- "But I was a little boy, and what could I do about it?":Contemplating Children as Narrators in the Short Fiction of Ernest J. Gaines
Must a narrative be realistic or true to life? Is it the author's responsibility to construct a believable narrative, complete with a realistic structure? These are among the many questions explored by Wayne C. Booth in The Rhetoric of Fiction. The work is considered to be something of a landmark text in respect to narrative theory. To date, the text is best remembered for how it marks the first appearance of the now-familiar term "unreliable narrator" (211). In the decades since the work was first published, Booth's term has been vigorously applied to a wide range of texts spanning centuries, genres, and mediums. Scholars who use the term generally do so in order to defend or refute a theory regarding a narrator's trustworthiness or validity as a storyteller. Although the narrators in question vary as widely as the texts that they live in, it is important to note that few groups are seen as unreliable in their narration of a story's events as are child and teenage narrators.
Teenage and child narrators who have borne the brunt of this stigma include such iconic figures as Huckleberry Finn, Holden Caulfield, and myriad others centered in a field of debate and inquiry. Yet this article is not about Holden or Huck. Neither is it intended to weigh the merits of Booth's rhetoric nor those whose writings were influenced by his. Rather, the essay is centered on the short fiction of Ernest J. Gaines; I explore the response to the author's use of first-person child narrators in "A Long Day in November" and "My Uncle and the Fat Lady." The purpose? To consider them in the context of "unreliable narrators" and explore how and why select Gaines scholars and characters in the pieces identify his narrators as such. More precisely, I focus on the possibility that such claims, whether accidental or deliberate, illustrate a cultural bias rooted in an ageist ideology. Subsequently, I enter into brief discussions of a youth lens as a remedy and why Gaines's fiction is of significant use in this debate. Prior to doing so, it is worthwhile to open with a history of narrative unreliability.
Booth situates the unreliable narrator and unreliability in general as a consequence of either deliberate irony—in some cases referring to it as [End Page 49] "deception"—or as a matter of "inconscience" on a narrator's part. He attributes the latter term to Henry James, describing how it refers to a "narrator [who] is mistaken, or [who] believes himself to have qualities which the author denies him" (159). Booth further insists that the author is the person who determines how a narrator is perceived by an audience. He goes on to stipulate that readers are often in "collusion" with the author, complicit and eager in their shared judgment of a narrator. Together, author and readers critique a narrator by "agreeing upon the standard by which he is found wanting," especially "when the narrator shows ignorance of matters of fact" (304). The eagerness readers experience arises from the agreed-upon judgment, in turn eliciting a "pride in [their] own knowledge" and the opportunity to simultaneously exclude and "ridicule" the subject in question (304). Author and audience thereby exert a prejudice and superiority over fictional narrators of various backgrounds and narrative techniques.
For first-person narrators, especially those of a younger age, this pattern is doubly damning as it already has a cultural system of ageism and a corresponding language to rely upon. Few scholars make this as apparent as does William Riggan, author of Pícaros, Madmen, Naïfs, and Clowns. Unlike Booth, the scholar discusses specific categories of first-person narrators—referenced in the work's title—and why they are particularly suspect. Initially, he indicates that, barring "any obvious errors of fact," the first person features an intrinsic realism which complies with readers' "natural tendency" to believe in a narrator and what the narrator conveys to an audience (19). Riggan attributes this to...