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  • Violations of Mimetic Epistemology in First-Person Narrative Fiction
  • Ruediger Heinze (bio)

I am not born yet. My Uncle Carl and Brother Tate hurry along the railroad tracks on the graveled crest of the hillside which parallels Finance Street.

(Wideman, Sent For You Yesterday 17)

I walk into the frame, not noticing the black limousine parked across the street.

(Ellis, Glamorama 168)

Inside, in the warm light of contemporary domesticity, her roommate is talking long-distance to the first boy she ever kissed. She's talking while vengefully chasing their cats, the cordless phone cradled like a papoose at an interstice of ear and hand and shoulder. We can just make out the melody of her joy. We are standing outside under the window, on the front step.

(Moody, "The Grid" 29)

What did he even talk to them about–when they were under four eyes?–Ah, well, suddenly, as if by a flash of inspiration, I know.

(Ford, The Good Soldier 34)

How do the narrators of the four fictional narratives quoted above know what they know? The knowledge they display is temporally, spatially, or cognitively undisclosed to them. If we assume that they project a human consciousness (and there is no evidence to the contrary), they should, for obvious epistemological reasons, either not possess the knowledge they do, or their claims to that kind of knowledge should [End Page 279] be labeled unreliable and/or facetious. The latter explanation might help to account for some of the preposterous knowledge if we follow distinctions made by Phelan and Martin (1999) and argue that narrators may merely report unreliably but do not evaluate or interpret unreliably. However, there are few or no other textual signals that the narrators' reporting is not to be trusted. If we discard reliability as the default of unreliability, the most we can say is that we do not have sufficient information to judge whether the reporting is done reliably or unreliably. For Moody's and Ford's fictional narratives, as well as for most of the other texts discussed in this essay, unreliability cannot satisfyingly explain the exceptional knowledge of the first-person narrators. In Moody's "The Grid," a first-person narrator takes a moment in the present of the narrative as a starting point for unconditionally telling what will happen next, in the end coming back full swing to where the narrative began. The almost declamatory present and future tense and the circularity of the structure leave no room for unreliability because there is no indication of epistemological uncertainty or inconsistency. As regards Ford's The Good Soldier, the supposition that the narrator is merely schizophrenic when he claims to "suddenly . . . know" what he has no access to will not help in elucidating the aesthetic and conceptual motivation behind this statement.

How, then, can one conceptualize first-person narrators in fictional narratives whose quantitative and qualitative knowledge about events, other characters, etc., clearly exceeds what one could expect of a human consciousness and would thus make them prone to being labeled "omniscient"? If labeled so, they would meet a criterion narrative theory typically reserves for the variable or zero focalization of authorial narratives: "The knowledge of an internal focalizer . . . is restricted by definition: being part of the represented world, he cannot know everything about it" (Rimmon-Kenan 80). The models of most narrative theory do not or perhaps cannot address this phenomenon, while a substantial number of fiction writers apparently do not seem to care that the "knowledge of an internal focalizer . . . is restricted by definition" (ibid.). Admittedly, the phenomenon has not gone entirely unnoticed, although it has seldom been elaborated. Gérard Genette calls Marcel's narration of Bergotte's dying thoughts an illicit assumption of authorial competence (208). Manfred Jahn calls first-person omniscience "paralepsis" and defines it as an "infraction caused by saying too much; a narrator assuming a competence he/she does not properly have; typically, a first-person narrator (or a historiographer) narrating what somebody else thought, or what happened when s/he was not present" (<>).

For third-person narrative situations, "omniscience" usually does not present an immediate problem beyond...


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