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Open Access Thesis

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Degree Program


Degree Type

Master of Arts (M.A.)

Year Degree Awarded


Month Degree Awarded



The primary goal of this paper is to gain a better understanding of the unreliable narrator as a literary device. Furthermore, I argue that the distance between an author and narrator in realist fiction can be simulated in autobiographical prose. While previous studies have focused mainly on extra- and intertextual incongruities (factual inaccuracies; disparities between two nonfiction texts), the present study attempts to demonstrate that the memoirist can employ unreliable narration intratexually as a rhetorical tool. The paper begins with some examples of how the unreliable narrator is used, interpreted, misused and misinterpreted. The device’s troubled history is examined—Wayne Booth and James Phelan have argued for an encoded strategy on the part of the (implied) author while Tamar Yacobi and Ansgar Nünning have embraced a reader-oriented model—as well as the recent (and in my opinion, inevitable) convergence of the rhetorical and cognitive/constructivist models. Aside from “What is the unreliable narrator,” two questions underlie the present study: 1) Does a fiction writer using homodiegetic narration have an obligation to adhere to formal mimeticism (do we believe it)? 2) Being that unreliable narrators are so prevalent in everyday life, why is the device, in nonfiction, considered almost verboten? Two texts are analyzed for the first question: Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is argued to be a mimetically successful fictive “memoir” penned by a disillusioned, albeit reliable, narrator. Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day is presented as a synthetically flawless example of unreliable narration, but alas, a mimetic failure. Likewise, two texts are analyzed for the second question: Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City is viewed through the lens of overt fiction as a means of depicting uncertainty in autobiography. Similarly, Richard’s Wright’s Black Boy, with its overarching themes of survival and deception, is examined for the narrator’s use of “tall tales.” The critical and commercial success of both books suggests that the unreliable narrator does indeed have a place in autobiography—provided that the device is employed in service of a greater truth.


First Advisor

David Fleming

Second Advisor

Nicholas Bromell

Third Advisor

Janis Greve