Date of Award

Spring 5-20-2021

Degree Type


Degree Name

MA English




Martha Carpentier, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Nathan Oates, Ph.D.


Postmodern, British Fiction, Unreliable Narration, Narratology, Martin Amis, Kazuo Ishiguro, Muriel Spark


In an interview in 1989, Kazuo Ishiguro, author of The Remains of the Day, expresses an interest in “the whole business about following somebody’s thoughts around, as they try to trip themselves up or to hide from themselves,” a curiosity that directly correlates to the functionality of unreliable narration (Mason 347). That same interest can spill over into trying to trip up or hide from readers, a jump easily made when considering novels narrated in first-person like The Remains of the Day or Martin Amis’s Money: A Suicide Note, or even Muriel Spark’s third-person novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Unreliable narration connects these novels, as do the themes, ideology, and practices of postmodernism, and together they provide a solid foundation for readers to conceptualize a cohesive definition of unreliable narration, a notoriously ambiguous and elusive aspect of narratology.

One of the first in his field to ponder the distance between narrator, reader, and implied author, Wayne C. Booth in his collection The Rhetoric of Fiction, “for a lack of better terms,” calls “a narrator reliable when he speaks for or acts in accordance with the norms of the work (which is to say, the implied author’s norms), unreliable when he does not” (Booth 158-159). While recognizing unreliable narration is simple, defining its characteristics in concrete and universal terms is an elusive task since a novel’s reliability, far from being a given, is always suspect. Postmodernism assumes the instability of identity and the fluidity of character development, but the ability to relate these findings to readers is a narratological concern. Thus, the relationship between a postmodern identity, instances of unreliable narration, and narrative trustworthiness defines these novels and their narrators. Unreliable narration is contingent on gaps and silences – in these empty spaces we find reminders to look deeper and piece together the narrative puzzle so that we can first recognize that the narration is unreliable and second have the tools necessary to define it in quantifiable terms. First-person narrators Stevens and John Self and the third-person narration focalized through Sandy of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie exemplify their unreliability through instances of contradiction, by concealing parts of or the entire truth, or in moments of questionable judgement, creating a tension of distrust for readers and, in doing so, resist categorization in a genre known for individualism.