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
  • 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!

Support BookBrowse

Become a Member and discover books that entertain, engage & enlighten!

Join Today!

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: Midwinter Break
    Midwinter Break
    by Bernard MacLaverty
    Northern Ireland's Bernard MacLaverty is the author of five novels and multiple short story ...
  • Book Jacket: The Ninth Hour
    The Ninth Hour
    by Alice McDermott
    In a pivotal scene in The Ninth Hour, young Sally encounters an increasingly loathsome series of ...
  • Book Jacket: Rebellion
    Rebellion
    by Molly Patterson
    Rebellion overlays the stories of four women, spanning a century and the globe in their wide ...

Book Discussion
Book Jacket
Being Mortal by Atul Gawande

An eye-opening and riveting look at how how medicine can not only improve life but also the process of its ending.

About the book
Join the discussion!

First Impressions

  • Book Jacket

    The Twelve-Mile Straight
    by Eleanor Henderson

    An audacious epic set in rural Georgia during the years of the Depression and Prohibition.
    Reader Reviews

  • Book Jacket

    Love and Other Consolation Prizes
    by Jamie Ford

    Inspired by a true story, about a boy whose life is transformed at Seattle's epic 1909 World's Fair.
    Reader Reviews

Win this book!
Win If the Creek Don't Rise

If the Creek Don't Rise

A debut novel bursting with heart, honesty, and homegrown grit.

Enter

Word Play

Solve this clue:

Y Can't M A S P O O A S E

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.