I lead most of the discussions in my Reading the Classics Book Club, and one of my stock questions about any novel written in the first person is “Can we trust the narrator?” For instance in many of Poe’s stories the sanity of the narrator is questionable. If that’s the case, is the narrator telling us what is happening or what he thinks, in his muddled mind, is happening? William Faulkner’s class The Sound and the Fury is written in four parts – each one by a different person. Benjy Compson, who is severely mentally retarded, writes the first part. Can we trust him to correctly interpret what he experiences? For that matter, can we trust Holden Caulfield, the 16 year old narrator and protagonist of J. D. Salinger’s classic The Catcher in the Rye, to be accurately relating the events he writes about? Moreover, Holden tells us that he is a liar, and that he is writing his story while in a mental institution.
Another good question to ask yourself when you read a novel or story where the trustworthiness of the narrator is questionable is “Why does the author choose a narrator who can’t be trusted to relate the events of the story?”
Just as in my book club, I provide the questions. You provide the answers.