evil in John Claggart. Though the narrator does not come out in direct denouncement of Claggart, his initial description of the character is less than flattering. In Chapter Eight, the narrator introduces Claggart by saying that his complexion “seemed to hint of something defective or abnormal in the constitution and blood” (Melville 64). The description of Claggart continues by creating an air of mystery surrounding his background. Though the narrator has not denounced Claggart outright, the sense of mystery surrounding the master-at-arms paired with the seeming defect in his constitution prejudices readers against Claggart. A seemingly impartial narrator has imparted a bias into the story being told, and this forces the reader to question the narrator’s motives for doing so.
As the story progresses, the narrator continues to show Claggart scheming against Billy. These schemes all build to a final confrontation between the two in Captain Vere’s cabin. The report of the events within the Captain’s cabin as well as the events following create and interesting problem in the narration. In Chapter Nineteen, the narrator describes the scene in which Billy kills Claggart by stating that, “quick as the flame from a discharged cannon at night, his right arm shot out, and Claggart dropped to the deck,” (Melville 99). The only three characters present for this scene were Billy, Captain Vere, and Claggart. Now that Billy has killed Claggart, only Captain Vere and Billy remain as witnesses to the killing. However, the narrator still reports the events. This would not be a problem if it were not for a scene presented in Chapter Twenty-Two. In this chapter, Captain Vere and Billy are alone once again, but this time the narrator notes that “Beyond the communication of the sentence, what took place at this interview was never known” (Melville 114). The narrator has no problem reporting the events of Claggart’s murder at which only Billy and Captain Vere were present, but when it comes to the communication of the sentence at which Billy and Captain Vere are the only characters present yet again, the narrator mysteriously cannot provide details. This creates serious reliability issues. Either the narrator has chosen to leave details out about the scene in Chapter Twenty-Two, or the report of Claggart’s murder in Chapter Nineteen is pure speculation. As Billy Budd: Sailor creeps toward its conclusion, the narrator becomes less and less reliable.
The novel’s second to last chapter, Chapter Twenty-Nine, provides a short newspaper article detailing the events of the novel. The narrator acknowledges that the article, “was doubtless for the most part written in good faith” (Melville 130). The article goes on to report a story in direct opposition to the one reported by the novel’s narrator, and the article is said to be the only surviving account of the incident. This final chapter contradicts the twenty-eight chapters that proceeded it, and it forces the reader to make choices about the text.
While James’ unreliable narrators forced readers to make choices throughout the novel, the twist at the end of Melville’s story forces the reader to make a single choice at the end of the novel. The common thread between the narration of the two is that of reader choice. By presenting a narrator of questionable authority, authors compel their readers to decide whether or not they can accept the events of the presented fiction as an actuality inside of the fictional world. The unreliable narrator stimulates more engagement with the text and provides the reader with more freedom of interpretation than conventional narratives. It appeals to Americans’ strong sense of individuality and personal freedom, making it a particularly (but not exclusively) American literary device that James and Melville utilize with skill.
James, Henry. The Turn of the Screw. Bedford St. Martin’s, Boston, MA. 2004.
Melville, Herman. Billy Budd: Sailor. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL. 1962.
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