Reliability of the narrativesDisscuss the reliability of the narratives in Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, and William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. Why should we...

Reliability of the narratives

Disscuss the reliability of the narratives in Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, and William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. Why should we question the truthfulness of each narrative? Give examples of possible untruths and distortions in the novels.

Expert Answers
lmetcalf eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Both of the these novels bring into question the reliability of the narrator. In both cases, the men who tell the story are present, but may not know the whole story. Interestingly, in Ethan Frome, the narrator is a man from the present-day of the story who has heardbits and pieces of the story of Ethan Frome and his family and then happens to have an opportunity to spend a little time with the Fromes when he is stranded at their house in bad weather. He specifically says that "what follows (the story) is a vision of what might have happened..." He is directly telling the reader that the story that follows may not be true, but it is an educated guess. This would make the actual details of the story highly unreliable!

booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In terms of The Great Gatsby, because Nick is an outsider, I think we can consider him a reliable narrator. First, things he is unfamiliar with (patterns of behavior by Daisy, Gatsby and their circle of friends) will both appeal to Nick and repel him. He loses a great deal of his innocence from his Midwest upbringing, but he is considered a "moral compass" in the story, able to remain objective enough to give the reader a realistic accounting of what he hears and what he observes. As Atticus Finch is reliable as "Mockingbird's" moral compass, so too is Nick. He is able to remain grounded and report his experiences in a believable way because he is not perfect, but strives to be a good man.

rrteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In the case of As I Lay Dying, there are more than a dozen narrators, each of whom has their own point of view, and, as post 2 puts it, their own agenda. So clearly it is difficult to establish an objective narrative, which is really the point. In Ethan Frome, there are two different narrative voices, one of which is omniscent third person, and the other is first person. I suppose you might argue that the omniscent narrator is more reliable. In Gatsby, of course, the narrator is Nick, who claims at the beginning of the book that he has learned to reserve judgement on people, though that doesn't always seem to be the case.


e-martin eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I was about to quote the passage from As I Lay Dying where Vardaman expresses his belief - as a narrator - that his mother is a fish, but I see vangoghfan has already pointed to that particular example of narrative "unreliability".

To speak then a little more generally, I think we might argue that for Gatsby and As I Lay Dying the subjectivity of "truth" is at the center of each narrative.

How we view things determines what is real for us.

This theme is echoed in the narrative form and in the narrative subjectivity of each novel.

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The narrator of Ethan Frome is much like the Reader's Digest:  a tertiary source and therefore inserts creative exercise into the inner perspective of characters.  William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying has over a dozen narrators that together spell Dysfunctional points of view since no one is really well in the entire family.  Yet, each contributes to the reader's insight.  Nick Carraway becomes influenced by his new environment and the charismatic persona of Jay Gatsby.Yet, while he is not wholly reliable, his observations in the final chapter are certainly insightful.

accessteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

You could definitely examine The Great Gatsby as an example of an unreliable narrator. This is because Nick admits to himself that he has contradictory emotions and feelings about, for example, the figure of Jay Gatsby, alternating between admiration and hero-worship and distaste. Nick is not an impartial observer, however much he may like to think that he is, and although he is an outsider, he is definitely a narrator who is not wholly reliable.

belarafon eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In every book where the narrator is a major character in the story, reliability must be questioned. One positive of the omniscient third-person narrative is that there is no personal voice nudging you in a desired direction. When you reach the end of the book, think about how the narration affected your understanding of the story, and think if it would be different if the narration was a simple statement of fact.

vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Faulkner really plays, in As I Lay Dying, with the idea that individual perspectives are always and only individual perspectives. (Who can forget :My mother is a fish"!?)  In general, the technique of the unreliable or radically limited narrator is a very prominent device in much of Faulkner's fiction.

litteacher8 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Do you mean the reliability of the narrator?  We often use the term unreliable narrator to refer to a narrator with an agenda or who is confused from mental illness or youth.  We rely on the narrator to give us the truth, and if it is slanted, such as in Gatsby, we have to try to determine the truth.