Hannah Crafts' "The Bondwoman’s Narrative" - The (un-) reliability of the narrator

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2004

30 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Content

1. Introduction to Reliable and Unreliable Narration

2. Signals for Unreliable Narration Inside the Main Text
2.1 Different Types of Unreliable Narrators
2.2 Point of View
2.3 Characters

3. Signals Outside the Text for (Un-) Reliable Narration
3.1 Records of the Real Author, the Story and the Text Itself
3.2 The Knowledge of the Reader

4. Text Signals for (Un-) Reliable Narration
4.1 Admitted Unreliability
4.2. Paratextual Signals
4.3 Explicit Contradictions of the Narrator
4.4 Discrepancies between the Reconstructed and Narrated Story
4.5 Signals for a High Degree of Emotional Involvement
4.6 Deliberate Addressing and Controlling of the Reader
4.7 Genre, Copying and Language Style

5. Conclusion

6. Works Cited

The following term paper deals with the question of reliability or unreliability of the narrator in Hannah Crafts’ The Bondwoman’s Narrative. But before the narrator’s reliability is analysed, some definitions and background information on reliability and unreliability shall be presented.

1. Introduction to Reliable and Unreliable Narration

The main question is if the narrator’s presentation of himself and the story is reliable or not[1]. Everything a reliable narrator says is true and the narrator knows everything that is necessary for the understanding of the story. A reliable narrator presents himself as fully understanding the plot and therefore the reader is never in doubt of the narrator’s role but able to take everything he is told for granted. Unreliable is a person or thing that cannot be counted on or trusted. Through an unreliable narrator, events sometimes become distorted and readers are misled. If the reader once notices the unreliability of the story presented, the status of the narrative worlds, its truth and authenticity and the authenticity of the narrator itself are called into question[2]. This question is therefore dependent on the relation between fiction and reality[3]. There are different degrees of unreliability as well[4]. But it is also important to know that a reliable narrator is not necessarily one that the readers always agree with[5]. The readers can find the narrator’s values repugnant and his conclusions stupid[6]. An unreliable narrator forces the readers to reinterpret many of his statements in order to arrive at a knowledge and understanding of what really happened[7]. Some definitions take the implied author as their main criterion. He is the person narrating the story. The readers need a sensibility on which to base their interpretations and this is the implied author[8]. Booth[9] calls “a narrator reliable when he speaks for or acts in accordance with the norms of the work (the implied author's norms) and unreliable when he does not. For Prince[10], a reliable narrator behaves in accordance with the implied author’s norms[11]. If he is unreliable, his norms and behaviour are not in accordance with the implied author’s norms, he is a narrator whose values like tastes, judgements and moral sense diverge from those of the implied author’s[12]. For Nünning[13], it is not the implied author’s norms that are of importance but the norms and perceptions of the real readers. In cases where the narrator is not reliable, the reader will probably ask himself if it is the authorial intention to have an unreliable narrator in order to confuse the reader or if the author himself is unreliable and if so, why[14].

But now the question is how the reader can distinguish reliable from unreliable narration. There are several aspects of a story that can be unreliable, namely the interpretation of events and norms by the narrator, the presentation of the main characters and the facts presented[15]. To come to a final conclusion about the narrator’s reliability, the interaction between textual signals and the world knowledge of the reader are decisive and of the same importance and relevance[16]. The whole semantic text structure is relevant as well as all the implicit information the reader gets when reading[17]. This implicit information can create a second story that is hidden behind the main plot and which is often closer to reality[18]. But to construct the truth, the knowledge of the readers is indispensable.

All these signals for the unreliability of the narrator will be more closely analysed in the following chapters. However, during the process of reading, every narrator shall be considered as innocent until proven guilty[19].

2. Signals for Unreliable Narration Inside the Main Text

2.1 Different Types of Unreliable Narrators

By using different criteria to explain unreliable narration, it is possible to group unreliable narrators into different categories. This chapter shall give a short overview of the most common types of unreliable narrators with an emphasis at the end on the types of narrators present in The Bondwoman’s Narrative. The first group are narrators who are not serious such as picaros, ironic persons, humorists, satirists, rogues, clowns or parodists. Their job is it to amuse people, to make jokes or to criticise negative aspects in life in a humorous way. In order to do that, they use exaggerations or do not always tell the truth. It is therefore difficult to guess how much of what has been said by them is true or false. Other unreliable narrators are so-called “pathological narrators“[22]. They are normally mad monologists, megalomaniacs or fanatics that have hallucinations or are paranoid and can therefore not make a difference between dream and reality[23]. Liars, swindlers and show-offs know exactly what they are doing when not telling the truth as well as bearers of secrets and enigmatic people. All these types of narrators use their lies intentionally in order to reach a certain goal. This is not the case with another group of unreliable narrators, namely epistemic limited narrators such as blind people. Relevant for The Bondwoman’s Narrative are naive, biased and traumatised narrators that tend to be unreliable as well.[20] [21]

The narrator is probably traumatised by all the horrible events that happened in her life. Living as a slave, seeing all the cruelties done to slaves and the fear of getting caught after several flights must have traumatised the narrator. Although she has never been a victim of torture, she had to watch others being tortured or even killed. One scene that has certainly had an impact on her is the story of the old female slave that wanted to save her dog but both were tortured to death[24]. The narrator is a tragic figure even when everything turns out well for her in the end. As victims of crimes or similar cruel events tend to forget details or whole parts of their lives in order to protect themselves, traumatised narrators are not regarded as reliable even if they do not tell the truth on purpose. Parts of the story are told in a too positive way so that the reader can start to doubt their truths. It is also strange that the narrator stays very calm when talking about cruelties. She does not show any emotions at all which is not very realistic for the reader.

Another group that is relevant for the novel are naive narrators. In most cases, the narrators are children or mentally disabled people. These narrators are either immature and innocent or mentally not stable, they feel insecure and are confused about the world and people around them. They perceive the reality in a simplistic way and are not able to understand the implications of everything that is going on around them[25]. A naive narrator tells his story as it is true for him but a reader who is better informed than the narrator knows that things happened differently[26]. But even if the story told is true, its interpretation by the narrator can be questionable as he is simply too young and too naive[27]. Another problem with very young narrators are their memories of certain events during their childhood[28]. When talking about their childhood, they were either too young to understand every situation correctly or they have problems remembering everything correctly depending on their age when telling the story. In The Bondwoman’s Narrative, the narrator, who is not described as mentally retarded, is an adult that begins telling her story from her childhood on. It is therefore doubtful if all her memories of this early age can be taken for granted. There are two scenes in the book where the narrator is characterised as very naive although she is already an adult. The first scene is when she is caught in the woods after a flight and asked who she is. Naively, she answers that she is a slave[29]. For the modern reader, it is simply not understandable why she was honest and why she did not hide her true identity. She surely knew that negative consequences would follow upon this honest answer. The second scene takes place when living with Mrs Henry. The narrator says that she does not want to escape because her mistress has been good to her[30]. This remark is also not comprehensible for the reader. Can the gratefulness to a mistress be that great that the slave does not take the chance to flee and to live in freedom? Even when the reader knows that the narrator was not a child any more when these events took place, he will certainly regard the narrator as naive. It is nowadays very difficult to understand her decisions and her way of acting and thinking. After these two scenes, the reader will continue to have a naive narrator in mind which will cause doubts of her reliability.

The most important type of narrator for the novel is the biased narrator . This means that the narrator tells his story in a special way in order to reach a certain aim or in order to help someone. All first person narrators are biased[31] and can have self-serving intentions as well. This type of narrator can become unreliable when he starts to tell his story in a way in order to convince the readers of his opinion. By doing this, real events can be slightly changed for his purposes. It soon becomes obvious that Hannah , the narrator, always has luck in whatever she does. Every time she flees, she finds someone who cares for her and even if she is in a dramatic situation, everything turns out well for her in the end. By telling all her escapes in a more positive than negative way she probably wants to encourage other slaves not to give up and to try to flee. Hannah engages in discourses on slavery, equality, social position and other related issues. For this, the narrator’s position in or above the world of the story is decisive[32]. As Hannah is a slave and at the same time the major character of the story, she has a very influential and believable position for other slaves. Her story is like a first-hand narration, she can be regarded as an expert and a pioneer who managed to escape slavery and to live a family life in peace at the end. She is the best source of knowledge about the condition of slave life and her life is typical of the life of many slaves. Even when most Blacks knew about slavery, her book was intended to show the slaves that they could make it. But one problem was the illiteracy of many slaves which means that most people she wanted to address were never capable to read her lines. The book was not only intended to influence the Black population but also the Whites. The narrative is sometimes overwrought and melodramatic and hidden motives and strategies are used to gain her aim which is to attract the readers’ attention to the misery of being a slave and to indict her oppressors[33]. In order to influence her audience, the selection of events told is crucial[34], the values and norms that she shows and defends in the novel as well as her euphemistic style that glosses over many cruel actions[35]. If you take a closer look at the book, it soon becomes evident that many scenes are supposed to encourage other slaves. Hannah has always had luck, every time she flees she meets someone that is kind to her and helps her. The first family she meets is very nice to her and to her mistress although the family seems to know who they are[36]. The second family, the Henrys, treat her well as well[37] and finally, the couple she meets in the forest asks her for help and they treat her in a good way, too[38]. At the end of her story, Hannah finds friends of the slaves that are good to them but this is only possible in freedom[39]. She teaches what she was taught when young, has found her mother and is able to enjoy her life[40]. This is definitely a happy ending that shall motivate other slaves to try to flee as well and to establish a life for themselves without any fear and cruelties. But knowing nowadays that most slaves never read books like that, her story is a sad attempt to reach her fellow sufferers. All the help and kindness she encounters are too much for the reader and not believable although a well-intended motive is behind them, namely to motivate her fellows to leave slavery. But it is also possible that she did not describe her owners as too cruel because she did not want to offend her audience from which she expected help for the slaves. By writing too positively about them, she wants in a way to thank those who helped slaves and to those who do not care about slavery, she wants to give a good example how to treat the poor slaves. She therefore tries to manipulate her readers.

One aspect that helped Hannah a lot during her flights, was her religion and her belief in God. Hannah presents herself as a Christian woman for whom God is the greatest source of abiding comfort[41]. He gives her the power and strength to support her flight. During her last flight, when she is hiding in the forest, she says that God and Christ would be with her and help her and that good angels would always be close to her[42]. Her belief can be, for a modern reader, not that convincing and a bit exaggerated. It is too much of a coincidence that her life is always saved only by the help of God. But it is also true that many slaves were very religious as believing in God was the only hope they had.

The book offers a lot of descriptions of slavery with many details of the living conditions of slaves which are intended to arise the pity of the readers, especially the White audience and to influence politicians in a positive way. At the end of Lizzy’s Story[43], there is a pleading to the politicians to change the horrible situation of the slaves that sometimes forces them to kill their own children in order to save them from being a slave[44]. When Hannah describes Mr Wheeler’s plantation in North Carolina, she talks about a lot of details in order to convince the readers and politicians to change the poor living conditions of the slaves[45]. Hannah is surprised that the slaves do not die although they have to live under such bad conditions[46]. In her monologue about slavery, Hannah talks about the Constitution and the right of freedom for everyone and criticises in a very direct way the slave traders, owners and politicians that allow slavery[47]. In the end, Hannah gets to know the fate of her aunt Hetty and her husband who had to go to jail because of teaching a slave[48]. The narrator wants to show the rights and needs of slaves to be educated and to be taught how to read and write. Whites that taught slaves should not have been punished for that. By mentioning at the end that the slave trader Mr Trappe is dead, Hannah shows a fair punishment for all he did[49]. He is an example of people who were cruel to slaves and who deserved a fair punishment. The narrator also does not want to tell how she escaped so that others who use the same way could not be caught by slave catchers[50]. By doing this, she wants to save their lives and to make her flight easier. This is, when first read, maybe a bit strange for the reader who would expect a detailed description of the best escaping route but when pondering about her comment “I cannot describe my journey”[51], her decision becomes understandable.


[1] Cf. Michael Meyer, English and American Literatures. (Tübingen: A. Francke Verlag, 2004) 61.

[2] Cf. Renate Hof, Das Spiel des “unreliable narrator“. Aspekte unglaubwürdigen Erzählens

am Beispiel von Vladimir Nabokov. (München: Fink Verlag, 1984) 7.

[3] Cf. Hof 23.

[4] Cf. Ansgar Nünning, “Unreliable Narration zur Einführung: Grundzüge einer kognitiv-narratologischen Theorie und Analyse unglaubwürdigen Erzählens“. Unreliable Narration. Studien zur Theorie und Praxis unglaubwürdigen Erzählens in der englischsprachigen Erzählliteratur. (Ed. Ansgar Nünning. Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag, 1998) 17.

[5] Cf. Gerald Prince, Narratology. The Form and Function of Narrative. (Berlin: Mouton Publishers, 1982) 12.

[6] Cf. Prince, Narratology 12.

[7] Cf. Prince, Narratology 13.

[8] Cf. Horace Porter Abbot, The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002) 77.

[9] Wayne C. Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction. (Chicago: UP, 1961) 157ff.

[10] Gerald Prince, A Dictionary of Narratology. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987).

[11] Prince, Dictionary 80-81.

[12] Prince, Dictionary 101.

[13] Cf. Ansgar Nünning, G rundbegriffe der Literaturtheorie. (Stuttgart: Verlag J. B. Metzler; 2004) 283.

[14] Cf. Abbot 77.

[15] Cf. Ute Kauer, “Narration” and “Gender” im englischen Roman vom 18. Jahrhundert bis zur Postmoderne. (Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter, 2003) 137.

[16] Cf. Kauer 139.

[17] Cf. Nünning, Unreliable Narration 18.

[18] Cf. Nünning, Unreliable Narration 19.

[19] Cf. Nünning, Unreliable Narration 21.

[20] Cf. Manfred Jahn, “Package Deals, Exklusionen, Randzonen: Das Phänomen der Unverläßlichkeit in den Erzählsituationen”. Unreliable Narration. Studien zur Theorie und Praxis unglaubwürdigen Erzählens in der englischsprachigen Erzählliteratur. Ed. Ansgar Nünning. (Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag, 1998) 83.

[21] Cf. Nünning, Unreliable Narration 24.

[22] Cf. Nünning, Unreliable Narration 24.

[23] Cf. Gaby Allrath, “But why will you say that I am mad? Textuelle Signale für die Ermittlung von unreliable narration“. Unreliable Narration. Studien zur Theorie und Praxis unglaubwürdigen Erzählens in der englischsprachigen Erzählliteratur. Ed. Ansgar Nünning. (Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag, 1998) 64.

[24] Cf. Crafts 20ff.

[25] Cf. “Literary Conventions“, 2 Sept. 2004 <http://members.accessbee.com/tnklbnny/lit.conventions.html:>.

[26] Cf. “Narrator“, The Free Dictionary Com, 2004, 2 Sept. 2004 <http://www.thefreedictionary.com/>.

[27] Cf. Nünning, Unreliable Narration 17.

[28] Cf. Allrath 65.

[29] Cf. Crafts 121.

[30] Crafts 147.

[31] Cf. Franz Stanzel, Theorie des Erzählens. (Göttingen: UTB für Wissenschaft, 1995) 200.

[32] Cf. Meyer 55.

[33] Crafts XI.

[34] Cf. Allrath 78.

[35] Cf. Allrath 71.

[36] Cf. Crafts 63.

[37] Cf. Crafts 121.

[38] Cf. Crafts 222.

[39] Cf. Crafts 244.

[40] Cf. Crafts 244.

[41] Cf. Crafts 218.

[42] Cf. Crafts 218.

[43] Cf. Crafts 183.

[44] Cf. Crafts 183.

[45] Cf. Crafts 204-205.

[46] Cf. Crafts 204.

[47] Cf. Crafts 206-207.

[48] Cf. Crafts 235.

[49] Cf. Crafts 242.

[50] Cf. Crafts 296.

[51] Crafts 218.

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Hannah Crafts' "The Bondwoman’s Narrative" - The (un-) reliability of the narrator
University of Regensburg  (Amerikanistik)
Slave Narratives and Neo-Slave Narratives
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Hannah, Crafts, Bondwoman’s, Narrative, Slave, Narratives, Neo-Slave, Narratives
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Sylvia Hadjetian (Author), 2004, Hannah Crafts' "The Bondwoman’s Narrative" - The (un-) reliability of the narrator, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/42819


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