unreliable narrators

Virginia Woolf wrote, “Most commonly we come to books with blurred and divided minds, asking of fiction that it shall be true, of poetry that it shall be false, of biography that it shall be flattering, of history that it shall enforce our own prejudices”(Woolf). I don’t really remember the first time I doubted the opinions of a character in a novel or when I realized that perhaps poetry did not always impart truth, but I do know that all those notions came together in quite a spectacular manner when I read Crime and Punishment. As early as page 2 Dostoyevsky invites readers into his very real and awful world,

The heat in the street was terrible: and the airlessness, the bustle and the plaster, scaffolding, bricks, and dust all about him, and that special Petersburg stench, so familiar to all who are unable to get out of town in summer—all worked painfully upon the young man’s already overwrought nerves. The insufferable stench from the pothouses, which are particularly numerous in that part of the town, and the drunken men whom he met continually, although it was a working day, completed the revolting misery of the picture. An expression of the profoundest disgust gleamed for a moment in the young man’s refined face. He was, by the way, exceptionally handsome, above the average in height, slim, well-built, with beautiful dark eyes and dark brown hair. Soon he sank into deep thought, or more accurately speaking into a complete blankness of mind; he walked along not observing what was about him and not caring to observe it. From time to time, he would mutter something, from the habit of talking to himself, to which he had just confessed. At these moments he would become conscious that his ideas were sometimes in a tangle and that he was very weak; for two days he had scarcely tasted food.

The suspect mind of Raskolnikov was penned with the use of an omniscient point of view, and it is in that murky place that we begin our troubles. This narrator is not to be trusted on any account, his warped and privileged preoccupation with his own superiority clouds his vantage. Yet for many hundreds of pages we are led into his dangerous train of thought.

If you have over the past year slipped into “watching the nightly news” as we have done, you already know the parade of talkers filling every station for hours on end, each one spouting out a version of the truth, and you have your favorite. At the start of the declaration of “fake news” attacks you might have been alarmed as we were. Casting doubt seemed the antithesis of news watching after all. Yet it has become so much the norm, this making something real seem less likely, that as a society we have become unreliable narrators, even to ourselves.

How many people are now walking around, unmasked, decrying the death rate or calling COVID-19 only as deadly as the seasonal influenza flu? These same folks are turning their noses up on the vaccines as well. Others are also telling us that the new voting laws being signed into effect in places like Georgia or Florida are to streamline and better the voting process, not stagnate it. Of course we know a great many tell us “the Big Lie” that Trump won reelection too. False narratives are woven into every social media platform to grab at our fears. Polarized we stand six feet apart or worse, not.

I’ve always been one for a good story, and if it could stand with embellishment, I heaped it on, but here, in 2021, I find I am in more need than ever for the science-based, fact-checked, realistic and honest hard truth. Wouldn’t that be better for all if we faced reality? Do we even know where to look? Of course I know where I would start, but that too is now debated, since cable news personalities and YouTube celebs add their nonsense to the airwaves.

Raskolnikov trips through a litany of reasons why he murdered the pawnbroker, a whole avalanche of them, which he tries to explain to Sonia. As hard as they are to hear, she does just that. “Though Raskolnikov looked at Sonia as he said this, he no longer cared whether she understood or not. The fever had complete hold of him; he was in a sort of gloomy ecstasy (he certainly had been too long without talking to anyone). Sonia felt that his gloomy creed had become his faith and code. ‘I divined then, Sonia,’ he went on eagerly, ‘that power is only vouchsafed to the man who dares to stoop and pick it up. There is only one thing, one thing needful: one has only to dare! Then for the first time in my life an idea took shape in my mind which no one had ever thought of before me, no one! I saw clear as daylight how strange it is that not a single person living in this mad world has had the daring to go straight for it all and send it flying to the devil! I … I wanted to have the daring … and I killed her. I only wanted to have the daring, Sonia! That was the whole cause of it!’ ” (Dostoyevsky).

Even murder can be rationalized when power is at stake. Raskolnikov might be an extreme example but it is all the little lies too, the ones filling all the cracks of reason with doubt, that cloud us too. Those are coming at us unchecked at record speed these days. Like when a crowd surges into the Capital with weapons and hatred that threatens our very democracy. Like when a white policeman shoots an unarmed black man, again. Feel free to add to the litany of corrupt murders being rationalized clear around the globe.

Of course in novels the just prevail, while the evil ones meet their untimely end. Perhaps as a literary scholar you have a list of titles that disproves my claim, and of course you are right. I don’t consider Edna evil, yet her only way to find freedom was to drown in The Awakening. Fallen women aside, let us enter a world of non-fiction even in our fiction. Let our protagonists be daring, be adventuresome, seek their own radical lives, but show us some truth along the way. Like Tom Joad. Like Biff Loman. Like Catherine Linton. Each and every day I am grateful to have these characters speak to me. There is little one needs to search out beyond the guidance of literature.

In the end Sonia proves the most reliable of all as she holds our misguided Raskolnikov accountable, ““But how will you go on living? What will you live for?” cried Sonia.” Might we not ask this of those around us living such destructive lies that they themselves no longer believe? Who is believing all the falsehoods that run rampant and unchecked in our free and unrestricted media? “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it” (Joseph Goebbels). We sadly know this as the creed of FOX News and those who frequent their platform.

I feel powerless against the tide of ignorance, these unreliable dictators of our airwaves, and wish more than anything to be able to create a resolution which ties all the loose ends still flashing about into one burning truth, but instead I head outside. I stop my biking to enjoy the vast blue overhead and relish in the rush of water beneath me, and pray that honesty, science and faith comes back into fashion sometime soon.


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