What is it that makes a reader believe some narrators and disbelieve others and why do some stories told by narrators seem to the reader lacking in part? How then does a reader interpret and respond to unreliable, fictional narrative texts? When a reader is engaging in a narrative; in this case Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders; they want to find a sense of continuity, reliability and reassurance from the narrative; so the story seems plausible; even if the content is unfamiliar or somewhat surreal.
In this essay I will try to bring relevant critical response to the Wayne Booth conceptualised the terms ‘unreliable’ and ‘reliable’ narrators, which has served as a definition in the majority of narratological textbooks since 1961. ‘I have called a narrator reliable when he speaks for or acts in accordance with the norms of the work (which is to say, the implied author’s norms), unreliable when he does not. The reader joins Moll in her later years, and is able to appreciate the hardships that she has been through, Moll states that she has no one to advise or assist her, claiming that “by experience, that to be Friendless is the worst Condition, next to being in want, that a Woman can be reduc’d to:”. It is the narrators’ word that we take and trust in assuming that she has not a single person to turn to in her time of need. The reader is drawn into a state of feeling pity and sympathy for Moll; regardless of her previous conduct; and perhaps in doing so Defoe is premeditating the emotive responses that the reader will feel for Moll.
It could be argued that in ‘setting up’ the reader in this way, Defoe is wanting to excuse Moll of some ‘yet to be discovered’ misconduct that she may be about to perform. However, from the onset of the novel, the reader has already been lied to by Moll, with the concealment of her true name, which Moll claims “is so well known in the Records, or Registers at Newgate, and in the Old-Baily, and there are some things of such Consequence still depending there, relating to my (Moll’s) particular conduct”, (p9), this leaves her unable to supply the reader with her real name.
On the other hand, just because she has omitted her true identity doesn’t necessarily mean that she has any reason to manipulate the truth. However, it could be said that the reliability of the narrator has now been tainted with some doubt. In a seemingly contradictory statement Milton suggests that not finding out what the truth is is the actual truth itself. Stanley Fish states: ‘Ironically it is only by permitting what licensing would banish; the continual flow of opinions, arguments, reason and agendas; that the end of licensing; the fostering of truth; can be accomplished. ’ (p. 212).
Fish makes the argument that interpretations of books are constant and multiple, in the sense that finding out the truth is not the terminal point for the reader. In addition to this, it is the realisation of the reader to be unified with the narrator. Moll is now forty-two years of age; as a reader you can assume this to be fact; Moll states that she: did not look the better for my Age,” …”and tho’ I omitted nothing that might set me out to Advantage, except Painting, for that I never stoop’d to, and had Pride enough to think I did not want it,”. The majority of readers would be inclined to feel sorry for Moll and her present situation.
On the other hand, we know she is desperate, yet Moll has confesses that she would not consider painting her face (applying make-up) because her pride gets in the way. So, she is either lying about her faded looks; for sympathy; made out her situation to be far worse than it actually is, or perhaps she knows exactly how to get what she wants by methods other than just her appearance. Defoe reinforces Moll’s suffering by playing on her gender, “I say a Woman, because ’tis evident Men can be their own Advisers, and their own Directors, and know how to work themselves out of Difficulties and into Business better than Women. Has the narrator forgotten that we have witnessed Moll spring back from her previous predicaments? “I expected something, or other might happen in my way, that might mend my Circumstances as had been the case before. ” (p. 86). It could be argued that Defoe realises the change in Moll’s character, the uncertainty she is facing, her aging and perhaps a change to her understanding of the patriarchal society in which she exists. All of which may have been absent from her previous state of mind twenty years prior.
It could be argued that writers who set about to present a singular adaptation of a reliable truth; the authors truth; can run the risk of the novel being to didactic, which could cause it to be unsuccessful. Therefore, it is equally important for a narrative; for the writer; to regard what the narrative suppresses just as much as what the writer is trying to submit. How far can Defoe’s character, Moll, be trusted then as a reliable narrator? Her account of the narrative doesn’t seem credible as perhaps nonsubjective causal agents would be.
But, as a reader, it is the only perspective we have, so it is purely the readers own interpretation of events that can decide on Moll’s reliability in her own narrative. When a story is being retold by a narrator it is quite feasible to assume that certain parts of the story may be omitted, exaggerated or told out of context. It is down to the readers’ response(s) and perception to discourse, particular characters plausibility, credibility and reliability in that story telling as to what is being told, is indeed, what is really happening or has happened.
Louise Rosenblatt’s surmises that ‘the reader brings to the work personality traits, memories of past events, present needs and preoccupations, a particular mood of the moment, and a particular physical condition. ’ What a reader may experience is dictated by ‘these and many other elements in a never-to-be duplicated combination. ’ A reader needs to come to the understanding that there is no definitive interpretation of the narrative, no true or inapt answer. What makes the narrative their own is the uncovering of the many faceted exegesis throughout, and the personal journey the reader needs to goes through, in order to have lived the story.