Scout's Narrator ReliabilityIt is interesting to think that Scout, the narrator of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, though narrating it as an adult, is remembering the events through her...

Scout's Narrator Reliability

It is interesting to think that Scout, the narrator of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, though narrating it as an adult, is remembering the events through her childhood self. Children often view things differently than adults. Think about reminiscing with a parent or older relative about something that happened in your childhood. You may have one memory or view of the event, while your older relative may have another view or memory.

Children also tend to remember only one aspect about a person that really sticks out to them. Perhaps it is the color of that person's hair or a prominent facial feature. Either way, children do not always view the world the same way as adults. This carries over to their own adulthood when they try to remember back to any event.

Does anyone think this causes an element of narrator unreliability in To Kill a Mockingbird?

Expert Answers
jashley80 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

 Several of my PreAP students had the same kind of questions after we read through the novel this semester... the narrator is reliable in telling her story; the events of her narration may be inaccurate only insomuch as they are incomplete and have changed in perspective. Basically, my students believed that because she was expressing her personal experiences, those experiences were accurate. They argued, and I agree, that the emotions and ideas of the personal experience remain unchanged; however, that is not to say that therearen't additions to these experiences on which an adult Scout would have been able to embellish.

We discussed the fact that Scout's vocabulary is very adult at times, reminding the readers that older Scout is talking about her past, and at times it seems as though there is an extension of memories to include a learning moment... there are moments included by the older Scout, after her reflections years later on the events, that a young Scout could have easily left out when telling the story. For example, some of my students asked why would she tell the extra conversation between Atticus and Heck Tate after Boo saves the children if she is supposed to be telling just her own story, but they realize with discussion what young Scout maybe did not but adult Scout did - the importance and implications of Heck Tate's decision to protect Boo.

I'm not sure if that makes sense, but hopefully so. Scout's young memories are reliable yet extended in the text by details adult Scout may have remembered and believed to be important. Does this make narration unreliable... or simply believable?

Lorraine Caplan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Adult or child, we are all unreliable narrators.  If you ask twenty different people who witnessed an event to say what they saw, each will report something different.  This has been established time and again.  Each of us perceives the world through unique eyes, hearts, and minds, and while that makes it difficult to pin down "truth," it certainly keeps life interesting.  The story of the blind men and the elephant is a metaphor for this phenomenon, with each perceiving the elephant to be a different entity because each touches only one part.  A good novelist is perfectly aware of this and allows a character to narrate what he or she "sees" in a way that is consistent with that character.  In the case of Scout, as other people have mentioned, the events a child experiences are filtered through adult understanding and interpretation, which adds another layer to the narrative.   It is common, I would imagine, for most of us to think back on a childhood event and understand it in a new and more mature way.  Most of the time, the adult Scout allows the reader to see the perceptions of the young Scout without the filter of maturity.  Some readers might find this disingenuous, and it is certainly worthy of note, but it has never detracted from the novel for me.

booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Narrator unreliability: this would only exist if the intent of the author was to mislead the reader. The author creates the character and the character's impressions, opinions and actions. In many ways, we as readers are manipulated to (hopefully) respond a certain way when we read a book. The author wants us to care about the story and characters, and usually to learn something.

Having a child as a narrator gives me more the sense that the child will speak more honestly whereas an adult narrator might have a personal agenda, be unable to be objective, or try too hard to lead the reader. A child can see the world without the cynicism adults often adopt. The child as a narrator can also ask elementary questions that are essential to the plot's development, or explain something in simple terms so the reader "gets it."

In Scout's case, she is a precocious child, raised by the very objective Atticus Finch. It is perhaps because of these two things that we have a narrator that is a "child" in some ways, but her father's daughter in many others, making her, in my mind, a reliable narrator.

(See, I can't even be as objective as perhaps I should because I like Scout...)

Susan Hurn eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I have read some literary criticism that faulted Harper Lee's mastery of the point of view in the novel, citing some inconsistencies in voice: adult Scout vs. young Scout. At the time I read this comment, I thought it was like finding fault with a couple of brush strokes on the Mona Lisa. Who cares?!

Scout is a completely reliable narrator. As it has been said here, she reports what she sees and hears and she responds to it honestly and innocently. Scout is never one to mince words; she says what she thinks and seems to hold nothing back from the reader. Scout is not an unreliable narrator because she does not understand at the time what is happening at the jail when she has her conversation with Mr. Cunningham. It is her innocent interpretations of certain conversations and events that create the dramatic irony that gives the novel much of its power.

I don't think an argument could be made that young Scout is an unreliable narrator because the adult Scout's memory is faulty or edited. The details of the narrative are too unified and comprehensive. There is not one false note in this novel.

missy575 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I would say if we are referencing specific historical events that can be interpreted otherwise, we are absolutely at a disadvantage by Scout's inability to remember incidents like an adult would. In fact, since it was written in the late 50s about the early 30s, I think any narrator adult or child would be unreliable. Likewise, the fact that she is a character in the story means that she fails to be an all-knowing narrator.

Personally, I like that Lee placed a child as a narrator because of the innocence portrayed from her voice. From the "what's rape?" question to the "something [she] could not identify" when feeling the knife stuck in Bob Ewell, we hardened adults realize how these terrible incidents impact a younger generation.

Thus, you may call Scout an unreliable narrator for the purpose of any argument, however I believe the author purposely placed her as a narrator to tell this story from a child's eyes, regardless of reliability.

accessteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I think part of the attraction of this great novel is that the events are retold from the point of view of an adult looking back to when they were a child. This first person retrospective narration has been used to great effect in other novels, and certainly gives us a real feeling for the kind of character Scout is and how she changes and grows up during the course of the novel. Whilst of course there are issues of reliability, I don't think Harper Lee meant this to be a text featuring an unreliable narrator in the traditional sense of the phrase.

kiwi eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I think what is achieved is indeed the focusing on detail - such as the gifts from Boo Radley - but without compromising the story. Given the fact that any frst person narrative is only written from one perspective, the question may be what we deem a 'reliable' narrator to be. Scout is indeed reflecting as an adult on the experiences as a child, and we are given an innocent child's point of view considered with adult experience. All first person narrative is perspective: we decide as a reader whether the account we are given is credible or not.

Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Scout is reliable and she tells what she sees. It is Harper Lee who is a bit disingenuous for creating a young girl who is apparently seeing things through fresh eyes but really has years of experience behind her. It is clearly an artifice of this novel, but I find it doesn't really matter. We know that the adult Scout knows what's happening around her; but as the story plays out, we see it through more innocent eyes. Perhaps it would be too hard to take without a little innocence to filter the ugly realities for us.

ask996 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

A first person narrator is only unreliable if the author creates him or her to be unreliable. As others have mentioned, Scouts adult self looks back on what she perceived as a childhood. Since she has filtered these memories through her adult perspective, it's not quite the same as a child's perspective. We are not privy to the filtering process; we are simply given the adult version of the child's recollections.  

litteacher8 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

An narrator is unusually unreliable if it is a child or a mentally ill person.  Scout is an unreliable narrator because as a child she cannot possibly understand everything that is happening.  The same is true if a narrator is lying to the readers or mentally ill, such as in "A Tell-tale Heart" because the reader cannot rely on the narrator to accurately depict what is going on. 




mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Does the heart not remember truly?  It is these emotionally charged rememberances of the child Scout that touch the readers with their profound truths.  Whether the extenuating facts are accurate is not significant enough to mitigate the verisimilitude of To Kill a Mockingbird.

lrwilliams eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I would agree that the author has used Scout as the narrator with a purpose of seeing the events through her eyes and in retrospect. I am certain that he intends her to be a reliable source in recalling the facts.

tessalynette | Student

As Harper Lee tells the story from an adult perspective, Scout can be a very reliable narrator. 

Harper Lee tells the story as if she were Scout, herself. She recounts all the events as if she was there, and I think that that helps a lot. She makes the story very believable, by doing this.

So, I leave you with this: Is the narraration unreliable...or believable?

I say believable.

pop5 | Student

Ohh sorry just realised what the question topic was sorry :P

pop5 | Student

Okkkk, so what s the question?

Personally, i think Harper Lee is extremly clever in the way she uses a child as a narrative voice. As we see Scout mature and learn from Atticus, we as readers also feel as though we do the same. I don't think that this filters the "ugly realities" because no matter how embarrasing or unpleasant the questions Scout asks Atticus are it doesn't stop him from answering and therefore scout has the knoweledge of a young adult.  :D

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To Kill a Mockingbird

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