“All narrators are unreliable, but some are more unreliable than others.”

It stands testament to the shifting, slippery complexities of reliability in contemporary American fiction that when Tim O’Brien instructs us in The Things They Carried that ‘This is true’, we do not wholly believe him. Both this novel and Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres are books which very much centre on the notion of truth, reliability and just how much we can trust the often subjective view of the narrator. By looking at the very machinations of storytelling itself, these novels are to a degree far less stories about war, or farming, respectively – but instead, a considered analysis of just what it means to tell a story.

The unreliability of O’Brien’s work is called into question before the novel-proper has even begun – located in the prefatory material is the statement: ‘This is a work of fiction. Except for a few details regarding the author’s own life, all the incidents, names and characters are imaginary.’ A message of this kind could be said to be relatively standard for a novel dealing with historical subject matter, but it is the disparity between this statement and the preceding one that causes most concern: ‘This book is lovingly dedicated to the men of Alpha Company’ accompanied by the names of men featured within the novel itself. Between these two statements, which are we to believe? That the men – and by association their stories – are real and as described in the novel, or that O’Brien is playing the reader, offering them unreliable un-truths?

In balance then, it is important that O’Brien offers the seemingly more firm ‘facts’ of the list-like opening chapter. In the mundanely innocuous accounts of ‘Sterno, safety pins, trip flares, spools of wire’, the reader is given a largely unchanging kind of evidence that can be believed in. These accoutrements of the war feel reliable, trustworthy – it is only when we encounter more unquantifiable, subjective terms like ‘they shared the weight of memory’ that we are more prone to doubt O’Brien’s prose. With the physical items, the weight remains constant, hard, resolutely material. But in O’Brien’s metaphorical use of phrases like ‘weight of memory’, it is hard for us to place an exact weight on a concept stretched between the different soldiers – thus it becomes an ‘unreliable’ weight.

The intangible concept of the mental burden extends itself to the varied nature of the stories that make up The Things They Carried itself – just as each story often deals with different lead characters, the stories vary in length; some tens of pages long (‘On The Rainy River’), some a mere two or three (‘Enemies’). This draws attention to O’Brien’s power as narrator – while in many senses he is just another part of Alpha Company (and not even the commanding officer) – it is only he that can choose how much time and how many words he affords to each part of his story. The novel opens with a name and title: ‘First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross’ – forming the focus of the first two chapters, we are led to believe Cross will be the central character, but he swiftly becomes peripheral, O’Brien himself taking over as lead character. Expectations and literary norms are subverted and the reader must call into question his reliability; are the events and characters O’Brien afford only a few pages to any less important?

This notion of differing character perspectives is also present in Smiley’s A Thousand Acres. Late in the book, we are presented with an exchange between Ty: ‘I guess we see things differently’ and Ginny: ‘More differently than you imagine.’ Not only are these statements a defiant standpoint between the sexes, but they draw to attention the opposed views of the characters. What Ginny may see as the ‘correct’ version of events – the ‘real’ story of their family – may in Ty’s view be unreliable. Ginny draws attention to this in the opening lines of the novel: ‘At sixty miles per hour, you could pass our farm in a minute’. Even in this initially nondescript piece of description, Ginny raises the question of subjectivity with the word ‘could’ – she presents one perspective of passing by the farm, but others also exist.

The varying nature of memory is continuously emphasised throughout the novel; the way the same event can be seen by different people in different ways. At the close of Chapter 43, Ginny recounts an anecdote of how in her youth she waved to Ty at a football game, only to realise he was trying to catch the attention of someone behind her. Not only does this passage present a literal example of differing viewpoints from different positions – but it employs it as a metaphor, Ginny recounts: ‘five years later, he swore he could not remember this incident, and I’m sure he didn’t, but it was burned into my memory.’

In this situation, who is more unreliable? Ty for completely forgetting the incident, or Ginny for presenting a piece of information that she has a particular bias towards? While the memory is ‘burned’ into her consciousness, in the grand scheme of things, it may be pretty inconsequential. We are not privy to Ty’s internal thought process, only Ginny’s; and as such are placed more firmly in her body, to see through her eyes, her perspective. Ginny’s memory has been branded by the incident, and by including it as part of the narrative, it is ‘burned’ into the course of the novel itself.

Within the novel, strict linearity and objective views are often painted as inherently masculine. In an argument between Larry and Ginny’s mother, Larry states: ‘There’s only one side here, and you better be on it’ before Ginny’s mother reluctantly agrees with him. In this dominant depiction of domestic life, Larry allows no space for anything other than his own view – for him, absolute reliability lies in his rules and opinions. The irony is that although this forced way of life is here presented as largely masculine, Ginny arguably only ever presents ‘one side’ in her account of events; the side she has chosen to present. Outside of what she presents in the pages, there is technically nothing else, beyond supposition.

Ginny draws attention to this at the start of chapter 42 where she describes the cafe she works in ‘The noise was the same, continuous, reassuring: human intentions perennially renewing themselves whether I happened to sleep or wake.’ Here, she presents the idea of a populated world outside the immediate realm of the novel – it is described as autonomous, ‘perennially renewing’, yet beyond this, we know nothing else. This world may contain people who talk, who eat; but without further description from Ginny, this is how they remain – faceless. A Thousand Acres tells only tells one small segment of life in Iowa, the inherent ‘flaw’ of reliability in all narrators.

The Things They Carried also presents the theme of reliability as something selective. O’Brien’s narration is not just a method of remembering the war, but also a kind of filtration process – selecting and choosing the key incidents and specific memories that hold most relevance to him, just as Ginny selects the moments on the farm that are most important to her. While O’Brien’s narration invariable focuses on the other soldiers in his company, the way in which he describes them can often also tell us about O’Brien’s own psyche. When Henry Dobbins speculates on the cutting of a thumb from a dead Vietnamese boy, he says: ‘I don’t see no moral’. Is this a view genuinely held by Dobbins – the character – or is it instead O’Brien’s voice as author speaking through him?

If there is any chapter that addresses the questions of reliability in the novel most directly, it is ‘Good Form’ – the chapter’s very title implies the right, correct way of doing things. But the chapter achieves the polar opposite, creating even more confusion for the reader. Phrases like ‘almost everything else is invented’ call into question the reliability of the whole novel; while they corroborate with the previous statement of ‘This is a work of fiction’, they work against the simplistic ‘This is true’. With so many alternatives presented to us, which do we believe? O’Brien uses personal language in an effort to persuade us, lure us down particular avenues: ‘But listen. Even that story is made up.’ In his command to ‘listen’, the reader wants to believe, to place their trust in O’Brien as narrator.

In a speculative scenario with his daughter about whether he actually killed anyone in the war, O’Brien states ‘I can say, honestly “Of course not.” Or I can say, honestly, ‘Yes’.’ Do we place the same trust in O’Brien’s ‘honesty’ that his daughter does? Do we take O’Brien’s statement as a literal admission of his actions in the war, or is it instead a hypothetical extension of his own actions into the actions of the ‘average’ soldier. The Things We Carried is presented as only one story of the war, of which many other stories could be told, just as A Thousand Acres could be told entirely differently from Caroline, Rose or Larry’s perspective.

In ‘Spin’, O’Brien attempts to bring finality to his discourse on reliability, to give unshakeable reasoning for why his storytelling – in whatever format – is so important. For him, the act of telling a story gives immortality to those who have died. By contrasting the world of his youth and the world of his adult life in the war, O’Brien aims to show the universality in which remembering can salvage the memories of people who have been lost. O’Brien states:

‘Forty-three years old, and the war occurred half a lifetime ago, and yet the remembering makes it now.  And sometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever.  That’s what stories are for.  Stories are for joining the past to the future.  Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.’

On one level, O’Brien could be seen to be muddying the water of reliability further. ‘yet the remembering makes it now’ implies the creation of an uneasy limbo between the past and present, neither one of the other, where hard facts disintegrate. O’Brien’s ‘remembering’ is at best a second-hand replication of the past, a dredging up of age-affected recollections. He is keen to delineate between the notion of ‘memory’ and ‘stories’ – stories are implicitly unreliable, the thing which is leftover when the memories are gone. As the memories fade away with time, all that is left are the stories, of which The Things They Carried is a collection.

O’Brien’s theories of memory and stories function on a central symbiosis – one leads to the creation of the other, a self-fulfilling perpetuation of an idea of something. Central to this is the way life and death plays into the idea of a story, O’Brien continues in Lives of the Dead: ‘I made up elaborate stories to bring Linda alive in my sleep’ and ‘Once you’re alive, you can’t ever be dead’. Just as memories lead to stories, stories lead to a kind of feigned life for an individual – by imaging someone alive in his mind, O’Brien gives them a kind of continuing life after death. In the practical, exterior world, these theories and imaginations are inherently unreliable – but in the interior world of the mind, they hold as much reliability as any other thing: if you believe they are real, they become real.

In Ashley Karyannis’ essay on the book, she states: ‘This blending of memory and imagination to make something “more true” than a strictly factual retelling of past is alluring to O’Brien.’ Here is the crux of what O’Brien is attempting with the novel: the ‘allure’ of creation from memories implies an inherently unreliable narrative; that the process of creation is something that can bring pleasure, catharsis, or some other benefit. It is an artificial process, a forced creation of a war narrative that feels ‘more true’ to the reader.

Just as it must be asked whether The Things They Carried is truthful to the historicity of the Vietnam war, it can also be considered whether A Thousand Acres is a faithful retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear. Does the ‘reliability’ of her re-envisioning of the core concepts of the original narrative actually matter? In A Thousand Acres, the ‘Goneril’ character – Ginny – lives, while in the original she kills herself. This is Smiley’s intervention, her power as author to alter the narrative, to inject it with bias, with themes to twist the Ginny character to fulfil her aims. Just as we must be wary about the words O’Brien gives to his company of soldiers, we must realise that Ginny, as a narrator, is always operating on Smiley’s puppet strings.

Larry Cook’s dementia also raises serious questions about unreliability – the very nature of the illness and the degeneracy it brings to the person’s mental faculties draws attention to the way memories can rapidly alter. In the courtroom scenes, Larry’s mind is so muddled that he believes Caroline is dead, despite her standing right next to him. In this formal situation, accuracy and reliability are key; yet Larry is unable to provide either, so badly degraded are his memories. Larry’s state of mind also presents a kind of symmetry with Ginny, who for so long had ‘forgotten’ the sexual abuse she had been subjected to. The novel draws attention to the way past events can be conveniently re-written, cancelling out swathes of what actually happened, replacing it – as in Larry’s case – with an entirely fictitious substitute.

Writing on the novel, Susan Elizabeth Farrell states: ‘Ginny’s surface frankness and reliability as a narrator also begin to erode as the novel advances and she confesses her love for secrets’. Once again, the implications of the first person narrative are made clear; while Ginny is in the privileged possession of narrator, she also suffers the drawback of her actions within the novel impacting on how we take what she tells us. Talking of her ‘private project’ to become pregnant, she informs the reader: ‘it showed me a whole secret world, a way to have two lives, to be two selves’. Just as O’Brien’s falls to the allure of the ability of his stories to give life to long dead acquaintances, Ginny is suckered in by the ability to create a second life away from prying eyes, to fabricate a new existence. It is this tendency that urges us to call into question the reliability of her narration. Just as O’Brien confronts his daughter with two potentially ‘honest’ answers as to whether he killed a man, Ginny confronts us with two lives – the one she chooses to present, and the other ‘private’ self, that she chooses to keep hidden.

Bibliography

Barz, Jonathan, ‘The Function of Memory in 20th Century Fiction’ [http://people.dbq.edu/students/akarayan/currentwork.html]

Farrell, Susan, Jane Smiley’s “A Thousand Acres”: A Reader’s Guide (London: Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd., 2001)

Hall, Kelley, ‘Putting the Pieces Together: Using Jane Smiley’s “A Thousand Acres” in Sociology of Families’, Teaching Sociology , Vol. 28, No. 4 (2000)

McDermott, Sinead, ‘The Gender of Nostalgia: Memory, Nostalgia, and Gender in A Thousand Acres’, Signs , Vol. 28, No. 1 (2002)

O’Brien, Tim, The Things They Carried (Flamingo: London, 1991)

Pasternak, Donna, ‘Keeping the Dead Alive: Revising the Past in Tim O’Brien’s War Stories’, Irish Journal of American Studies , Vol. 7, (1998)

Smiley, Jane, A Thousand Acres (London: Harper Perennial, 2004)

Wiener, Gary, War in Tim O’Brien’s the Things They Carried (Sacramento: Greenhaven Press, 2011)

“The US fiction of the 19th century is defined by its twin obsessions with the small scale and the national scale.”

It is telling that William Dean Howells’ The Rise of Silas Lapham begins with an interview. As the titular character sits down to be questioned by journalist Bartley Hubbard, we are privy to one of the central themes of the novel – the small scale transcending to a larger, national scale. Silas Lapham is but one man, but through the process of the interview, Howells shows he is acutely aware of his audience and the need to succinctly inform them of the details of Lapham’s life. Just as Hubbard’s interview is to broadcast the means of Lapham’s life to a wider readership, we too engage with the details of the man as his personality and traits radiate outwards. The individual man becomes larger-than-life character.

In a book centred on material wealth, the priorities are set out within the first page as Lapham informs Hubbard ‘I guess you wouldn’t want my life without the money’. Even here, Lapham is identifying the fascination with money that transcends across the country – America is the great democratic nation, the land of opportunity – here, with the right determination and business acumen, anyone can move upwards from an individual to national level. This is the world Lapham operates in – to quote the famous speech by Calvin Coolidge, ‘The Press Under a Free Government’: ‘the chief business of the American people is business’.

In titling the book The Rise of Silas Lapham, Howells specifically draws attention to the individual man, Silas Lapham himself. But equally, by positioning him in such an elevated, central position, his rise – and fall – becomes an example of social experience; a model by which he acts as a substitute for the American people as a whole. As Lapham explains to Hubbard: ‘The day of small things was past, and I don’t suppose it will ever come again in this country.’ Here Lapham clearly identifies the new means of the world, how the operation of ‘small things’ is a thing of the past, that the methods of modern America will now operate on a far larger scale, and by engaging in this interview, Lapham seeks to place himself within this new scale.

The contrast of small and large scales is not merely confined to the language of business and money though – both The Rise of Silas Lapham and Henry James’ The Bostonians feature love triangles, tackling the themes of romance on a conflicted level. Where traditionally love might be thought of as a private affair, in both novels romance is now a thing that cannot be contained between just two people, extending out to three. In the instance of The Bostonians the triangle consisting of Verena, Olive and Basil is further complicated by the domineering natures of the two individuals fighting for Verena’s affections. In one of her speeches, Verena presents the point ‘do you think that women are meant to be slaves?’ – the irony being that to a degree, this is exactly what she becomes. In the confused struggle for allegiance that the love triangle presents, the small scale matters of the heart are extrapolated out to a grander scale where this struggle must be fought amongst the midst of a national feminist movement.

And even within this ‘love’ triangle, there remains financial focus – such is Olive’s desire for Verena that she pays Mr. Tarrant – Verena’s father – a large sum of money to allow Verena to live with her. Here, intimate personal relationships become entangled with the wider scale notions of finance – while seeking to break out from the pre-established role of women in society, Olive inadvertently enters into the machinations of business. This also shows the lengths to which one person will go to gain the upper hand in winning the affections of a person – for Olive, Verena becomes her entire world – but in the grand scheme of the feminist movement across America, the triviality of the interplay between the three sides of the love triangle pales into insignificance.

In terms of feminism as a theme within The Bostonians – Olive’s use of Verena is primarily to extend the scale of her own personal movement, Verena acting as a mouthpiece to carry Olive’s views. But just as Olive’s ‘purchasing’ of Verena places her within the bounds of a national system of finance, her use of Verena as an oratory instrument to a degree works against her feminist principles. Much of the fascination and allure of Verena is not to do with the feminist speeches she is presenting, but instead with her sheer beauty and eloquence. She is in essence playing on her femininity for effect, and when Olive considers speaking herself at the end of the novel, the distaste from others is clear: ‘‘Oh, are you going to speak?’ the lady from New York inquired, with her cursory laugh.’ While Olive and Verena’s double act has had success on a small, local scale, now presented to the mass audience of the Boston Music Hall, attended by individuals from further afield, its limitations are made clear. In doing so though, James also aids in the creation of the sense of a national scale, full of a broad cross section of American society.

Howells is also keen to create an America of varied people – he specifically writes Lapham’s speech as accented, drawing attention to his regionalism and distinct background: ‘’pass you over the road,’ he called it rud, – ‘and it sha’n’t cost you a cent.’’ By giving his characters regional traits and contrasting them to the more refined speech of characters like Corey, Howells portrays a more realistic national landscape. Lapham’s accented speech sets him apart from the cultured individuals he wishes to engage with socially: ‘He accented it as if it were purr-ox-EYED; and Bartley had to get him to spell it’. In this scene, Lapham is clearly at one level of remove from Bartley, Lapham becoming an object of ridicule with the confusions of his accent literally spelt out on the page.

As much as Lapham’s desire for status can be seen as a striving towards a grander, more recognised scale, it is during his financial troubles that we see him engaged in the opposite. It is here that he becomes isolated, operating on an individual basis; his business, schemes and morals reduced to a single human being. ‘Lapham was gone a fortnight. He was in a sullen humour when he came back, and kept himself shut close within his own den at the office the first day’. The image here is of a man afraid of being seen as a fool, scarred by his failure and the implications this has on his business acumen. Lapham uses the nationally accepted means of hard currency to get what he wants, rather than the nature of his own individual character – Thus, when his financial credentials are implicated, he truly falters.

It is important to note Howells influence as author in the creation of the world that Lapham inhabits, as ultimately, the fate of the characters lies in his hands. Largely accepted as the first American author to bring a realist aesthetic to the United States, the fall of Lapham’s financial powers in conjunction with his ‘rise’ in morals marks out the priorities in Howells writing. In his depiction of the cut and thrust world of shares and stock prices, Howells is keen to present an un-romanticised version of the world where the ‘hero’ doesn’t always succeed. Instead, his ‘realistic’ world contains individuals who over-reach themselves, that succumb to greed; and in the process, a morally charged story is presented to the readership.

Also of note are the many occasions in The Bostonians where James specifically draws attention to himself as author, stepping back and clearly identifying himself as the ‘I’:

‘If we were at this moment to take, in a single glance, an inside view of Mrs Burrage (a liberty we have not yet ventured on), I suspect we should find that she was considerably exasperated by her visitor’s superior tone, at seeing herself regarded by this dry, shy, obstinate, provincial young woman as superficial.’

Here we see James offering his opinions on Mrs Burrage in the first person; these are James’ personal views, ‘I suspect’, he informs us, but follows this up with ‘we should find’. Here, James is using the novel itself as the means of connecting the small and national scale. Just as the opening interview of The Rise of Silas Lapham shows Howell’s awareness of an audience, so too does this passage show James engaging with the readership at large with the inclusive use of ‘we’.

In terms of form, it is important to consider both novels themselves as an example of the obsession with both the small and national scale. On their own, the novels are arguably small, a world to be enjoyed by a reader in their private company – on another level, they deal with big, over-arching themes like economics, morality, manners and strife, presenting these to a potential audience located across the country. This theme is even backed up within The Rise of Silas Lapham when Bromfield states: ‘All civilization comes through literature’ – here, the link between reading and overall betterment of oneself is dealt with, Bromfield expressing his frustration at individuals who do not read literature, like Lapham.

This plays in to the hierarchy of men displayed in the novel. While Lapham has money, what he really yearns for is social acceptance and class, which he seeks to gain by marrying one of his daughters into the well-to-do Corey family. Here, Bromfield is positioned as the paragon of class that Lapham yearns for, with Tom Corey as the means by which the union of their families may be bridged. To this degree, Lapham engages again in the means by which he knows best, commerce – effectively trading his daughter for increased social status. Here, the small scale bonds of romance and family ties are increased in size to a broader scale of hierarchy and levels of ‘acceptance’ laid down by society as a whole. Lapham’s use of his daughters to ‘buy into status’ highlights the way his mind operates on its own level of ‘twin obsession’: he deals with business and his daughters in the same way, interacting with and positioning them as if they held mutual ‘value’ which can be exchanged and implemented for status.

In both novels, Boston is presented as place of opportunity, casting the city as firmly possessed of a local identity; the ‘happening’ place of the day. In contrast, in the depictions of Basil Ransom’s flat in New York, we are given a window into a place of rough squalor, a ‘somewhat decayed mansion… the house had a red, rusty face, and faded green shutters, of which the slats were limp and at variance with each other’. In these descriptions James focuses on the miniature aspects of the location, but as Ransom’s living place, they can be taken to apply to him too. ‘Faded’ and ‘limp’, in the New York scenes we see Ransom frustrated at his lack of literary success and stumped in his attempts to woo Verena. By presenting New York as a place ‘other’ than Boston, James paints more colour into an American national portrait of many cities and locations, each with their own individual character. For Ransom, Boston is where he must turn to progress further in his life.

In The Rise of Silas Lapham, Bromfield Corey identifies the new motivators in the age, pairing the language of romance and money: ‘There’s no doubt but money is to the fore now. It is the romance, the poetry of our age. It’s the thing that chiefly strikes the imagination’. Lapham is representative of the new breed of moneyed people moving to the city, clashing with the older, established values Corey represents. By contrasting the old and new ways, Howells combines the small scale notions of the individual castes, combining them into a fuller, more conflicted whole; an America of social reformation.

Social reform appears also in reference to the lives of women in the novel. Lapham’s wife Persis is portrayed as a domestic housewife, content with her station and place in society whereas Lapham is not. Persis, while portrayed as relatively happy, is trapped within her situation, unwilling to do anything that might unbalance the status quo, as illustrated by the scenes where she finds a piece of paper suggesting Lapham may have been having an affair; she hides the paper and swiftly forgets about. Howell’s focus on these trivial aspects of daily household life are part of his many efforts at depicting social realism and in doing so, Persis becomes less a character, more an archetype for housewives across America. Despite Lapham’s stress on her importance, ‘If it hadn’t been for her, the paint wouldn’t have come to anything’, his praise of her rings hollow – just like his daughters, Persis is a woman Lapham feels he holds as a possession, part of his portfolio as much as his business is.

Wrapped up in the central discourse of The Rise of Silas Lapham is the way the language of business even finds its way into the love triangle – in this instance, Reverend Sewell urges that the lovers should operate on an ‘economy of pain’, limiting the upset to as few people as possible. While this theory may initially seem focused on feelings, it is again operating on mathematical, business-like principles. This theory shows, like Lapham’s treatment of his daughters and business with the same brisk manner, that the people of America seek to rationalise every form of their lives with hard and fast rules that apply to every situation, unwilling to leave anything to the chance. The irony and faults in this methodology are swiftly evident as the economy begins to slump and ‘pain’ becomes commonplace within the novel.

Both novels showcase characters attempting to over-reach their station, and in both instances being held back by the intervention and complications of romance. Seeking to rise out of anonymity and become players on a national scale, the likes of Silas Lapham and Olive Chancellor enlist the services of those they care most about, only to find their affections divided, their true cause confused. With their ‘I want’ attitudes, Silas and Olive become victims of their own ambition, entering into a treacherous economy of desire that will not gel with their search for respectively, social status and feminist principles – the route to the national scale impeded by the obstacles of the small scale.

Bibliography

Bertonneau, Thomas, ‘Desire, Resentment, and Sacrifice in The Bostonians’, Nineteenth-Century Literature, Vol. 53, No. 1 (1998)

Bittinger, Cyndy, ‘The Business of America is Business?’, Calvin Coolidge [http://www.calvin-coolidge.org/html/the_business_of_america_is_bus.html]

Davis, Sara, ‘Feminist Sources in The Bostonians’, American Literature , Vol. 50, No. 4 (1979)

Fried, Michael, Realism, Writing, Disfiguration (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988)

Howells, William Dean, The Rise Of Silas Lapham (London: Prentice Hall, 2002)

 

James, Henry, The Bostonians (Oxford: Oxford Paperbacks, 2009)

McMurray, William, ‘Pragmatic Realism in The Bostonians’, Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 16, No. 4 (1962)

Pease, Donald, New Essays on the Rise of Silas Lapham (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991)