Clara: The Unreliable Narrator
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, a narrator is: “one who tells a story. In a work of fiction the narrator determines the story’s point of view.” If the narrator is the person that determines the story’s point of view, then what happens when the narrator is unreliable? Ariell Cacciola explains the following: “Untrustworthy narrators twist and turn throughout literature. There are myriad reasons for their lack of reliability. Some are inherently withholding, while others carry on with their lives as we follow them blindly on their wobbly journeys. And it is not necessarily the strict narration that can be ultimately untrustworthy but the narrative structure itself. The stories can be opaque and out of order, with reveals being delayed.” (Cacciola 8)Wieland and Memoirs of Carwin the Biloquist by Charles Brocken Brown is narrated by Clara Wieland, a girl that both witnesses and experiences traumatic experiences throughout the work. The reader depends on her understanding and perception of these experiences to comprehend what is happening to the characters in the novel, but Clara demonstrates unreliability in her narration numerous times. She shows unnatural changing in emotions, sexual attraction to disgusting characters, distress over the events, and she openly admits that the details she shares may be faulty. Clara Wieland is clearly an unreliable narrator.
One of the first moments that Clara demonstrates faulty narration is on page 22 when she explains the death of her mother. She says: “The shock which this disastrous occurrence occasioned to my mother, was the foundation of a disease which carried her, in a few months, to the grave. My brother and myself were children at this time, and were now reduced to the condition of orphans. The property which our parents left was by no means inconsiderable.” (Brown 22) Clara’s nonchalant way of speaking about the death of her loved one is rather shocking and unsettling. After telling the reader that she was but a child when her mother died, left as an orphan, she explained that the property left to her was of good worth. Rather than focusing on the pain of losing her mother, Clara focuses on the materialistic gain of the deaths of her parents. She provides details and fact rather than human emotion. The reason for this could be explained by P. Aries: “The cause of [death and grief denial] is at once apparent: the need for happiness- the moral duty and the social obligation to contribute to the collective happiness by avoiding any cause for sadness or boredom, by appearing to be always happy, even if in the depths of despair. By showing the least sign of sadness, one sins against happiness, threatens it, and society then resists losing its raison d’etre.” (Aries 94) Aries explains that to show sadness is to sin against happiness: to mourn is to limit progression. In this situation, Clara’s progression is the fact that she now owns property which is very uncommon for a girl during her time. This idea of the need for constant progression in America is supported by K. J. Gergen in The Social Constructionist Movement in Modern Psychology: “These cultural messages about grief originated because of several interlocking discursive movements in the last 150 years. The first contextual factor had to do with the shift toward a modernist society in which the emphasis is on productivity, efficiency, science, logic, and most importantly individualism”. Clara’s demonstrated need for progression also demonstrates a lack of ability to focus on the emotional side of issues rather than always maintaining efficiency. The absence of emotion concerning the death of her mother and father illuminates the fact that she has not learned the tools to cope with the events in her life, therefore there is a sense of instability in her character. Clara further exhibits this instability on page 98 after she hears a strange voice: “I cannot describe the state of my thoughts at that moment. Surprise had mastered my faculties. My frame shook, and the vital current was congealed. I was conscious only to the vehemence of my sensations. This condition could not be lasting. Like a tide, which suddenly mounts to an overwhelming height, and then gradually subsides, my confusion slowly gave place to order, and my tumults to a calm.” (Brown 98) Clara’s emotions escalate and deescalate quickly and without logical reason: it appears as though she is not in control of her emotional state. The unnatural lack of emotion spent on the death of her mother is contrasted by this passage about a sudden surge of emotional stability. The issue with this reality is that it shows the reader that the events that she shares are told by emotion, not logic. The only perspective of the story that the readers are privy to is from the perspective of an illogical narrator.
Clara’s sexual attraction to Carwin is another reason for her unreliability as narrator. This is her reaction to seeing him for the first time: “I had snatched a view of the stranger’s countenance. The impression that it made was vivid and delible. His cheeks were pallid and lank, his eyes sunken, his forehead overshadowed by coarse straggling hairs, his teeth large and irregular” (60). She then finishes her description by saying: “Every feature was wide of beauty, and the outline of his face reminded you of an inverted cone.” (61) By this description alone is it clear that Carwin is in no way attractive nor appealing. The description creates a sense of repulsion and disgust towards Carwin, and it also creates a sense of distrust of his character. However, Clara proves her unreliability as narrator when she allows her own personal feelings to alter the readers’ view of Carwin. She allows her repressed sexual desire to determine how Carwin will be portrayed. She says: “And yet his forehead, so far as shaggy locks would allow it to be seen, his eyes lustrously black, and possessing, in the midst of haggardness, a radiance inexpressibly serene and potent, and something in the rest of his features, which it would be vain to describe, but which served to betoken a mind of the highest order, were essential ingredients in the portrait. This, in the effects which immediately flowed from it, I count among the most extraordinary incidences of my life.” (61) Despite considering his face as being comparable to an inverted cone, Clara now feels a sense of attachment and attraction to Carwin. How can the readers trust a narrator that changes her mind about a character based solely on sexual attraction? Attraction is fleeting and not based on fact, therefore the perception of a character cannot be consistent with fact. By allowing her emotions and sense of attraction to characters mold her description of them, Clara is demonstrating that her view of the happenings around her are inconsistent and unreliable. Clara is an unreliable narrator because she is no longer strictly an observer: she is now focused on her own phantoms. She explains this on page 95: “Thus was I distressed by opposite conjectures: thus was I tormented by phantoms of my own creation. It was not always thus. I can ascertain the date when my mind became the victim of this imbecility; perhaps it was coeval with the inroad of a fatal passion; a passion that will never rank me in the number of its eulogists; it was alone sufficient to the extermination of my peace” (95). Clara can no longer provide a thorough explanation of what goes on around her because she now struggles with her own personal trials. On page 267 she explains a lack of interest in her life: “Surely I had reason to be weary of existence, to be impatient of every tie which held me from the grave. I experienced this impatience in its fullest extent. I was not only enamoured of death, but conceived, from the condition of my frame, that to shun it was impossible” (267). Her focus is not on the activities around her, but rather the issues she faces in her head. These issues can also affect her view of the events that are happening because she views them with a bias. This idea is proved when she speaks about her changing beliefs on page 104: “I used to suppose that certain evils could never befall a being in possession of a sound mind; that true virtue supplies us with energy which vice can never resist; that it was always in our power to obstruct, by his own death, the designs of an enemy who aim at less than our life. How was it that a sentiment like despair had now invaded me, and that I trusted to the protection of chance, or to the pity of my persecutor?” The events that are happening in Clara’s life are changing her views and beliefs: this demonstrates that she is not narrating the story with an unbiased mind. The novel is limited to her personal beliefs and understanding. Clara’s understanding of life has limitations: her life experience, her interests, and her ability to comprehend events. In her description of Carwin she showed her lacking ability to understand situations beyond her comprehension limitations: her perception of him was based solely on her attraction to him, and not on the facts that were obvious to those around her. This alone creates unreliability, but the added reality that she is affected by the mystery to the point that she changes her beliefs means that there is no consistency for the readers to follow.
Clara herself admits that her narrative will be faulty. On page 167 she explains the following: “My narrative may be invaded by inaccuracy and confusion; but if I live no longer, I will, at least, live to complete it. What but ambiguities, abruptnesses, and dark transitions, can be expected from the historian who is, at the same time, the sufferer of these disasters?” (167) First, Clara admits that she may share inaccurate details that were affected by confusion: this begs the question of how much will be inaccurate? To what extent is it even believable? Then, Clara supports the previous argument made by explaining that her explanation of events are completely biased because she was a sufferer in these events. All of the facts and details are from her memory: some facts are too painful to share, and some are completely subjective based solely on her understanding and feelings about what happened. There are some facts that she was not even privy to: for example, in a conversation with Wieland she said the following: “After a silence and a conflict which I could not interpret, he lifted his eyes to heaven” (174). Clara can only share her thoughts and the words of others: she cannot share the thoughts of those around her. The words of the other characters that she shares are still filtered by her understanding or her interpretation of what they are saying. Another example of this comes from when Wieland was explaining one of his supernatural experiences: “I opened my eyes and found all about my luminous and glowing. It was the element of heaven that flowed around. Nothing but a fiery stream was at first visible; but, anon, a shrill voice from behind called upon me to attend. I turned: it is forbidden to describe what I saw” (190). Clara is only privy to certain details of the story, but not to the ones most important. How can she be a reliable narrator if she only has certain parts of the story but not others?
Finally, she admits that her human nature causes her to not be a reliable narrator: “Such is man. Time will obliterate the deepest impressions.” (267) This entire story is written from her memory: every detail and circumstance comes from her remembrance, and can only be as accurate as her memory is accurate. She has admitted that her details may be inaccurate and that they are based on her perception and memory: Clara is not a reliable narrator.
Clara demonstrates several times throughout this work that she is an unreliable narrator. Her narrative is dictated by her ever changing emotions which forces inconsistency into her explanations of the story. Her attraction to Carwin forces the reader to view this gaunt, dark, and sickly man as appealing and attractive. She proves multiple times that she is not an unbiased observer, but that she is overcome with the phantoms in her own head. Lastly, Clara admits herself as having an inaccurate and confused narrative. The facts all demonstrate that Clara Wieland is an unreliable narrator.
Aries, P. (1974). Western attitudes towards death: From the middle ages to the present. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins Brown, Charles Brockden. Wieland and Memoirs of Carwin the Biloquist. New York: Penguin, 1991. Print. Cacciola, Ariell. “Untrustworthy Narrators.” World Literature Today, vol. 90, no. 1, 2016, p. 8 Gergen, K. J. (1992). The social constructionist movement in modern psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association “Narrator.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed 2016-11-19. https://www.britannica.com/art/narrator
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