A reliable narrator is a character whose authority is not questioned. The question of the authenticity of a work of art is essential for the correct interpretation of the author’s intention (Yacobi 113). The feature of unreliability can be endowed with a character of any age and social status. In Calvin’s The Baron on Trees, the words of the hero can be called into doubt. The main question of this work is whether Biagio can be called unreliable, how this concept is realized and what generally determines the reliability of the narrator.
Classification of Narrators
The implicit author is the image of the ideal author, being built by the reader of the literary work, which does not correspond to the real author. The norms of the implicit author can be associated with the norms of the work itself, considering that the correspondence between them is the narrator’s reliability, and the discrepancy, on the contrary, is unreliability (Abbot 67). Depending on the degree of participation of the narrator in the events described, several types of them are divided. The uninvolved narrator does not directly participate in the events of the work; the narrator is above it and is usually objective. An uninvolved eyewitness knows everything about the events but also does not directly participate in the actions. The narrator can be a minor character or one of the main characters; both types are directly involved in what is happening in the text. Finally, the main character himself can be the narrator; in such cases, the work is often written in the first person.
Picaro tells a lie rather than out of selfish motives, but because this is the essence of the personal organization. This type of storyteller does not hide the truth, but lies to boast or exaggerate his importance. Not everything in Picaro’s words is a lie, and usually, both the characters and the reader, from the very beginning of the appearance in the work, understand that one cannot rely on the words of such a hero.
A Madman is a type of narrator who experiences either mental defense mechanisms, such as self-alienation, or is seriously mentally ill, suffering from paranoia or schizophrenia. As with Picaro, the reader and characters know who they are dealing with. This type of narrator can be used to illustrate the complexities of a person’s mental states, as Franz Kafka masterfully does; his narrators often belong to this type.
The Clown narrator does not take the events in the text seriously, deliberately plays with conventions, distorts the truth, and does not meet the reader’s expectations. The Clown is not always stupid and not invariably frivolous as it may seem at first glance. Introducing such a character into the narrative helps the writer organize a game with the reader in the spirit of postmodern works.
The unreliability of this type is manifested in the inability to evaluate the events of the work from a mature point of view. A naive narrator can be overly emotional, gullible, prejudiced, touchy, and infantile, making him non-subjective. A naive narrator may be a child who perceives reality through the prism of children’s view of the world. Although, even an adult with infantilism can become a naive storyteller.
Liar is the type of narrator that is usually introduced into a story to create an unexpected plot twist. The liar deliberately distorts the perception of events, for example, to hide his involvement in them or inappropriate behavior in the past. Not always an unreliable narrator makes judgments confusing; the author can quite unambiguously assess the correctness or incorrectness of events (Abbot 80). The narrator-liar is most often found in detective works to create tension.
Strategies for Using an Unreliable Narrator
An unreliable narrator not only hides the truth, but also underestimates the audience. The unreliable narrator’s claims are false, not by the standards of the natural world but by the standard of his convention. After all, all narrators in fiction are, in fact, false because they do not exist in the real world. That is why the reliability or unreliability of the narrator can be interpreted based on the conventions of the art world in which he exists.
The agent of any literary work is the audience that directly or indirectly comes into contact with it. The audience can be both actual and the author’s ideal. The actual audience is the real people who will read the book, while the author’s audience is the one for whom the author is shaping his message. There is also a narrative audience that exists within the context of the literary work itself. The ideal narrative audience is a fictional, initially accepting the narrator’s words as truthful. Depending on the cognitive strategies of readers, the narrator is perceived as false or not false. To determine the narrator’s unreliability, one does not need to rely only on intuitive judgments.
The key to the narrator’s unreliability is not the reader’s intuition or implied authorial norms and values, a wide range of identifiable signals. This includes both text data and the reader’s already introductory conceptual knowledge of the world. The assessment of the narrator’s credibility is based on the distance between the moral norms of the narrator and the reader who will interpret the text. However, this necessary distance must separate the narrator’s view from the reader’s model of the world and standards.
Signs of Reliable Narrative
Sometimes the unreliability of the narrative is evident from the very beginning of the literary text. The story may begin with the narrator making a false or delusional statement or admitting that he is seriously mentally ill. If the author intends to keep the suspense alive until the end of the text, the trick of revealing the false narrative is delayed until the climax. The reader can detect the concealment or misrepresentation of information by the narrator if the author gives enough clues to do so throughout the narrative. Not revealing the unreliability of the narrative until the end of the literary work allows readers to reconsider their point of view on the whole story.
In the presence of an open or ambiguous ending, the author does not reveal the unreliability of the narrator. In this case, the readers themselves determine the acceptable interpretation. Several signs make up or hint at the narrator’s reliability; the reader must determine the narrator’s reliability in a literary text. Signs of the narrator’s authenticity can be considered in the absence of such facts as failures in the narration and lies, a contradiction to the general knowledge of the world, and a clear introduction of the narrator into the text.
Intertextual cues include the conflicting narrator, memory lapses, or lying to other characters. Unreliable narrative is characterized by intertextual features that contradict the basic knowledge of potential readers about the world. Uncertainty is evaluated as impossible in the existence of a framework of logical parameters. The reader is able to suspect unreliability, in the presence of an understanding of literary types and genres, frames and conventions. Another sign that reveals the narrator’s unreliability is how the author introduces him into the text. If the hero is not fully represented, the reader does not understand his origin, inherent moral and material qualities; he does not have a sense of reliability. The next sign is the distortion of statements, and grammatical and lexical inaccuracies, indicating either a narrow perception of the narrator or several psychological features. The reader’s perception of authenticity is also influenced by the type of narrator chosen by the author. For example, an observer narrator is less likely to be unreliable because he is not directly involved in the events.
The Purpose of Introducing the Unreliable Narrator
While starting to compose a new work, any author concludes an unspoken agreement with the reader that events will develop sequentially, and the narrator will play according to the established rules. However, in some cases, deviations from the standards accepted in the literature are possible. For example, in a work of fiction, the narrator may shock the reader with different ideas about well-known concepts. This technique captivates the reader and reveals the creative potential of the author.
The narrator’s unreliability may be due to mental problems or the initial partiality concerning people and events, so that an unreliable narrator may be needed for the author’s reflections on human mentality. Even though the statements of such a character are highly biased, the reader understands how things are in reality. The contract is not broken since not a single word of the narrator is trustworthy, and the reader will understand this, albeit not immediately. The situation is quite different when the author introduces an unreliable narrator to deliberately play with the reader, to achieve an effect through unjustified expectations. This technique is typical for the detective genre, where the narration can be conducted on behalf of the killer, who hides his involvement to the last.
The First-Person Narrator
The discussion about the unreliability of the first-person narrator is based on the notion that any person’s perception is subjective. The narrator, in any case, will perceive events subjectively, but this is not a reason to perceive all first-person narrators as unreliable. First-person narration is always at least potentially unreliable, since the narrator, with such human limitations of perception, memory, and judgment, can easily miss, forget, or misinterpret specific incidents, words, or motifs. However, the main criterion for determining unreliability should not be only the criterion of the type of narrative. The narrator-observer can also be unreliable if he violates the boundaries of non-intervention in the situation. The main criterion should be the desire, conscious or unconscious, to distort the facts for one reason or another.
Biagio from The Baron in the Trees as Unreliable Narrator
The Baron in the Trees is challenging to define in terms of the genre and the full author’s intention, just as it is difficult to understand how reliable the events in the novel are, at least in the context of the story. The work exists in postmodernism and surrealism, so the assessment of Biagio as a reliable or unreliable narrator can be ambiguous (Markey 1). Arguments that Biagio is an unreliable narrator include a mixture of types of narrators, the exalted fantasticality of the events, and the young age of the narrator at the time the plot started.
The Baron in the Trees reminds a completely fairy-tale narrative; however, sometimes, it is very realistic and mentions actual historical figures. The mention of these personalities gives readers the right to perceive what is happening from the point of view of the familiar logic of the generally accepted world order. The metaphor is obvious, and the author’s intention is partially clear: to show the existence and development of the individual in isolation from society.
Definition of Author’s Motifs
To understand the narrator’s reliability, it is first necessary to discover the purpose for which he is introduced into the narrative. The difficulty of understanding the author’s intention also lies in the fact that Italo Calvino considered the very act of creating a text valuable in itself (Lucente and Calvino 245). The story could be much more complete by exploring the inner experiences of the hero on his part; however, all events are presented to the reader through the speech of the observing brother. In essence, the narrative is a retelling through the mouth of Biagio of stories told by Cosimo himself. It is impossible to understand if these stories are real or exaggerated.
The unreliability of the source itself is also evidenced by the fact that Cosimo was repeatedly seriously ill, and the life of a hermit does not improve morale. This likely is why the author introduces a narrator into the story, who can provide events from the prism of his perception. Biagio does not lie; he only retells what he heard without going into reflections about how true it is. For the author, such a storyteller is needed to involve the reader in the literary game. The removal of fantastic events and some rationalization of Biagio prompts the reader to think about what is true in the story and what is not. Biagio as a narrator and character is characteristic of postmodern literature, and the author does not give the reader hints and explanations, prompting his reflections.
The conventions of the surrealist text limit reasoning about the narrator’s reliability in The Baron in the Trees. The Baron in the Trees is a work of art full of paradoxes and internal contradictions (Toman 58). From the point of view of objective reality, everything that happens is implausible fiction. However, in the context of a surreal story, everything that happens is perceived as the norm from the very beginning. Therefore, one should judge the reliability or unreliability of Biagio only from the point of view of the reality or unreality of Cosimo’s words. The fact of Cosimo’s departure to life in the trees must be taken as initially accurate. The mention of historical figures hinders a complete detachment from reality, but the mixing of worlds is generally a sign of surrealism.
Determining the Type of the Narrator
Defining Biagio in terms of narrator types is complicated by his versatility. On the one hand, Biagio is one of the leading secondary characters since he is directly the first witness of Cosimo’s hermitage. On the other hand, Biagio is removed from the events; he is aware of the incredible adventures of his brother only from his words. In terms of his awareness, Biagio also resembles an omniscient narrator. Most likely, Biagio is a fusion of all these types, collecting the features of both a participant in events and an outside observer. The narrative in the novel is conducted in the first person so that unreliability can be suspected in advance. However, bystander narrators are usually reliable if they have no intention of distorting events. Biagio is not entirely an outside observer, he is subjective, and he cannot know for sure whether his brother is telling him the truth. However, by broadcasting his words, he himself becomes a narrator who is challenging to trust.
Determining the Narrator’s Motives
Unreliable narrators mislead based on the motive of personal gain, psychological characteristics, out of ignorance. Of the selfish motives for which Biagio can deliberately exalt events, one can name only the desire to exaggerate his brother’s glory. However, there is no need for this because the fame of Cosimo has already spread throughout the world. Instead, the narrator’s goal is to document the family history without selfish motives.
Biagio’s concluding words confirm this intention to capture the brother’s life as a historically significant phenomenon. “I should be interested in philosophy, politics, history…he understood something else, and he could say it only by living as he did” (Calvino 302). Entirely relying on his brother’s words and not allowing critical analysis, Biagio is put as Naif’s type of unreliable narrator. This is evidenced by his childhood age at the events, impressionability, and gullibility. One way or another, Biagio does not deliberately mislead the readers and cannot be perceived as a negative character. His words can and should be subjected to self-importance, but he acts only as a mouthpiece for the story of Cosimo’s life. The decision on the reliability of the narrator, the readers will make for themselves, which was Calvino’s idea.
Thus, Biagio from The Baron in the Trees can be identified as an unreliable narrator. The surrealistic context of the novel hinders the evaluation of the narrator. However, some facts accurately confirm the unreliability of Biagio. First-person narration initially involves a critical evaluation. Biagio relies entirely on the words of Cosimo without making attempts at critical analysis. Moreover, when the Baron refused to live in society, the narrator was still a child, interfering with the subsequent rational interpretation. Finally, Biagio himself is not a direct witness to the incredible adventures that took place.
However, there is also evidence that does not allow Biagio to be attributed to unambiguously unreliable narrators. For example, he does not have any selfish motives to mislead the reader. Biagio can be classified as a Naif type of unreliable narrator due to the unawareness of deceit, naivety, and gullibility. Italo Calvino needs this type of narrator to step back from fantastic events and invite the reader to decide for himself what is more symbolic or realistic in the novel.
Abbot, H. P. The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative. NY: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
Calvino, Italo. The Baron in the Trees. Mariner Books, 2017
Lucente, Gregory L., and Italo Calvino. “An Interview with Italo Calvino.” University of Wisconsin Press, vol. 26, no. 3, 1985, pp. 245–253., Web.
Markey, Constance Daryl. “The Role of the Narrator in Italo Calvino’s Fiction.” University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, University Microfilms International, 1980, pp. 1–227.
Toman, Lucia. “‘The only exemplar of a species’: Community and Authenticity in The Baron in the Trees.” EXCLAMAT! ON, 2019, pp. 47-58.
Yacobi, Tamar. “Fictional Reliability as a Communicative Problem.” Poetics Today, vol. 2, no. 2, 1981, pp. 113–126., Web.