A couple of weeks ago there was a partial reading of the story of the Adulterous Woman over on T&S. In that endeavor, the narrative-critical aspects of the story were not included. Since I have already ascended from dissy-Hell in order to drink gin from the bathtub with my homies, I think I’ll complement the earlier effort before I return. And since I seem to be totally unable to write anything shorter than War and Peace, this is going to have several installments.
Narrative criticism approaches biblical passages as literature, asking how a text communicates its message as a literary artifact. In general, narrative-critics of the Bible use the same methods as those used by those who study fiction. In specific cases, these methods are modified by an awareness of the time and distance that separates modern fiction from the ancient world. Narrative-critical approaches look at characters, rhetoric, style, syntax, plot, imagery, setting, tone, and point of view (focalization), among other things.
Standing above all this, however, is the narrator. Narrative critics look at the narrator as the one who selects the scenes that are shown, decides what characters say, sets the pace of the narration, evaluates characters, chooses how much background the reader knows, and provides the all-important “insider information” that helps us make sense of what we are reading. In the literary world of the Bible, the narrator, implied author, and real author are very closely aligned.
The narrator, then, is normally the reader’s best friend when it comes to understanding a story. The three-way relationship between the reader, the narrator, and the discourse is one of the most important aspects of narrative theory. And it naturally follows that when that relationship is rendered unreliable or otherwise ambiguous, interpretation becomes far more challenging.
The Relationship Between the Narrator and the Story
It is not quite true to say that every story has a narrator. My two (big deal, eh?!) graduate English classes convinced me that there’s some really weird stuff out there. It is, however, true that every story in the Bible has a narrator. These narrators come in a variety of flavors.
Above, inside, or under the “main” story
For example, there’s the primary narrator of the story. This narrative construct is “above” the story and is called an extradiegetic narrator. Then there’s the case of characters within a story who also tell a story themselves. These characters are the intradiegetic narrators of the embedded story. And should a character in this embedded narrative also tell a story, the second narrator-character is a hypodiegetic narrator. (Prince, Dictionary of Narratology)
The Gospels are no exception. For example, an extradiegetic narrator in the Second Gospel makes the announcement about “the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ (the Son of God)” (Mk 1:1). Then when Jesus decides to tell a story, he becomes an intradiegetic narrator (Mk 12:1-8):
A man planted a vineyard, put a hedge around it, dug a wine press, and built a tower. Then he leased it to tenant farmers and left on a journey…
Can you find a hypodiegetic narrator in the Bible?
To be or not to be a narrator-character in the story
Now take a look at this little piece of narrative from the Apocalypse (Rev 4:1)
After this I had a vision of an open door to heaven, and I heard the trumpetlike voice that had spoken to me before, saying, “Come up here and I will show you what must happen afterwards.” At once I was caught up in spirit. A throne was there in heaven, and on the throne sat one…
See the first person pronoun “I,” in the phrase “After this I had a vision…?” The antecedent is John and he is telling a story in which he himself is a character. This makes him a homodiegetic narrator. The most prominent examples of homodiegetic narrators in the Bible are the two characters who narrate apocalypses, Daniel and John of Patmos.
And of course there are also narrators who are not characters in the stories that they narrate. A narrator who tells a story in which he is not a character is a heterodiegetic narrator. Most narrators in the Bible are heterodiegetic. And the most celebrated of these heterodiegetic narrators is probably the narrator of the Deuteronomistic History.
Knowledge is power
The narrator of the DH has, as do most other extradiegetic and heterodiegetic narrators, a quality called “omniscience.” This does not mean that he knows everything and it certainly does not imply that he tells the reader everything. Instead, it means that because of his “distance” from the story (above and outside it), he knows things that characters do not.
Omniscient narrators tend to show familiarity with a character’s unexpressed feelings, thoughts, and motives. They are also likely to have knowledge of the past, present, and future as it is related to a character, and knowledge of what happens in several different locations at the same time. Finally, they have an overhearing or overlooking presence at times and in places where a character is supposed to be alone.
Here is some “omniscient” narration from the Gospels. The first example is from John 19:28. In it, the narrator shows an awareness of the dying Jesus’ inner thoughts and unarticulated purposes:
28 After this, aware that everything was now finished, in order that the scripture might be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I thirst.”
The theological import of this piece of information cannot be exaggerated. The Johannine author certainly wouldn’t want us to think that the crucifixion was hard on Jesus and with the assistance of the narrator we can avoid that unfortunate conclusion.
In this second example the narrators gives a very important bit of information about John the Baptist’s past and his present status with respect to Jesus (John 1:6-8):
6 A man named John was sent from God. 7 He came for testimony, to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He was not the light, but came to testify to the light.
This also has important theological consequences. Finally, consider the narration of the prayer uttered by Jesus in Gethsemane. From a narrative-critical perspective, we do not sit around worrying about how we know what Jesus spoke in his solitude. Instead, it’s a “hat tip” to the omniscient narrator, whose unseen presence gives us the critical information we need to follow the story.
The Relationship Between the Narrator and the Reader
In addition to his relationship with the story, the narrator also has a relationship with the reader. How do the narrator and the reader interact as the reader works through the text? There are two issues here, one the perceptibility of the narrator and the other the reliability of the same.
Although narrators may be invisible to characters, they are not usually imperceptible to a reader. Instead, their presence is felt in a variety of ways. Seymour Chatman (Story and Discourse, pp. 220-52) provides the following hierarchy. Narrators may provide:
1) A formal description of the setting in terms of time and place, or other relevant factors. In the introductory material in John, the author of the Fourth Gospel writes:
This happened in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing (John 1:28).
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews (John 3:1).
3) A summary of the passage of time, usually in order to convey progress without giving great detail. At the conclusion of the events of Pentecost, Luke writes:
Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple area and to breaking bread in their homes. They ate their meals with exultation and sincerity of heart, praising God and enjoying favor with all the people. And every day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved (Acts 2:46-47).
4) Definition of character, that is, an abstraction, generalization, or summation of character that goes beyond an introduction: In the story of the Gerasene demonic, Mark further characterizes the demonic as a long-term, very serious case by writing:
2 When he [Jesus] got out of the boat, at once a man from the tombs who had an unclean spirit met him. 3 The man had been dwelling among the tombs, and no one could restrain him any longer, even with a chain. 4 In fact, he had frequently been bound with shackles and chains, but the chains had been pulled apart by him and the shackles smashed, and no one was strong enough to subdue him (Mk 5:2-4).
5) Reports of what characters did not either say or think themselves, including motives, feelings, and judgments: In the story of the feeding of the five thousand, John writes
5 When Jesus raised his eyes and saw that a large crowd was coming to him, he said to Philip, “Where can we buy enough food for them to eat?” 6 He said this to test him, because he himself knew what he was going to do (John 6:5-6).
6) Commentary, usually further sub-divided into interpretation, judgments, and generalizations that apply to the wider narrative. Consider this passage from the plotting against Jesus as the Fourth Gospel wends its way toward the crucifixion:
49 But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing, 50 nor do you consider that it is better for you that one man should die instead of the people, so that the whole nation may not perish.” 51 He did not say this on his own, but since he was high priest for that year, he prophesied that Jesus was going to die for the nation, 52 and not only for the nation, but also to gather into one the dispersed children of God” (John 11:49-52).
Within the last three levels, the narrator has become an important source of independent information. But can this information be trusted?
A reliable narrator is one who provides an authoritative account and/or commentary on the narrative world. This concept is distinct from the idea of historical accuracy, which really reflects on whether the author cares to align the narrative with reality or even knows what he or she is writing about. The term “unreliable narrator” was coined by Wayne Booth. He defined an unreliable narrator as one whose value system is not aligned with that of the implied author (Chatman, Story, 149, 233).
Let’s repeat that. An unreliable narrator is one whose value system is not aligned with that of the implied author. A narrator whose value system is not aligned with that of the reader is called “challenging” or “a pain in the fanny,” or something like that. In any case, the narrator is an authoritative source of information and commentary on the narrative world until he crosses the implied author.
Reliability is not a binary distinction. A narrator can be reliable in some matters and not so in others. Narrators who are characters within the story (homodiegetic) may well be reliable when it comes to dates, times, and places, but unreliable in the judgments rendered about other characters. This reflects their personal involvement. Similarly, reliability can also fluctuate across a narrative as, for example, a character-narrator matures. Youth, strong emotion, and mental instability alert a reader to the potential for an unreliable narrator
In contrast, narrators who are extradiegetic and heterodiegetic, that is, narrators who are outside the story and not characters, tend to be reliable. Since they are not characters, matters such as maturation and duplicity are not really issues. A reader who calls a heterodiegetic narrator unreliable is probably obliged to also attempt to explain what purpose(s) the author may have had in creating the resulting irony.
How does a reader identify a narrator as reliable or unreliable when the obvious situations do not apply? By a close reading! Here are some things to look for (Rimmon-Kenan, Narrative Fiction, 102:
1) When the facts of the story contradict the narrator’s report of the same.
2) When the outcome proves the narrator wrong a cloud is cast over everything reported previously.
3) When the views of other characters repeatedly clash with those of the narrator, the reader naturally becomes suspicious.
4) When the narrator’s language contains repeated instances of internal contradictions or double-edged images.
Notice that in each case, the matter of reliability is best decided against a reading of the entire narrative. The events of one passage are rarely compelling. Instead, the suspicious reader must painstakingly work through the entire story, evaluating each statement of the narrator against those of the characters and the flow of the discourse.
A second check on the narrator is the existence of reliable characters. In the Bible, character-God and character-Jesus are reliable characters, that is, their judgments are aligned with those of the implied author. If the either of these characters were to contradict the narrator, then the reader would be logically moved to suspicion about the narrator. However, a failure to simply echo the narrator by these two character-deities is not sufficient to impeach the narrator’s contributions.
And if the narrator is shown to be unreliable?
If the narrator is shown to be unreliable it is not a simple matter of disregarding everything the narrator says. Instead, the interpreter is obliged to weigh every statement of either fact or judgment and decide for or against its reliability. Nothing that an unreliable narrator says can be taken at face value. Do you see what is at stake in the reliability of the narrator? And especially in the reliability of a biblical narrator?
So far, unreliable narrators seem to be limited to modern narratives. Although folks such as James M. Dawsey have tried, no one has yet impeached the reliability of a biblical narrator (Dawsey, Lukan Voice). The reader who wishes to understand the implied Gospel-author’s story therefore accepts the narrator as an authoritative source of information in the Gospel-world.
OK! That’s enough on narrators for the moment, although we will come back to it. Next time, it’s SSPR: surprise, suspense, primacy, and recency.