Katherine Mansfield’s Influences

Virginia and Katherine

THE INFLUENCES OF PLACE AND ERA

  • Katherine Mansfield grew up in middle class Wellington, New Zealand and moved to Europe as a young adult to finish her education in London.
  • Some of her stories are influenced by her experiences in England, Belgium and Bavaria (In a German Pension).
  • Her first stories were accepted by The Age but Mansfield grew tired of the sort of story they expected from her. At this time she met John Middleton Murry, who encouraged her to write something different. She became Murry’s partner and they later married.
  • New Zealand influenced her writing, and was the setting in some of her last, and best, works. ‘…if the truth were known I have a perfect passion for the island where I was born. …just as on those mornings white milky mists rise and uncover some beauty, then smother it again and then again disclose it, I tried to lift that mist from my people and let them be seen and then to hide them again…’
  • Mansfield was concerned with nationality in her early stories but later switched to a focus on modernist aesthetics and techniques. Her most New Zealand stories are the “Prelude” trilogy and “How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped“. Her early stories seem to be from the perspective of a white female New Zealander. Of course she wrote her last and best stories about New Zealand.
  • In fact, setting seems more important in Mansfield’s German stories than in her New Zealand ones. For example, the mention of sauerkraut in “Germans At Meat” place the story in a particular place. But in the New Zealand stories, replacement of a particularly New Zealand detail (e.g. a type of tree) wouldn’t affect the story as a whole. “The Wind Blows” is set in windy Wellington, but could be set in many English speaking places. If no one knew Katherine Mansfield was a New Zealander, she wouldn’t be considered A New Zealand Writer.
  • Reading Mansfield’s New Zealand stories, New Zealand feels like an imprisonment, a place of confinement, especially for female characters. New Zealand was a young colony in Mansfield’s time. Any new colony is a hugely patriarchal one — all about domination, exploring and dominion over others. Europe wasn’t much better for women of course, but isolation led to a very constricted type of monotony for young women like Katherine Mansfield growing up in New Zealand.
  • Her final year of life, 1922, was spent in Switzerland.



THE INFLUENCE OF THE THEATRE

  • Mansfield was supported financially by her father but never had quite enough. Apart from writing, she also acted as an extra in early movies. The theatre is the subject of her short story “Pictures“.
  • Today’s readers are different from Mansfield’s contemporaries — we have all seen a lot of TV and movies and rarely realise how influenced we are by conventions of the screen. We are highly literate in reading screen narrative compared to early 20th century readers who had seen few moving pictures. But because of her experience in the theatre, Mansfield learned far earlier than most all about the single take, juxtapositions, abrupt openings, quick dissolves and the clarity that cutting can impose. Mansfield’s translation of the language of cinema onto the page antedated that of most Modernist writers. These cinematic techniques are partly what make Mansfield’s short stories feel so contemporary compared to many short stories from around the same era. (For more on that, read Sarah Sandley’s essay on Mansfield and cinema from 2011 and Cinema and the Imagination in Katherine Mansfield’s Writing by M. Ascari.)
  • Mansfield was really interested in Charlie Chaplin and starts talking about him in her letters from 1918. She named one of her cats after him. Chaplin’s talent for hyper-mimesis and self-parody contrasted with the commercial side of film acting. “Je ne parle pas francais” (written 1918) is the best example of self-parody produced by Mansfield, who grew critical of cinema as the emblem of consumerist mass culture. Note that this is the year she was really into Chaplin.

THE INFLUENCE OF ILL HEALTH

  • Plagued by illness all her adult life, death is a major theme. Her parents were told when Mansfield was a child that tuberculosis would probably see the end of her.
  • Facing early death from a young age, Mansfield located herself not only in the present but in the past and future.
  • Mansfield’s medical treatment was expensive and in her last two years she was faced with the task of making money quickly. She spent a lot more time writing book reviews. She’d write 2-3 a week when Murry was editor of the Athenaeum.
  • Because Mansfield knew she was short on time, she made the decision not to write the following: novels, problem stories and ‘nothing that is not simple, open’.
  • In “Psychology”, the playwright character appreciates the ease of breathing. Mansfield always had lung issues, and it’s likely she really did appreciate the otherwise invisible act of easy breathing, whenever it was afforded to her.

THE INFLUENCE OF FRIENDS

  • Mansfield surrounded herself in Bohemian types and these people influenced her.
  • Take Dorothy Brett, a painter. Dorothy was a correspondent, and afforded Mansfield the space to talk about images and the depiction of images in writing. Mansfield told Dorothy that she preferred to paint an image rather than to give a technical account.

THE INFLUENCE OF HER BROTHER’S DEATH

  • Mansfield’s brother Lesley died early in the First World War during an army training exercise. After this Mansfield moved to southern France where she wrote ‘recollections of my own country’. The first New Zealand story she wrote was The Aloe (“Prelude“).
  • Various critics have said this marked a turning point in her writing. She seemed to be thinking a lot more about her time growing up back in Wellington, where she would have been with her brother. Stories she wrote after his death were about middle-class life and family dynamics.
  • However, the loss of her brother doesn’t explain all of the changes in Mansfield’s writing. She wrote “The Wind Blows” before he died. This story shows that Mansfield was already capable of manipulating time adroitly and unexpectedly. She had already started to delve into her Wellington childhood before Lesley’s death.

THE INFLUENCE OF PSYCHOANALYSIS

  • At the end of the 19th century people were starting to look into the concept of the ‘self’. Two major theories were being talked about. The first was the theory of Sigmund Freud. Freud divided the human psyche into consciousness and unconciousness (the Ego and the Id). Freud gave rise to the field of psychanalysis. The second was the theory of William James. James was all about stream of consciousness (what modernism is all about). His book The Principles of Psychology was published in 1890 and it’s said this is the book that founded the field of psychology in America. There is little evidence that Mansfield read the work of either Freud or James. But we know from her notebooks and letters that she was interested in notions of the self. She approached this as someone interested in the idea, not as an academic or philosopher. Her ideas about the self were complex, but she never really settled on a theory — concept of the self in her work is at times contradictory.

LITERARY INFLUENCES AND THOUGHTS ABOUT WRITING

  • As a child she read fey fairy tales and fables.
  • Mansfield’s stories are strewn with Biblical references. “His Sister’s Keeper” (1909) refers to Genesis 4, 9: “Am I my brother’s keeper? In “Psychology” the playwright thinks of the Book of Genesis while offering cake to her man friend. In “Something Childish But Very Natural” she creates a version of Eden when describing two very young lovers’ paradise and mention of the apple tree. (The girl’s name is Edna >> Eden.) And then snakes appear at the end. “Marriage a la Mode” gives us a missing Noah’s Ark (missing because the house of the ‘new Isabel’ is filled with a parody of Bohemian poets and artists, in which the ark is the symbol of happy childhood.
  • She read Ulysses and A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man. She despised the former, but enjoyed the latter upon re-reading. ‘Little in his [Joyce’s] writing is art.’
  • She felt the poems in the Oxford Book of English Verse were generally poor, except for Shakespeare and Marvell and ‘just a handful of others’.
  • She thought lots of novels – ‘pastime novels’ – demanded little of the reader, rehashing the same old stories and settings, failing to challenge the reader.
  • She believed detail for the sake of detail was no good. She believed anyone could describe detail and that writers could only be set apart from the rest of the population by saying something about the greater mysteries of life. There must be an illumination.
  • Mansfield was influenced heavily by Chekhov, quoting him in her letters. She considered herself the English Chekhov. She admired his knowledge and truth. She particularly enjoyed “The Steppe”. Some commentators have said she plagiarised Chekhov’s “Sleepy” when she wrote “The Child-Who-Was-Tired”. Mansfield owes a lot to Chekhov, but her style is her own. For instance, Mansfield made more heavy use of symbolism than Chekhov did.
  • Chekhov showed her that she was quite justified in writing stories of such uneven length. She realised that some of her writing failed to fit neatly into short stories, sketches, impressions or tales. Her longer works have been called novellas; Mansfield herself did not ever categorise her own form of writing. She felt hers were different from other short pieces.
  • Mansfield read D.H. Lawrence’s writing though there was much she didn’t like about it. But she wrote ‘he is the only writer living whom I really profoundly care for. It seems to me whatever he writes, no matter how much one may ‘disagree’, is important.’
  • She also read Dorothy Richardson, and thought they had no plot and no depth.
  • She thought Bunin, Maupassant, Joyce and Proust did not achieve greatness.
  • Mansfield believed that writers who wrote with ‘purpose’ were little more than preachers, and less than artists. (She perhaps meant didacticism.)
  • Influenced by Dostoevsky, Mansfield believed that plot should arise naturally from situation and characters; that events should be seen rather than shown off. The climax should give a sense of inevitability. The atmosphere gives the story continuity. In other words, she believed stories should be character driven.
  • Mansfield believed that the weather was important in reflecting the inner-life of characters in a story and was surprised at how little this connection was explored by other writers, except in its most obvious form (happy because the sun is shining, perturbed because the wind is blowing etc.). A story such as “Pictures” suggests Mansfield herself was highly influenced by the sensory input of her surroundings.

  • Katherine Mansfield grew up in middle class Wellington, New Zealand and moved to Europe as a young adult to finish her education in London.
  • Some of her stories are influenced by her experiences in England, Belgium and Bavaria (In a German Pension).
  • Her first stories were accepted by The Age but Mansfield grew tired of the sort of story they expected from her. At this time she met John Middleton Murry, who encouraged her to write something different. She became Murry’s partner and they later married.
  • New Zealand influenced her writing, and was the setting in some of her last, and best, works. ‘…if the truth were known I have a perfect passion for the island where I was born. …just as on those mornings white milky mists rise and uncover some beauty, then smother it again and then again disclose it, I tried to lift that mist from my people and let them be seen and then to hide them again…’
  • Mansfield was concerned with nationality in her early stories but later switched to a focus on modernist aesthetics and techniques. Her most New Zealand stories are the “Prelude” trilogy and “How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped“. Her early stories seem to be from the perspective of a white female New Zealander. Of course she wrote her last and best stories about New Zealand.
  • In fact, setting seems more important in Mansfield’s German stories than in her New Zealand ones. For example, the mention of sauerkraut in “Germans At Meat” place the story in a particular place. But in the New Zealand stories, replacement of a particularly New Zealand detail (e.g. a type of tree) wouldn’t affect the story as a whole. “The Wind Blows” is set in windy Wellington, but could be set in many English speaking places. If no one knew Katherine Mansfield was a New Zealander, she wouldn’t be considered A New Zealand Writer.
  • Reading Mansfield’s New Zealand stories, New Zealand feels like an imprisonment, a place of confinement, especially for female characters. New Zealand was a young colony in Mansfield’s time. Any new colony is a hugely patriarchal one — all about domination, exploring and dominion over others. Europe wasn’t much better for women of course, but isolation led to a very constricted type of monotony for young women like Katherine Mansfield growing up in New Zealand.
  • Her final year of life, 1922, was spent in Switzerland.



THE INFLUENCE OF THE THEATRE

  • Mansfield was supported financially by her father but never had quite enough. Apart from writing, she also acted as an extra in early movies. The theatre is the subject of her short story “Pictures“.
  • Today’s readers are different from Mansfield’s contemporaries — we have all seen a lot of TV and movies and rarely realise how influenced we are by conventions of the screen. We are highly literate in reading screen narrative compared to early 20th century readers who had seen few moving pictures. But because of her experience in the theatre, Mansfield learned far earlier than most all about the single take, juxtapositions, abrupt openings, quick dissolves and the clarity that cutting can impose. These cinematic techniques are partly what make Mansfield’s short stories feel so contemporary compared to many short stories from around the same era.
  • Mansfield was really interested in Charlie Chaplin and starts talking about him in her letters from 1918. She named one of her cats after him. Chaplin’s talent for hyper-mimesis and self-parody contrasted with the commercial side of film acting. “Je ne parle pas francais” (written 1918) is the best example of self-parody produced by Mansfield, who grew critical of cinema as the emblem of consumerist mass culture. Note that this is the year she was really into Chaplin.

THE INFLUENCE OF ILL HEALTH

  • Plagued by illness all her adult life, death is a major theme. Her parents were told when Mansfield was a child that tuberculosis would probably see the end of her.
  • Facing early death from a young age, Mansfield located herself not only in the present but in the past and future.
  • Mansfield’s medical treatment was expensive and in her last two years she was faced with the task of making money quickly. She spent a lot more time writing book reviews. She’d write 2-3 a week when Murry was editor of the Athenaeum.
  • Because Mansfield knew she was short on time, she made the decision not to write the following: novels, problem stories and ‘nothing that is not simple, open’.

THE INFLUENCE OF FRIENDS

  • Mansfield surrounded herself in Bohemian types and these people influenced her.
  • Take Dorothy Brett, a painter. Dorothy was a correspondent, and afforded Mansfield the space to talk about images and the depiction of images in writing. Mansfield told Dorothy that she preferred to paint an image rather than to give a technical account.

THE INFLUENCE OF HER BROTHER’S DEATH

  • Mansfield’s brother Lesley died early in the First World War during an army training exercise. After this Mansfield moved to southern France where she wrote ‘recollections of my own country’. The first New Zealand story she wrote was The Aloe (“Prelude“).
  • Various critics have said this marked a turning point in her writing. She seemed to be thinking a lot more about her time growing up back in Wellington, where she would have been with her brother. Stories she wrote after his death were about middle-class life and family dynamics.
  • However, the loss of her brother doesn’t explain all of the changes in Mansfield’s writing. She wrote “The Wind Blows” before he died. This story shows that Mansfield was already capable of manipulating time adroitly and unexpectedly. She had already started to delve into her Wellington childhood before Lesley’s death.

THE INFLUENCE OF PSYCHOANALYSIS

  • At the end of the 19th century people were starting to look into the concept of the ‘self’. Two major theories were being talked about. The first was the theory of Sigmund Freud. Freud divided the human psyche into consciousness and unconciousness (the Ego and the Id). Freud gave rise to the field of psychanalysis. The second was the theory of William James. James was all about stream of consciousness (what modernism is all about). His book The Principles of Psychology was published in 1890 and it’s said this is the book that founded the field of psychology in America. There is little evidence that Mansfield read the work of either Freud or James. But we know from her notebooks and letters that she was interested in notions of the self. She approached this as someone interested in the idea, not as an academic or philosopher. Her ideas about the self were complex, but she never really settled on a theory — concept of the self in her work is at times contradictory.

LITERARY INFLUENCES AND THOUGHTS ABOUT WRITING

  • As a child she read fey fairy tales and fables.
  • She read Ulysses and A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man. She despised the former, but enjoyed the latter upon re-reading. ‘Little in his [Joyce’s] writing is art.’
  • She felt the poems in the Oxford Book of English Verse were generally poor, except for Shakespeare and Marvell and ‘just a handful of others’.
  • She thought lots of novels – ‘pastime novels’ – demanded little of the reader, rehashing the same old stories and settings, failing to challenge the reader.
  • She believed detail for the sake of detail was no good. She believed anyone could describe detail and that writers could only be set apart from the rest of the population by saying something about the greater mysteries of life. There must be an illumination.
  • Mansfield was influenced heavily by Chekhov, quoting him in her letters. She considered herself the English Chekhov. She admired his knowledge and truth. She particularly enjoyed “The Steppe”. Some commentators have said she plagiarised Chekhov’s “Sleepy” when she wrote “The Child-Who-Was-Tired”. Mansfield owes a lot to Chekhov, but her style is her own. For instance, Mansfield made more heavy use of symbolism than Chekhov did.
  • Chekhov showed her that she was quite justified in writing stories of such uneven length. She realised that some of her writing failed to fit neatly into short stories, sketches, impressions or tales. Her longer works have been called novellas; Mansfield herself did not ever categorise her own form of writing. She felt hers were different from other short pieces.
  • Mansfield read D.H. Lawrence’s writing though there was much she didn’t like about it. But she wrote ‘he is the only writer living whom I really profoundly care for. It seems to me whatever he writes, no matter how much one may ‘disagree’, is important.’
  • She also read Dorothy Richardson, and thought they had no plot and no depth.
  • She thought Bunin, Maupassant, Joyce and Proust did not achieve greatness.
  • Mansfield believed that writers who wrote with ‘purpose’ were little more than preachers, and less than artists. (She perhaps meant didacticism.)
  • Influenced by Dostoevsky, Mansfield believed that plot should arise naturally from situation and characters; that events should be seen rather than shown off. The climax should give a sense of inevitability. The atmosphere gives the story continuity. In other words, she believed stories should be character driven.
  • Mansfield believed that the weather was important in reflecting the inner-life of characters in a story and was surprised at how little this connection was explored by other writers, except in its most obvious form (happy because the sun is shining, perturbed because the wind is blowing etc.). A story such as “Pictures” suggests Mansfield herself was highly influenced by the sensory input of her surroundings.

Unreliable Narration In Storytelling

Atkinson Grimshaw - The Trysting Tree

This post more than any other contains spoilers. Sometimes it’s a spoiler just to know that you’re dealing with an unreliable narrator.

Unreliable narration is a storytelling technique which requires some work on the part of the reader, trying to work out how much of the story is true and how much is subjective, or an outright lie.

The most fallible, most consistently clueless narrator you could hope to meet might be Ford Madox Ford in the novel The Good Soldier (1915).

How To Read Literature Like A Professor

a famous liar from fiction

Everyone suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.

– F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

THE UNRELIABLE CONTINUUM



Almost every story fits somewhere on the ‘unreliable continuum’. Let’s exclude omniscient narrators, who we should take at face value, but truly omniscient narration is rare.

Far more common is close third person point of view. Harry Potter fans have had fun arguing about how much of his story is objectively true versus how much is subjectively conveyed owing to Harry’s own biases. For example, in The Philosopher’s Stone, Hermione is depicted as ‘annoying’ but as the series progresses, she is no longer so presumably she has undergone a character arc. But who’s to say that Hermione was ever objectively an irritant? Could it be Harry’s sexist response towards a girly swot who knew more than he did which lead readers to conclude the same?

The following explains, in part, why true omniscient narration may have gone the way of the dodo. It is no longer culturally accepted that there is any such thing as objective truth:

W.G. Sebald once said to me, “I think that fiction writing which does not acknowledge the uncertainty of the narrator himself is a form of imposture which I find very, very difficult to take. Any form of authorial writing where the narrator sets himself up as stagehand and director and judge and executor in a text, I find somehow unacceptable. I cannot bear to read books of this kind.” Seabed continued: “If you refer to Jane Austen, you refer to a world where there were set standards of propriety which were accepted by everyone. Given that you have a world where the rules are clear and where one knows where trespassing begins, then I think it is legitimate, within that context, to be a narrator who knows what the rules are and who knows the answers to certain questions. But I think these certainties have been taken from us by the course of history, and that we do have to acknowledge our own sense of ignorance and of insufficiency in these matters and therefore to try and write accordingly.

For Sebald, and for many writers like him, standard third-person omniscient narration is a kind of antique cheat. But both sides of the division have been caricatured. […]

Even the apparently unreliable narrator is more often than not reliably unreliable. Think of Kazoo Ishiguro’s butler in The Remains of the Day, or of Bertie Wooster, or even of Humbert Humbert. We know that the narrator is being unreliable because the author is alerting us, through reliable manipulation, to that narrator’s vulnerability. A process of authorial flagging is going on; the novel teaches us how to read its narrator.

James Wood, How Fiction Works

Charles Haigh Wood - The Tryst
Charles Haigh Wood – The Tryst

WHY USE AN UNRELIABLE NARRATOR?

Unreliable narrators are useful for achieving an epiphany in the reader. Chekhov makes the most of this in his later works, in which the reader has an epiphany while the character goes on without one, unchanging.

The unreliable narrator breaks down into at least three different types:

1. The narrator that purposefully leads you astray

2. The narrator whose view of the world is so strident that by sheer force of will they are attempting to lead you astray

3. The narrator who does not attempt to lead you astray but does by dint of their youth and inexperience: Room, Catcher In The Rye

— Fuse8 blog

The Importance of the ‘Ghost’

When creating an unreliable narrator the narrator has to have

1. A secret (“ghost” from their background)

2. A reason for keeping this secret/ghost from us.

Somebody else will be trying to expose that secret. Why does this other character want the secret exposed? Without these things going on in your story, you probably don’t need to make use of an unreliable narrator.

The Grandmother Genre Of Modern Unreliable Narration

Look to gothic literature.

Our modern imperilled (or seemingly imperilled) female protagonists calls to mind the gothic novels of Ann Radcliffe and her heirs. From Emily St. Aubert, the heroine of Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, who is kept prisoner in an Italian castle, to the narrator of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper who is confined to a room with bad interior decorating, these women have to sort out the mysteries of their situations to find the truth. Jane Eyre has to find out who’s in the attic. The second Mrs. de Winter has to figure out what happened to her predecessor, Rebecca.

Trapped in a duplicitous world, is it any wonder that they retreat into their own versions of reality? Jane Eyre admits to opening “my inward ear to a tale that never ended—a tale my imagination created, and narrated continuously.” The narrator of The Yellow Wallpaper begins to see figures in the walls. The second Mrs. de Winter is so insecure (maybe because she doesn’t get a name!) she believes Mrs. Danvers’ version of the truth and misreads her husband’s feelings about his dead wife.

Bookish

Unreliable Narration And Feminism

The gothic tradition started something which has continued to this day: A gender imbalance in unreliability. When women are constantly utilised as unreliable, women become intertwined with liars. There is a long history of disbelieving women.

For centuries the testimony of women has been held up to scrutiny and frequently dismissed on the grounds that our biology makes us prone to neurosis, hysteria, irrational subjectivity, and that our judgment can’t be trusted. It’s also a favourite cliche of fiction and drama: the heroine who is repeatedly told by men that she is imagining things, until she starts to question her own sanity. McGowan has repeatedly used the word “gaslighting” of her treatment by men in the industry, a term taken from the 1944 film Gaslight, in which a husband attempts to convince his wife she is going mad in order to cover up his own criminal activity.

It’s curious, then, that in our more enlightened times, when women are no longer routinely incarcerated as hysterics, that we should remain so obsessed with the idea of the female narrator who can’t be relied upon to know her own mind, or even what she saw from the window of her train or apartment. The obvious example is Paula Hawkins’s multimillion-selling The Girl on the Train, in which the narrator’s judgment was impaired by her drink problem. There’s SJ Watson’s bestseller Before I Go to Sleep, which also became a blockbuster film and features a female narrator convinced that something sinister is going on in her marriage, but who struggles to prove it because she suffers from memory loss.

Stephanie Merritt, The Guardian

Examples Of Unreliable Narration In Picture Books

Dr Seuss is the standout example of a picture book author with unreliable narrators. Subversive retellings of fairytales can also ask readers to question the truth.

  • And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street
  • McElliot’s Pool
  • If I Ran The Zoo
  • If I Ran The Circus
  • The Wolf’s Story: What Really Happened to Little Red Riding Hood by Toby Forward, an example of a picture book in which the pictures tell a different story.
  • The True Story Of The Three Little Pigs byJon Scieszka and Lane Smith
  • Seriously, Cinderella Is SO Annoying!: The Story of Cinderella as Told by the Wicked Stepmother by Trisha Speed Shaken — from the perspective of the stepmother and stepsisters who accuse her of being an insipid little twit
  • My Cat, the Silliest Cat in the World by Giles Bachelet — the words tell a story about a cat but the pictures show that the ‘cat’ is actually an elephant.
  • Dear Mrs. LaRue: Letters From Obedience School by Mark Teague — has two stories — the black and white imaginings of a dog narrator which match his melodramatic letters home, compared to coloured illustrations depicting ‘the truth’. (There’s a whole series of them.)
  • Poor Puppy by Nick Bruel  “Poor, poor Puppy. Poor, poor, poor, poor, poor Puppy!” The book then becomes a counting/alphabet book to demonstrate that Puppy isn’t really poor—in fact he has many playthings at his disposal
  • Emma Kate by Patricia Polacco  That adorable Emma Kate has an imaginary friend. They walk to school together every morning and sit together in class. They sleep over at each other’s houses and do their homework side by side. They even have their tonsils out and eat gallons of pink ice cream together. The twist is that the stuffed elephant is imaginary but looks to be inspired by an item in the “real” friend’s possession.
  • Green Wilma by Tedd Arnold Green Wilma is about a girl who wakes up green. Her mother is fussy because she doesn’t feel as thought a green child should go to school. When Wilma gets on the bus the ruckus begins. In art her classmates think its pretty cool to be green. And again more ruckus. She is hungry and finds that flies are what she desires the most. When she spots one on the teachers nose the chase is on. Again, more ruckus. The fly eventually leads her to Millers pond. She jumps in after it and comes face to face with a hungry fish. She immediately wakes up from her dream and relaizes that she is still a little girl and the entire dream was fantasy.
  • Olivia Saves The Circus by Ian Falconer Olivia is a wonderfully unreliable narrator, and this one is a great example in which Olivia the pig tells a tall story. When all of the performers at the circus are out sick with ear infections, it’s up to Olivia to save the day! That’s no problem for Olivia, of course, because she knows how to do everything. From lion taming to trampoline jumping, unicycling to tight-rope walking, Olivia is the ultimate performer (according to Olivia). Olivia is supposed to be telling her classmates about her holidays and spins a tale which revolves around her single-handedly substituting all artists and clowns and animal tamers of a huge circus show, because the entire performing staff suffered from an ear inflammation and – certainly – because Olivia already knew how to do these things.
  • When I Went To The Library
  • Make Way For Ducklings by Robert McCloskey — “Some of the purest examples of irony are found in children’s literature, which often needs to allow a child— or the child’s proxy, an animal — to see the world through limited eyes, while alerting the older reader to this limitation. In Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings, Mr. and Mrs. Mallard are trying out the Boston Public Garden for their new home, when a swan boat (a boat made to look like a swan but actually powered by a pedal-pushing human pilot) passes them. Mr. Mallard has never seen anything like this before. McCloskey falls naturally into free indirect style: “Just as they were getting ready to start on their way, a strange enormous bird came by. It was pushing a boat full of people, and there was a man sitting on its back. ‘Good morning,’ quacked Mr. Mallard, being polite. The big bird was too proud to answer.” Instead of telling us that Mr. Mallard could make no sense of the swan boat, McCloskey places us in Mr. Mallard’s confusion; yet the confusion is obvious enough that a broad ironic gap opens between Mr. Mallard and the reader (or author). We are not confused in the same way as Mr. Mallard; but we are also being made to inhabit Mr. Mallard’s confusion.

Examples Of Unreliable Narration From MG Fiction

Probably because truthful children of this age are upheld as morally better people, unreliable narrators in middle grade stories are a bit harder to find. I’m sure it’s to do with the lack of pictures, too. The ironic distance between text and pictures creates unreliable in picture books, whereas the pictures in ‘illustrated books’ serve to help reading comprehension.

  • Once by Morris Gleitzman
  • Story Of The Treasure-Seekers by E. Nesbit
  • Moominpappa’s Memoirs by Tove Jansson
  • Pale Fire
  • Diary Of A Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney Greg is an unreliable narrator as well as not a great role model. This is attractive to kids. Greg is similar to Bart Simpson or Dennis the Menace in that young readers know exactly what Greg is meant to be. They’re not going to hold him up as a role model. (That said, my daughter has tried to get away with things because Greg does them!)
  • Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made by Stephen Pastis, in the Wimpy Kid tradition
  • Millicent Mee, Girl Genius — the Asian-American female version of Timmy Failure
  • Liar and Spy by Rebecca Stead
  • Fortunately, The Milk by Neil Gaiman a father goes out for milk. When he arrives home he spins a tall story for his children about what happened while he was out.

Examples Of Unreliable Narration From Film

  • The Usual Suspects
  • American Psycho by Brett Easton Ellis Patrick Bateman is a psychopath living the high life in 1980s Manhattan. He is also a murderer who tortures and rapes. But when Bateman tries to confess to these crimes, he is told he didn’t commit any. So is he a psychopath or does he have some sort of schizophrenic disorder?
  • Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk later adapted for film. This is one of those stories that can definitely be ruined because the reversal is massive. We eventually realize that Durden isn’t our narrator’s new best friend he’s his cooler, crazier alter-ego.
  • The Killer Inside Me directed by Michael Winterbottom was widely panned by critics for its almost unbearable violence against women. You see the main man violently abusing women, then the women would turn around and smile and seem to want it. For people who already have enough violence in their real life, this is indeed unwatchable. For those who can make it to the end of the film, it turns out to have an anti-violence message, because we learn that the violent killer has only been imagining in his own mind that the women are somehow enjoying his violence. This film is an interesting study into how much a writer can or can’t get away with when trying to write a story ‘against’ something, but for most of the story seems to be ‘for’ it.
  • Fallen
  • The Sixth Sense
  • From Goth Girl to Gone Girl: Unreliable Narrators in Literature from Bookish

Examples Of Unreliable Narration In Novels For YA And Older

  • The Turn Of The Screw by Henry James The reader doesn’t know if this is a ghost story or not. The story is the self-reported manuscript of a governess who comes to take care of two orphans, Miles and Flora, at a country house in Essex. After she arrives at the estate, the governess encounters the ghosts of two former employees who have died. She’s the only person who can see the ghosts, but she’s convinced that they’re real. Is this a ghost story or a portrait of a woman’s mental breakdown? This trick whereby the reader isn’t sure if a character is a ghost or not was used by Robert Cormier many years later in In The Middle Of The Night.
  • Here Lies Daniel Tate  Daniel is a magnetic, talented, and desperate con artist who has stumbled into the scam of a lifetime. Assuming the identity of long missing boy, Daniel Tate, he is no longer at the mercy of the foster care system, and gains the security of a home and a family that loves him. But he soon discovers his new home is more sinister than it seemed on the surface…and the Daniel he has replaced might not be missing at all.
  • Lolita Can make the reader feel empathy for a pedophile, which makes us examine how much of Humbert Humbert is inside us, and also makes us realise that even badly behaved people are not all bad. People who do bad things are not monsters they walk among us.
  • Life of Pi by Yann Martel Is Pi adrift on a lifeboat with those animals or is he stranded with other humans, with the animals being allegory?
  • The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin the female narrator has PTSD after a car accident that killed all her friends.
  • Liar by Justine Larbalestier it’s right there in the title.
  • The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger
  • Atonement by Ian McEwan Briony Tallis is unreliable because she is only 13 years old and doesn’t understand how the world works.
  • Dangerous Girls by Abigail Haas
  • If You Come Softly by Jacqueline Woodson
  • Dead To You by Lisa McMann
  • Perks Of Being A Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
  • We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
  • Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn Amy and Nick Dunne is an example of not one but two unreliable narrators. The stand out example of modern unreliable narration.
  • The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins the other standout adult psychological suspense novel of our time.
  • In A Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware
  • The Woman In Cabin 10, also by Ruth Ware
  • The Widow’s House by Clare Goodman   a couple moves into a deteriorating estate in the Hudson Valley, hoping to revitalize their marriage and careers. However, shortly after moving in, the wife, Clare, begins having visions of strangers walking their property and she starts to hear wailing. Could the house be haunted, or is it all in Clare’s mind?
  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz  Oscar De León  is an overweight, sci-fi loving Dominican kid growing up in Paterson, New Jersey. But the narrator is his best friend, Yunior de las Casas. Yunior acts as an omniscient narrator, populating the story with details that he couldn’t have known and admitting that he changed some names between “drafts.”
  • Notes On A Scandal by Zoe Heller Barbara Covett is a lonely history teacher who jumps at the chance to be friends with Sheba, the new art teacher at her school. Barbara falls in love with Sheba but Sheba is heterosexual and not interested. Feeling rejected, this affects Barbara’s ability to remove herself from the situation and report reliably. Barbara paints Sheba as manipulative, but we eventually realise Barbara is her equal in that characteristic.
  • The Remains Of The Day by Kazuo Ishiguro Stevens is the head butler of Darlington Hall. He is loyal, precise and hard-working but his blindness to the world is a brilliant example of dramatic irony. He can’t see the slow demise of the great house where he works. Nor can he acknowledge his feelings for a fellow servant.
  • The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters The story would have been easier to tell from third person point of view, so why does Sarah Waters choose to write it from the point of view of the family doctor? I believe it’s because he’s the murderer, writing the story down to try and absolve himself.

50 Must-read Books With Unreliable Narrators from BookRiot

Header painting: Atkinson Grimshaw The Trysting Tree

Things To Know About Chekhov

Anton Chekhov

Anton Chekhov was a Russian writer who lived 1860-1904. He financially supported his extended family and initially started writing to support them. But he considered himself mainly a doctor. He treated people experiencing financial hardship for free. He died at the age of 44 from tuberculosis.

1. CHEKHOV DID NOT OVERWRITE

You’ll hear Chekhov related advice in every writing group ever.

In short stories it is better to say not enough than to say too much, because,—because—I don’t know why.

One would like […] descriptions to be more compact and concise, just two or three lines or so.

Take out adjectives and adverbs whenever you can.

— Chekhov

In his essay “Notes on the Novella” , Graham Good considers Chekhov the inventor of a ‘new form of novella’ involving a ‘minimal plot’. (Good uses the word ‘novella’ but is talking about short stories.)

2. OFTEN THE MAIN CHARACTER DOES NOT CHANGE

There’s this basic rule of storytelling that the main character has to undergo a character arc, but that does not apply to lyrical short stories.

The connection between hero and world extends from the hero’s slavery throughout his character arc. In most stories, because the hero and the world are expressions of each other, the world and the hero develop together. Or if the hero doesn’t change, as in much of Chekhov, the world doesn’t change either.”

Notes From: John Truby. “The Anatomy of Story.”

Chekhov’s stories are frequently less about change than they are about the failure to change. Chekhov was generally pessimistic about the possibility of change. This is more true to life than other forms of storytelling, for example any movie coming out of Hollywood today — audiences are there to see a character change.

Even when the characters do change, their changes fail to last, merely complicate the existing conflict, or create a new and often greater conflict.

See also: Character Transformation In Fiction.

3. CHEKHOV WAS HUGELY INFLUENTIAL

Chekhovian is now a word. Examples of Chekhovian writers:

  • Henry Green (English) — who likes to ‘gag commentary’ (give even fewer reasons) than Chekhov even did.
  • Katherine Mansfield (New Zealander) — early in her life she admired Ivan Turgenev but after discovering Anton Chekhov she cast Turgenev aside. Sure enough, her best work was written after her discovery of Chekhov. The Garden Party, for instance, has a distinctively Chekhovian ending. Some people say she out-and-out plagiarised Chekhov’s “Sleepy” when she wrote “The Child-Who-Was-Tired.” Mansfield considered herself the English language Chekhov. Like Chekhov, Mansfield died young from complications of tuberculosis.
  • Raymond Carver (American) — influenced by Chekhov and Hemingway, who was himself influenced by Chekhov
  • Beth Henley — modern American playwright
  • James Joyce (Irish)
  • George Orwell (American)
  • Strunk & White — who wrote the grammar guide emphasising simplicity
  • Matthew Weiner — because the main male characters in Mad Men fail to change and that’s the whole point, unlike most other novelistic TV series. “1960 Sterling Cooper is the manor house in “The Cherry Orchard,” a besieged institution about to be swept away by the new order.” — John K.

4. CHEKHOV CHANGED THE NATURE OF ENDINGS

And knew exactly what he was doing when he said, “Either the hero gets married or shoots himself […] Whoever discovers new endings for plays will open up a new era.”

Chekhovian endings tend to emphasize the continuation of conflict, not its conclusion.

When I am finished with my characters, I like to return them to life.

One story even states: “And after that life went on as before.” While this feels like a ‘non-ending’, what it is, is a truncated ‘New Equilibrium’ stage.

These are subversive endings, designed to undercut our expectations of a ‘finished, satisfying story’. Such endings force readers to examine our conceptions about life and human nature.

The novel, and perhaps even more so, the short story does not provide philosophical answers, and Chekhov was fine with this state of affairs, saying that stories only need to ask the right questions.

Chekhov, and his descendants, may have together influenced children’s literature, including picture books:

There is a growing tendency for picture book endings to be left open, and more often than not, they pose questions to which there is no easy answer. Often the themes are what Egoff calls ‘the darker side of human experience’, as if authors wish to insist that the security of childhood be shattered as soon as possible, or maybe inferring that it is fiction anyhow.

Clare Scott-Mitchell, Give Them Wings, 1988.

If he does this, he does so in order to make the reader have the epiphany his protagonist fails to have.

He did this more in his later work.

He did this because an epiphany is more powerful if the reader experiences it rather than merely witnesses it happening in a character.

Unreliable narrators are particularly useful for achieving an epiphany in the reader.

See also: Short Story Endings

5. CHEKHOV’S GUN

This storytelling term came from a piece of writing advice he issued once:

One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on a wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.

You don’t find many real guns in children’s literature, but the technique is still used. I call this Chekhov’s TOY Gun.

6. CHEKHOV’S SIX PRINCIPLES OF A GOOD STORY

According to Chekhov:

  1. Absence of lengthy verbiage of a political-social-economic nature
  2. Total objectivity
  3. Truthful descriptions of persons and objects
  4. Extreme brevity
  5. Audacity and originality: flee the stereotype
  6. Compassion

7. CHEKHOV AND OBJECTIVITY

Many commentators have said Chekhov created narrators who are ‘perfectly neutral observers’. These narrators ‘simply register phenemena with the mindless impersonality of a camera or a tape recorder. (For more on that see John Hagan.)

But we need to define what we mean by objectivity, as described above. If by ‘objectivity’ we mean ‘moral indifference’, we can’t say Chekhov’s narration is objective. He definitely wrote stories with an agenda, even though he avoided ‘subjectivity’.

Chekhov avoided the sort of subjectivity in which the author is ‘continually falsifying the truth of his cahracters by making them behave in ways that are pleasing to himself’ (Hagan).

SEE ALSO

And Then There Was Chekhov: The Librarian Is In Podcast, Episode 43

Must Characters Change? How Much?

character change don draper

Not all characters change in stories, but some sort of change must happen.

Michael Hauge uses the term ‘transformation’, and not every transformation is a character arc for the main character (however that is defined).

This transformation will occur on four different levels. The first three are:

Your hero’s external circumstances will change. She (or he) might be wealthier, more powerful, more successful, more admired; she’s is in a new relationship; she is no longer threatened by the villain or demon or disease she overcame; or (if she was unsuccessful) she might be alone, or disgraced, or deceased.

Your hero has changed internally. The arc of her inner journey might have made her more courageous, more loving, more moral, or (whether she succeeded or failed) wiser.

The world around your hero has changed. Her courage and sacrifice has made those around her safer, happier, wiser, more loving or more courageous themselves.

The fourth transformation may be harder to recognize and achieve, but will be just as powerful: you, the storyteller, will change.

Michael Hauge

Useful Concept: Range Of Change

How much does your main character change over the course of the story? This needs to be determined at the start of the writing process.

If studying a character rather than creating one, it’s a useful aspect to consider.

You must think of your hero as a scope of change, a range of possibilities, from the very beginning. You have to determine the scope of change of the hero at the start of the writing process, or change will be impossible for the hero at the end of the story.

The smaller the range, the less interesting the story; the bigger the range, the more interesting but the riskier the story, because characters don’t change much in the limited time they appear in most stories.

— John Truby, Anatomy of Story

 

Bear in mind that some authors, famously Chekhov, do not create main characters who change, and this is the very point. Mad Men creator Matt Weiner has said the same thing about Don Draper, making the point that in real life, unlike in most popular stories, people just don’t change all that much.

 

The Two Forms Of Character Development In Fiction

While Michael Hauge provides us with a useful taxonomy of storytelling transformation, others divide character development into two separate categories:

    1. A text can provide new information about a character that causes readers to see the character differently and in more depth

    2. Or the events of a story can actually change characters, make them more complicated.

The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, Perry Nodelman and Mavis Reimer

CHARACTER CHANGE THROUGHOUT THE HISTORY OF STORY

Character Change And The Development Of Novel Plotting

Ford Madox Ford, quoted by James Wood in How Fiction Works, pointed out that in older novels — especially those from England — the novelist would begin at the beginning and work chronologically through their character’s life, telling us all about their education and other influences.

But a new development in the novel meant authors avoided starting ‘at the beginning’. When it was discovered that novels in characters could change, it was interesting to depict that change on the page rather than explain it. Ford Madox Ford describes this new type of novel by explaining how “you meet an English gentleman at your golf club. He is beefy, full of health, the model of the boy from an English public school of the finest type. You discover, gradually, that he is hopelessly neurasthenic, dishonest in matters of small change, but unexpectedly self-sacrificing, a dreadful liar, but a most painfully careful student of Lepidoptera and, finally, from the public prints, a bigamist who was once, under another name, hammered on the Stock Exchange … To get such a man in fiction you could not begin at his beginning and work his life chronologically to the end. You must first get him in with a strong impression, and then work backwards and forwards over his past.”

The Influence of HBO

Brett Martin explains how cable TV change the way characters (don’t) change:

Nate [of Six Feet Under] has good intentions, but he’s an amateur jerk. He’s a selfish narcissist. And the tragedy is that he never transcends that. He never grows up,” Ball said.

That inability is another defining theme of TV’s Golden Age. If man’s big struggle with his inner demons defined The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and their descendants, they also drew a crucial dose of their realism from the tenacity of that big struggle—the way their characters stubbornly refused to change in any substantive way, despite constantly resolving to do so. […]

It’s no coincidence that addiction is one of the major tropes of the Third Golden Age. Likewise, psychotherapy, with its looping fits and starts of progress and regression. Recidivism and failure stalked these shows: Tony Soprano searches for something to fill the gnawing void he feels; he fails to find it. Jimmy McNulty [of The Wire] swears off the twin compulsions of booze and police work; he goes back to both, while the rest of The Wire’s most zealous reformers find themselves corrupted. The specter of Don Draper’s past infidelities comes to him in a fever dream, in the person of an old conquest. And though he literally chokes the Beast to death, we, and he, know she will be back. […]

“Everything changed” after 9/11.”

“‘I’m going to be different. I’m so lucky to be alive. I’m going to value things more, do things differently….’ That’s what it was all about,” said [David] Chase of the period immediately following the terrorist attacks. “But then it sort of faded away.” Or as Tony Soprano morosely put it, “Every day is a gift. It’s just…does it have to be a pair of socks?” […]

the goal of a TV show, unlike that of a movie or novel, no matter how ambiguous, is to never end. One way to address that basic economic mandate is to create a world in which there is no forward progress or story arc at all, just a series of discrete, repetitive episodes—In other words, the procedural. But if you’re interested in telling an ongoing story while remaining true to your own sense of the world, it helps for that worldview to be of an endless series of variations in which people repeatedly play out the same patterns of behavior, exhibiting only the most incremental signs of real change or progress.

— Brett Martin, Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad

CASE STUDY: A CHARACTER WHO DOES NOT CHANGE

To know that one is being taught a lesson or at any rate given a message leaves one free to reject it if only by dismissing plot or characters as cliches. But I had not realised how far the moral assumptions of film story-telling had sunk in, and how long they had stayed with me, until in 1974 I saw Louis Malle’s film about the French Occupation, Lacombe Lucien.

Lucien is a loutish, unappealing boy, recruited almost by accident into the French Fascist Milice. He falls in with and exploits a Jewish family, becoming involved with – it would be wrong to say falls in love with – the daughter, whom he helps to escape and with whom he lives. Then, as the Liberation draws near, he becomes himself a fugitive and is eventually, almost casually, shot.

The stock way to tell such a story would be to see the boy’s experiences – witnessing torture and ill-treatment, falling for the Jewish girl – as a moral education in the same way, for example, that the Marlon Brando character is educated in On the Waterfront.

That would be the convention and one I’d so much taken for granted that I kept looking in the Malle film for signs of this instruction of the school of life beginning to happen. But it doesn’t. Largely untouched by the dramas he has passed through, Lucien is much the same at the end of the film as he is at the beginning, seemingly having learned nothing. To have quite unobtrusively resisted the tug of conventional tale-telling and the lure of resolution seemed to me honest in a way few films even attempt.

– Alan Bennett, from Untold Stories

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When the [character] “change” feels beautiful … I think it’s because the character has confirmed what we’ve hoped or suspected all along. Maybe the character hasn’t changed at all, but rather has finally been put in a situation where her truest self can be revealed. … Stories, to my mind, are never about change. They are always and only about the possibility of change.

Bret Anthony Johnston

If you’re in the middle of writing something and find that you’re second-guessing your thumbnail character descriptions, see The Always/Only Test by Andrea Phillips and realise you’re not the only one.

The stages of character change as broken down by psychologists, from Psychwriter

Why People Don’t Change Their Spots from Social Learning

In the phrase [“to find myself”] lurks the idea that the self is a pre-existing entity, a self like a Platonic idea existing in a mystic realm beyond time and change. No, rather an object like a nugget of gold in the placer pan, the Easter egg under the bush at an Easter-egg hunt, a four-leaf clover to promise miraculous luck. Here is the essence of passivity, one’s quintessential luck. And the essence of absurdity, too, for the self is never to be found, but must be created, not the happy accident of passivity, but the product of a thousand actions, large and small, conscious or unconscious, performed not “away from it all,” but in the face of “it all,” for better or for worse, in work and leisure rather than in free time.

— Robert Penn Warren