Unreliable Narrators In Pale Fire and Operation Shylock

unreliable narrators

The narrator is the immediate conveyor of the entire textual information in the novel, upon which the readers fully depend on receiving the whole narrative account. Thus, the readers’ understanding of the story is completely reliant on the information the narrator knows and chooses to divulge. Some novels explore this dependency between the subjective narrator and the reader, whilst examining the effects of a deliberately dubious narrator who sheds doubts on his/her own reliability, obscures what is real or not within the fictional world, and even erodes the relation between fiction and reality.

This essay will demonstrate how both Vladimir Nabokov, in his novel Pale Fire and Philip Roth in Operation Shylock emphasize the aspect of skepticism and even disbelief in their own narrating protagonists and consequently push the readers into a paranoid state of uncertainty.

It is first important to denote that both novels are first-person narratives in which the narrators are also the novels’ protagonists, and for a valid literary reason that serves the purpose of a questionable narrator by design: first-person narration is the most rudimentary subjective point of view that can raise doubts about the narrator’s account and state of mind. Other types of narration – on top of all, third-person omniscient narrator – are less likely to present instability and unreliability as a first-person narrative of the protagonist, whose point of view can be clearly impeded due to unbridled subjectivity and impartiality. The first-person narration in Pale Fire and Operation Shylock is, ergo, structurally imperative to adequately create skepticism in the novels.

Suspicious Right at the Start

The problematic reliability of the novels’ narrators is sharply raised right at the beginning of each novel. In Pale Fire, the unstable mental condition of the narrator, Charles Kinbote, is demonstrated through an utterly unrelated and puzzling statement, which at this primary stage subtly hints that Kinbote is at least somewhat mentally disturbed. At the end of three relatively dry paragraphs in the Foreword in which Kinbote describes the poem Pale Fire by John Shade technically, he suddenly asserts, “There is a very loud amusement park right in front of my present lodgings.” This bizarre assertion has no connection at all to any of Kinbote’s other remarks before or following it and hence connotes that he might be a psychologically erratic character.

Whereas Kinbote’s fickle state is merely implied at the beginning as a hint of a psychological disturbance, the unreliability of Operation Shylock’s narrator is suggested more bluntly as a possible consequence of medical substances. The narrator Philip Roth recounts that he was taking “some pills” (later on known as “Halcion”) after a knee surgery that he had, and thereupon his “mind began to disintegrate,” he struggled with a “mental coming apart,” and began to hallucinate (Chapter 1). This acknowledgment bifurcates the narrative into two levels of hermeneutics: as traditionally is presumed, events occurred as they are actually described; or, the new jarring branch, all or some of the portrayed events were a mere hallucination of the narrator.

The beginnings of both novels, therefore, trigger serious doubts about the believability of the narrating protagonists almost immediately from the start and leave the readers suspicious all throughout the rest of the novels.

The initial doubts regarding the veracity of the events as depicted by the narrators are enhanced gradually in Pale Fire, yet in Operation Shylock, they consistently remain at the same level throughout the text.

The shaky mental state of Kinbote is slowly unraveled, first in the Foreword and then in Kinbote’s professed Commentary section of the poem – which turns out to be not a real commentary of the poem. There are several examples in the Foreword that point to Kinbote’s mental instability: he reveals that Shade’s wife does not trust him and therefore requested him to accept other professors “as co-editors of her husband’s poem”; he nonchalantly discloses how he began spying on Shade that “kept providing [him] with first-rate entertainment”; and he reveals that “a certain ferocious lady” called him “insane.” In the Commentary section, Kinbote narcissistically deduces that the poem is full of allusions to “Zembla, [his] dear country” (Line 12) without any real substantiated evidence and subsequently uses it to recount his own weird story as the deposed king of Zembla, which becomes weirder and weirder and loses all connection to the actual poem on which Kinbote still ridiculously purports to comment.

Whereas Kinbote’s dubiousness as a reliable narrator is being built increasingly, the reliability of Roth the narrator remains at the same level of ambiguity since first alluding to the possibility that he was hallucinating, as no less than thirty times in the novel, he refers back to the Halcion. For instance, when Roth mentions Halcion for the first time, he states that it “charged with driving people crazy all over the globe” (Chapter 1); after a day filled with surreal experiences, he wonders if “everything [he] took to be actuality … was all a Halcion hallucination” (Chapter 6); in a moment of severe self-doubt and analysis, he postulates that the readers will blame his story on “Halcion madness the way Jekyll blamed Hyde on his drugs” (Chapter 8); and he again raises the possibility that readers will understand this story as “a chronicle of the Halcion hallucination” that even he himself “almost supposed it might be” (Epilogue). The periodical mentions of the Halcion keep it regularly in the readers’ minds and thus commemorate the prospect that the narrative is fully or partly a hallucination, even if Roth the narrator intends otherwise when he alludes to it.

All throughout the reading of both novels, there are strong suspicions about the narrators’ reliability, whether because of a questionable mental state or hallucinating side effects of medical substances; however, while in Pale Fire, the suspicions grow progressively, in Operation Shylock, they already sprout strongly from the start and remain constant.

Implausible Turn of Events Even in a Fictional World

liar narrator

The validity of the narrators’ accounts is also depreciated by the implausibility of the events they relay. Indeed, fiction can depict a completely imaginary world in which odd and peculiar occurrences happen within the narrative; yet, the novels are portrayed as realistic and, therefore, should abide by a minimal degree of verisimilitude even within a fictional world.

Among the implausibly outlandish events that Kinbote recounts in Pale Fire, he describes how he, as the King of Zembla, faced a rebellion and “was caged in his rose-stone palace” from which he escaped through a secret passage (Line 130), then he hid in a mountainside farmhouse (Line 149) and ultimately he “descended by parachute from a chartered plane … near Baltimore” (Line 691); in the meantime, Kinbotes describes how a devout group of extremists called “the Shadows” hired the assassin Gradus to kill the fleeing king (Line 171), who chased him all the way to America (Line 949) and finally killed Shade by mistake (Line 1000).

The course of events in Operation Shylock is no less incredible: for example, Roth the narrator retells that he confronted a person who posed as himself in Israel, then took a generous check that was intended for the fake Roth from a person called Mr. Smilesburger who turned out to be a Mossad operator, but then Roth lost the check to Israeli soldiers who apparently took it on behalf of Mr. Smilesburger, who then wanted to use Roth as a Mossad operative. In fact, Roth the narrator himself admits twice that the plot struggles with “general implausibility,” “total lack of gravity,” “reliance on unlikely coincidence” and “absence of inner coherence” (Chapters 8 and 9).

Yet, in spite of the unlikelihood of the events to occur even in highly imaginative fictional worlds, both Nabokov and Roth the author do not push them completely to the realm of the fantastic and thus maintain the very little possibility of occurrence in the realistic fictional world.

Mystifying Endings

After the reliability of the narrating protagonists is debilitated almost throughout both entire narratives, the novels’ endings create even further imbalance and do not lead to cathartic conclusions.

The ending of Pale Fire reveals that even though the character of Gradus the assassin seems ludicrously unrealistic and concocted by Kinbote himself, it appears that there is actually a killer who did almost kill Kinbote while “[o]ne of the bullets that spared” him “went through [Shade’s] heart” (Line 1000). It hence remains unclear to the readers who this killer really is, while Kinbote alleges that the killer – the one person who could confirm or refute the actuality of the narrative – confessed everything to him during a private conversation he conducted with him in prison, but soon thereafter committed suicide “by slitting his throat” (Line 1000) before he managed to corroborate or invalidate Kinbote’s bizarre story publically.

The ending of Operation Shylock is even more paranoia-fraught due to a fusion of the fictional world with the real world. Roth the narrator exposes at the end that he “elected to delete [his] final chapter,” in which he supposedly portrays how he worked for the Mossad because it is “too seriously detrimental to [Smilesburger’s] agency’s interests and to the Israeli government” (Epilogue). Later on, Roth describes a meeting with Smilesburger after he reviewed the book’s manuscript, and consequently, the latter advised him to delete the final chapter, call the book fiction and “[a]ppend a note: ‘I made this up’” (Epilogue); and indeed, the book contains such note stating, “This book is a work of fiction…” The ending could therefore signify that the book is not merely a work of fiction in spite of the note but more autobiographically loyal to his full title, Operation Shylock: A Confession.

To add more to the readers’ uncertainty, the author Philip Roth claims in an interview that “[t]he book is true” and confirms that he “added the note to the reader as [he] was asked to do” (1993: B. Fein); these comments outside the novel in the real world further gnaw at the friction between fiction and reality.

The endings of both novels, therefore, do not answer whether or not the novels’ events were made up or actually took place in the fictional world – or in the case of Operation Shylock, in the real world as well – and leave the readers hermeneutically paranoid and wondering.

In Conclusion

As illustrated, the authors Nabokov and Roth seem to intentionally undermine the reliability of their own first-person narrating protagonists and thus completely jolt the readers’ trust in the entire narrative. This suspicious position unavoidably leads to a paranoid state in which the readers almost constantly doubt the narration and its actual occurrence in the fictional world, while in Operation Shylock, the border between fiction and reality is blurred as well.

This untraditional state of the readers’ incredulity prompts them into deeper active engagement with the text as they not only attempt to peel the text’s meaning but also determine what exactly – if anything at all – occurs within a fictional world depicted by a narrator partially or fully unreliable. Perhaps the unanswered question of Nabokov and Roth is not even about their narratives but about everyone’s narrative: are we, as the subjective first-person narrators of our lives, reliable?

Nabokov, Vladimir. 1962. Pale Fire. New York: Berkeley Publishing Corporation.
Roth, Philip. 1993. Operation Shylock: A Confession. New York: Simon and Schuster.