The Unreliable Narrator: Background information when reading The Sense of an Ending

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reading Guide |  Reviews |  Beyond the Book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

The Sense of an Ending

A Novel

by Julian Barnes

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes X
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • First Published:
    Oct 2011, 176 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 2012, 144 pages

  • Rate this book


Book Reviewed by:
Morgan Macgregor

Buy This Book

About this Book

Beyond the Book:
The Unreliable Narrator

Print Review

In Julian Barnes's The Sense of an Ending, Tony Webster admits that he may not be a reliable narrator. He acknowledges that it's probably impossible to tell, objectively, the story of your own life, and that it's therefore up to the reader to question or validate his authority.

The Rhetoric of Fiction The idea of the unreliable narrator has long been an issue in fiction, dating back to medieval times. The term, as a formal literary device, comes from critic Wayne C. Booth's The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961).

There are many reasons why a narrator might be deemed unreliable. The most obvious one is insanity, as in Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, or Stephan Benatar's Wish Her Safe At Home. In the case of the latter, the narrator's illness inclines along with the narrative: as the novel and Rachel's mental illness progress, everything is called into question.

Another reason is that the narrator might be a child - too innocent or naïve to provide a reliable perspective for readers. Books such as Room and In the Country of Men are two shining examples of books written for adults but written from a child's perspective. (For a more comprehensive list of these books, visit BookBrowse's specially themed category.)*

A narrator may also be unreliable in a conscious way. That is, they may be withholding or skewing information in order to manipulate their audience: the reader.

Arguably, there is a type of moral unreliability, as well. Humbert Humbert, the pedophiliac narrator of Nabokov's Lolita, portrays himself in such as way as to solicit sympathy and even empathy from the reader. Likewise, the author may use ambiguity or opacity in rendering a character, so as to force the reader to make their own decisions about a narrator's reliability, as in Kafka's refusal to name the crime that Josef K. is arrested for in The Trial.

Perhaps the king of the contemporary unreliable narrator is Bret Easton Ellis. His characters veer so seamlessly between dream, delusion, lucidity, wishful thinking, drug trips... that at times the very existence of the narrator himself becomes questionable.

The onus, then, is always on the reader, just one of the many reasons why the experience of reading fiction is so utterly subjective.

*Please note that while all these books have child narrators, not all are necessarily unreliable.

Article by Morgan Macgregor

This article was originally published in January 2012, and has been updated for the March 2012 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

This article is available to non-members for a limited time. You can also read these articles for free. For full access, become a member today.
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: The Overstory
    The Overstory
    by Richard Powers
    Many glowing adjectives can be used to describe a novel by Richard Powers: brilliant, moving, ...
  • Book Jacket: American Histories
    American Histories
    by John E. Wideman
    In American Histories, a collection of 21 short stories, John Edgar Wideman draws America's present ...
  • Book Jacket: I Found My Tribe
    I Found My Tribe
    by Ruth Fitzmaurice
    Ruth O'Neill was only 28 when she married film director Simon Fitzmaurice in 2004. Changing her...
  • Book Jacket: The Art of the Wasted Day
    The Art of the Wasted Day
    by Patricia Hampl
    Patricia Hampl wants you to know that daydreaming is not a waste of a day. Nor is spending time ...

Book Discussion
Book Jacket
Music of the Ghosts by Vaddey Ratner

A love story for things lost and restored, a lyrical hymn to the power of forgiveness.

About the book
Join the discussion!

Readers Recommend

  • Book Jacket

    The Girl Who Smiled Beads
    by Clemantine Wamariya & Elizabeth Weil

    A riveting story of survival, and the power of stories to save us.
    Reader Reviews

Win this book!
Win The Leavers

The Leavers by Lisa Ko

One of the most anticipated books of 2017--now in paperback!

Enter

Word Play

Solve this clue:

T E H N Clothes

and be entered to win..

Books that     
entertain,
     engage

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.