The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Narrator: A speaker through whom an author presents a narrative, often but not always a character in the work. Every narrative has a narrator; a work may even occasionally have multiple narrators or a main narrator with subnarrators. The type of narrator used is intertwined with point of view, the vantage point from which the narrative is told. A work written from the third-person point of view may have either an omniscient or limited narrator. One written from the first-person may be narrated by the author, if the work is autobiographical or otherwise nonfictional, or, if fictional, by the protagonist, another character (whether major or minor), or a witness who observes but does not participate in the action. (Use of the second-person point of view is rare in prose fiction.) Furthermore, narrators may be classified as intrusive (opinionated) or unintrusive (detached), terms generally used with respect to omniscient narrators; reliable or unreliable, terms generally used with respect to fictional first-person narrators; or self-conscious or self-effacing, depending on whether they draw attention to their status as storytellers and to the work as a literary product. Third-person narrators (particularly omniscient ones) generally have a more authorial-seeming sound and function and are more likely to comment upon the action in addition to recounting it.

Occasionally an author will use a narrative device in lieu of a narrator. In the movie Cast Away (2000), for instance, Wilson, a volleyball addressed by the marooned Chuck Noland, serves as a narrative device to inform the audience of the protagonist’s thoughts and feelings.

FURTHER EXAMPLES: The Rule of Four (2004), a thriller coauthored by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason, has a first-person narrator, who begins the story as follows:

Strange thing, time. It weighs most on those who have it least… .

I can see myself now, the night it all began. I’m lying back on the old red sofa in our dorm room, wrestling with Pavlov and his dogs in my introductory psychology book, wondering why I never fulfilled my science requirement as a freshman like everyone else.

By contrast, Dan Brown used an omniscient third-person narrator in his thriller The Da Vinci Code (2003; adapted to film 2006), which opens as follows:

Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery. He lunged for the nearest painting he could see, a Caravaggio. Grabbing the gilded frame, the seventy-six-year-old man heaved the masterpiece toward himself until it tore from the wall and Saunière collapsed backward in a heap beneath the canvas.

Examples of works with multiple narrators include Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (1868), a mystery composed of the written accounts of several parties; William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (1930), which consists of direct interior monologues by fifteen characters; David James Duncan’s The Brothers K (1992), which features both a main narrator and a subnarrator; and Nick Hornby’s A Long Way Down (2005), whose four narrators first meet atop a tower block from which they each planned to jump to their death.