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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The self-conscious narrator in Donald Barthelme and Vladimir Nabokov Stanley, Donald Hutton


The literary device of a self-conscious narrator is prevalent in the works of Donald Barthelme and Vladimir Nabokov. However, the themes and world view of the works are not predetermined by any qualities inherent in the self-conscious narrator. Despite a current critical tendency to suppose that self-consciousness necessarily implies a problematic or solipsistic stance towards both reality and traditional realism, the self-conscious narrator remains a malleable device which can be used in conjunction with traditional realism, and which can be shaped according to the unique purposes of a particular author. A tendency among certain contemporary theorists — Robert Alter, Susan Sontag, Maurice Beebe and others — would make self-consciousness, rather than realism, central to the tradition of the novel. This tendency represents a phase in the historical pattern by which the self-conscious narrator goes in and out of fashion. In the eighteenth century English novel he appeared to be a sprightly variant of the formal realism of Defoe and Richardson, in that he interrupted the narrative to comment on narrative technique, and to emphasize the artificial or contrived aspect of what were otherwise presented as real events. Despite an early fruition in Sterne, the self-conscious narrator's popularity declined, and critics came to regard him as an aberration, and an impediment to the novel's "implicit methods." He revived in the modern era, and at present self-consciousness itself is assumed by some critics to be "at the heart of the modernist consciousness in all the arts." This somewhat exaggerated status of literary self-consciousness leads to a corresponding condescension towards traditional realism, a condescension which is revealed in the critical response to Nabokov's self-conscious narrator. Some of the criticism of Nabokov is vitiated by the simplistic assumption that Nabokov, the wizard of mirrors and word games, has banished from his novels all traces of the real world. In fact, however, Nabokov's narrators contribute to a unique world view in which there is an implied identity between the fictional world of art and the rules of the universe. The self-conscious narrator emphasizes the artifice of the narrative, but at the same time he personifies, as it were, certain narrative conventions, and adds what Charles Kinbote calls a "human reality." His ongoing dialogue with the reader helps the reader to recognize the false artifice of totalitarian states and totalitarian art, and teaches the reader to regard fictional characters with a sympathetic eye. In the words of Albert Guerard, "Within Nabokov's involutions, behind his many screens, lie real people." Donald Barthelme's self-conscious narrators might at first appear to be rather typical spokesmen for certain cliches of avant garde theory: ontological chaos, the breakdown of language and meaning, existential dread. But the narrators are also satirists of avant garde theory, particularly the theory that the literary past has been discredited and language no longer communicates. Rather than intimidating the reader, the self-conscious narrator sometimes acts as his ally, inviting the reader to check the fiction against conditions in the reader's own world ("Look for yourself," says one narrator). Self-consciousness is shown to be part of a malaise in society itself, a malaise that is occasioned not so much by epistemological breakdown as by moral failure. Self-consciousness is a symptom of a society that is at heart evil and murderous. Barthelme and Nabokov employ their self-conscious narrators to different ends: Nabokov's gifted self-conscious narrator contributes to Nabokov's serene sense of an identity between art and reality; Barthelme discovers a moral failure at the heart of a self-conscious society. The works and world views of each author are made possible by a unique transformation of a traditional narrative convention.

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