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Victims in Fiction: Feeling Trauma Through Unreliable Narration

About the Author: Hailey Johnson

Hailey Johnson is a senior at the University of California, Berkeley studying English Literature. She began her college career at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts where she studied Film and Television Production for two years before transferring to Berkeley. She now serves as the President of Humans of Berkeley and writes for both The Daily Californian and Berkeleyside's Nosh. Last fall, she received the California Alumni Association Leadership Award.

By Hailey Johnson | General Essays

In novels such as Ian McEwan’s Atonement and Kazuo Ishiguro’s A Pale View of Hills, we meet unreliable narrators with traumatic pasts. As these novels develop, it is revealed that the narrators exclude important facts, feelings, and descriptions of characters and circumstances. This leaves us, as readers, to wonder why the narrator does not accurately depict themselves nor the world around them. Essentially, as we encounter unreliable narrators in fiction, we raise the questions of cause and effect. However, if we are busy questioning the cause and effect of unreliable narration and becoming frustrated by its lack of factuality, we may miss a new found understanding of the narrators’ trauma. This essay will argue the cause of unreliable narration to be trauma, while the effects of said narration incorporate the reader into the narrative and reveal writing as a form of psychoanalytic abreaction, as the narrators reshape traumatic memory into narrative memory.

In order to understand the effects of trauma on the narrators, we first need to understand the meaning of the word itself. The word trauma is defined as “a deeply distressing or disturbing experience” (OED) or “emotional shock following a stressful event...which may lead to long-term neurosis” (OED). In Atonement, we can attribute “a deeply distressing experience” to Briony’s apparent witnessing of two sexual assaults, which set off the plot of the novel, or the later death of her sister and Robbie. According to Clifford L. Broman, “events such as witnessing...rape...or sexual child abuse... are those generally considered to be traumatic” (Broman 351). Briony believed she had witnessed both the rape of her sister and of her cousin in the same day. Regardless of her intention when she accused Robbie, she witnessed an event which no doubt had an impact on her psyche, because, by definition, it was traumatic. This traumatic event set off the entirety of the novel’s plot and ends with Robbie’s and Cecilia’s deaths. While we do not receive a full description of Briony’s feelings on their deaths, the book itself is a form of apology to and immortalization of Cecilia and Robbie. The writing of the novel itself clearly conveys that their deaths were a “disturbing experience” (OED) for Briony, which becomes clear when she concludes “she would never undo the damage. She was unforgivable” (269). The guilt of her accusation and the lovers’ deaths disturb her so much she believes herself to be forever unforgivable. Her guilt clearly illustrates the intense effect of their deaths and therefore adds to her experience of trauma.

In regards to A Pale View of Hills, trauma may be understood through Etsuko losing her daughter, Keiko, to suicide. The novel contains brief mentions of Keiko, but Etsuko never includes her feelings on the matter. This aspect of the book is summarized well as Etsuko informs us “although we never dwelt long on the subject of Keiko’s death, it was never far away, hovering over us whenever we talked” (Ishiguro 10). Through this description, it becomes clear that Keiko’s death is constantly on Etsuko’s mind, although she may not speak explicitly about it. In this, we come to understand that the subject is too difficult, or too traumatic, for Etsuko to directly address. Then, as the novel develops, Etsuko continues to include shadows of Keiko’s death, such as her dreams about a girl hanging from a tree, which mirror how Keiko “had hung herself in her room” (Ishiguro 10). Clearly, her daughter’s death induced trauma and continued to haunt Etsuko as she recounted the past and continued with her everyday life. She even directly states that “I have found myself continually bringing to mind that picture - of my daughter hanging in her room for days on end. The horror of that image has never diminished, but it has long ceased to be a morbid matter…” (Ishiguro 54). While the vivid image of her dead daughter is always on her mind, she no longer associates it with fear or disturbing thoughts. In this reshaping of the image in Etsuko’s mind, we can begin to understand how a traumatic memory and the feelings associated with it may change as time passes. Etsuko remembers the scene differently than the original morbidity. In this aspect of traumatic memory, we see how one carries around the memory of trauma in a way that may not match up to the original event.

We may gain a deeper understanding of reshaped memory by looking back at the definition of trauma. Trauma is followed by “emotional shock” and potentially “long-term neurosis.” Although the definition of neurosis does not include an extreme loss of touch with reality, it does include several other effects which may alter one’s perception of the world around him or her, such as anxiety, depression and obsessive behavior. In this alteration of an individual’s mental state, we can come to a closer understanding of why a description from a trauma survivor may not be as accurate as a factual account. While Etsuko does not directly state her feelings on Keiko’s death, she is constantly thinking about it and therefore it must have some effect on her narration, as we can see when she tells us “It is possible that...things did not happen in quite the way they come back to me today” (Ishiguro 41). Similarly, Briony’s narration was sparked by the guilt of Cecilia and Robbie’s death and begins in a place of immature misunderstanding due to her witnessing of sexual acts, which would have an effect on her narration. Therefore, both of the novels show a correlation between a narrator’s trauma and her perception and memory of her experiences. We then might understand these narratives through two different forms of memory: traumatic and narrative. “Traumatic memory” forms as the extended memory of trauma, the event itself (Van Der Kolk and Van Der Hart 163). Contrastingly, “narrative memory” is “adapted to present circumstances” (Van Der Kolk and Van Der Hart 163). If we take this difference into consideration when looking at our unreliable narrators, we can see that what they experienced in the past is different from what they illustrate for us.

In A Pale View of Hills, we see that Etsuko’s narrative is in fact altered to fit present circumstances because her narrative stems from the guilt associated with Keiko killing herself. In the narrative’s alteration, it becomes a narrative memory rather than a traumatic memory. Etsuko hints at this several times throughout the novel, and in the final lines of the book she states “Keiko was happy that day. We rode on the cable-cars” (Ishiguro 182). These two sentences disrupt our understanding of the novel as we were initially told she spent this day with her friend Sachiko and Sachiko’s daughter Mariko. Of course, she may be simply mixing up her days, but this is not the only slip up in the novel. During a conversation between Etsuko and Mariko, Etsuko begins using the pronoun we instead of you in reference to Mariko and Sachiko. Etsuko tells Mariko “If you don’t like it over there, we can always come back” (Ishiguro 173). The use of we does not make sense because Etsuko is not joining Mariko in her move to America. The word’s use suggests she is recalling a conversation with her own daughter, explaining that she will bring her back to Japan if she does not like England. Etsuko is either confusing her own narrative with her friend’s, or Mariko and Sachiko are acting as substitutes for Keiko and Etsuko. Etsuko cannot accept the way she treated Keiko, as Keiko was deeply unhappy in England and Etsuko feels the move eventually led to her death. Thus, she replaces herself with Sachiko and her daughter with Mariko in order to avoid explicitly explaining the relationship she had with her young daughter. In this substitution, we begin to see Etsuko’s unreliability.

If we are to look at Etsuko’s narration through Booth’s model of unreliability, we would have to define her as either unreliable or fallible (Olson 96). As unreliable, Etsuko may be looked at as untrustworthy, as she “deviates from the general normative standards implicit in the text” (Olson 96). When she speaks about Keiko being happy that day on the cable-cars, her description does not fit with what the rest of the novel tells us. We understand that day happened to Mariko, while Etsuko was still pregnant with Keiko. Therefore, Etsuko is intentionally not telling us the truth about her experiences in Japan. Alternatively, if Etsuko is categorized as a fallible narrator, she would simply “make mistakes about how she perceives herself or her fictional world” (Olson 96). Thus, she would not be to blame as she simply made a few mistakes through faulty memory and perception. However, taking a closer look at Etsuko’s trauma and her subsequent narrative, Booth’s model does not appear to encapsulate her type of narration. Instead, Etsuko takes the form of a third type of narrator, a combination of both unreliable and fallible. While Etsuko excludes the narrative of Keiko and herself, she does so because her trauma ultimately hinders her ability to give us an accurate account. Thus, her employment of Sachiko in the place of herself conveys her unreliability as she intentionally uses substitutes. Therefore, Booth’s model is not complete in that it does not account for Etsuko’s narration being intentionally unreliable as it is rooted deeper in her trauma, a type of fallibility, which blocks her from fully accepting the relationship she created with her daughter. The use of Sachiko and Mariko in the place of Etsuko and Keiko therefore expands Booth’s model, as the narrative is unreliable in terms of working through Etsuko’s past trauma, which has made her fallible.

The use of Sachiko and Mariko as substitutes for Etsuko and Keiko is more easily identified as Van Der Kolk and Van Der Hart apply narrative and traumatic memories to a study performed by Janet at the Salpetriere in which a young woman lost her mother and was unable to recall any memory of it until she underwent hypnosis. The authors explain that everyday, the woman, Iréne, would perform the same actions she did the night of her mother’s death, taking hours to complete them. After hypnosis, however, Iréne was finally able to tell the story of the night her mother died, and it took her less than a minute. Janet used this difference to explain traumatic memory versus narrative memory by stating:

... in contrast to narrative memory, which is a social act, traumatic memory is inflexible and invariable. Traumatic memory has no special component; it is not addressed to anybody, the patient does not respond to anybody; it is a solitary activity. In contrast, ordinary memory fundamentally serves a social function, illustrated by Iréne’s telling people about the death of her mother as an appeal for help and reconnection. (Van Der Kolk and Van Der Hart 163)

In short, traumatic memory is a private recollection of a traumatic event, while narrative memory mirrors storytelling as it is used as a social act. In this instance of recovered memory and accepted truth, we see a major difference between traumatic and narrative memory. We are told that the narrative memory serves a social function as it is a means of reconnection (Van Der Kolk and Van Der Hart 163). If this is true, that means there must be an audience on the other side of the narrative, much like the reader of a novel. In understanding traumatic memory as internal and narrative memory as requiring an audience, we can further understand the difference between Etsuko’s experiences and her shared narrative. She may describe Sachiko in the place of herself in order to form a narrative memory of her past, one that she can share with an audience. Still, it may be argued that Etsuko’s narrative qualifies as traumatic memory because she is not speaking to anyone. However, there is still an audience on the other side: the readers. The story is being told, which directly conveys that it is a narrative memory because as a traumatic memory, it would exist privately in Etsuko’s mind and actions. The events and characters she illustrates for us (Sachiko and Mariko) are her narrative memory while the events she experienced with Keiko are her traumatic memory and are therefore private.

Contrastingly, Briony puts a twist on traumatic and narrative memory as her narration only comes in the form of an actual memory in a small part of Atonement. The majority of her narrative is completely fabricated. However, we are not given this information until the final section of the book when Briony reaches out for reconnection (Van Der Kolk and Van Der Hart 163) as she states her novel is “a final act of let my lovers live” (McEwan 351). As she matures and comes to understand the seriousness of framing Robbie as a rapist, Briony writes her book as a form of apology, a search for redemption, literally, an atonement. If we are to place Briony in Booth’s model of unreliability, we would find the same answer we found with Etsuko: she is a mesh of unreliable and fallible. While Briony intentionally fabricates a narrative for her reader, it is sparked by her immense guilt for the lives she stole. Thus, her guilt plays into her fallibility, while her choice to create a false narrative paints her as unreliable. In this combination of unreliability and fallibility, we see that Booth’s model of narration is not enough to encapsulate narrators with past trauma. Etsuko and Briony are similar in that their narratives work to paint a feeling of what they experienced, but are not accurate in their portrayal of characters and events.

The difference between Etsuko and Briony is that Etsuko cannot explicitly state what she has done, what she has fabricated. The trauma of her daughter’s death and the guilt of Keiko’s suicide are too much to fully accept. Contrastingly, Briony owns up to everything in the last section of the novel, explaining everything that was fabricated and stating that as the novelist, “There is nothing outside her...No atonement for God” (McEwan 350-351). Simply, she messed up and she wrote an “attempt was all” (McEwan 351). If this were the case, she might as well have written a happy love story, excluding herself from the narrative altogether. By including herself in the narrative she is inherently seeking some sort of judgement or reconnection.

While Briony may state that she is beyond redemption, her very presence in the novel provides the reader with the power to judge her. By understanding this, we have the chance to see what else is going on in the novel. We have a distressing experience of our own when we find out the majority of the narrative has been a fabrication. Throughout the course of the novel, we have become a part of the story. We follow Robbie to war, we work with Briony in the hospital, and we come to know the characters and events through our reading. This is why the reveal of falsity at the end of the book and the deaths of Robbie and Cecilia affect us so much. We are a part of the story and we have been lied to, because most of it did not happen. Our frustration invites us into the novel to judge Briony. As readers of Atonement, we get to decide whether or not Briony has atoned for her crime of stealing away Robbie and Cecilia’s love story. McEwan pulls the reader into the narrative by placing the power of judgment into their hands.

We can understand our incorporation as readers because the narrators “are owning up to us; and that act of confession casts us in the corresponding role of the confidant” (Ryan 213). In short, the author “compels our identification with his estranged soliloquists” (Ryan 213). As a narrator confesses to us, we become her confidant. Once we hear a narrative, we become complicit in its on-goings. In this, we see how we may be invited into the on-goings of a narrative as well as how sharing one’s narrative may act as therapeutic. If an individual undergoes a traumatic event, they must reshape that event into a narrative memory in order to reach reconnection with someone outside of his or herself. By sharing a story with another individual or audience, the narrator no longer experiences her trauma alone, as the reader understands the feeling of trauma as well, which also helps readers understand the combination of unreliability and fallibility (Olson 96). Briony can push off some of her guilt and potentially be forgiven. Meanwhile, Etsuko can reach out for empathy and feel less alone. The reader then understands the narrators’ past experiences and why they can be categorized as fallible. It is also helpful for narrators to be unreliable because they hold full jurisdiction of the audience’s knowledge since they can shape the reader’s reaction.

In fact, Briony explicitly expresses her desire for control over her stories. In the opening chapters of the novel, Briony realizes she would like to become a novelist because that way she will have more control over her audience’s experience. Or as she thinks of it, “a story was a form of telepathy...she was able to send thoughts and feelings from her mind to her reader’s” (McEwan, 35). In short, Briony wishes to be in complete control of the story her readers absorb to the point where it is almost telepathic. She even goes so far as to create a life for Robbie and Cecilia within the pages of her novel, a life that she stole from them, all in the attempt to incorporate the reader so much that he or she can only experience one version of the story. Furthermore, we are also told “only when a story was finished, all fates resolved...could she...take the finished work to show to her mother, or father” (McEwan 6). Briony can only share her stories with others once all is said and done in completion. This allows us to gain a deeper insight into the story as a whole because we know it is very well polished. We are given exactly what she deems fit for us to know. It also shows us that we cannot see any difference in the novel before and after her witnessing the two sexual acts because she is writing retrospectively; the damage has been done before the novel even starts. On top of all of that, we do not find out she is the narrator until the final pages of the novel when she informs us she has made up most of the story. This fabrication is the most obvious source of unreliability, and the most clear instance of incorporating the reader into the novel, as we are left with the power to judge Briony.

This incorporation of the reader in the narrative is not limited to Atonement. There are traces of the same technique in A Pale View of Hills as Etsuko portrays Sachiko and Mariko instead of herself and Keiko. In fact, both authors employ this unreliability in order to control their audiences’ experience of trauma. Greg Forter sheds light on said effect as he states

Critics deploying the category of trauma have stressed in particular the power of texts that seek less to represent traumatizing events -- since representation risks, on this view, betraying and bewildering, imperfectly representational character of traumatic memory --- than to transmit directly to the reader the experience of traumatic disruption. (Forter 260)

In other words, explicitly and chronologically laying out the events of a trauma may not be successful in conveying the feeling of the specific trauma. Rather, the reader would just get the facts, or something more similar to a traumatic memory, which we have learned is largely a private one. In order for a narrative to evoke the same feelings in a reader that the victim of a trauma underwent, the narrative must be “adapted to present circumstances” (Van der Kolk and Van Der Hart 163), like in narrative memory. As we learned, narrative memory is a social function which has been altered in order to reach out for reconnection. This alteration of trauma into narrative manifests in the form of unreliability in order to convey the feeling of trauma rather than its chronological facts. By the author forming unreliability and employing techniques such as a disrupted timeline (a non-chronological recount of events) and inaccurate facts, the reader can more easily understand what the narrator felt at the time of trauma and why they are fallible (Olson 96). This idea may allow us to see many things in unreliable narrators that we may not have before.

In Ishiguro’s A Pale View of Hills, the disruptive trauma of Etsuko’s past comes into her present as we read a disrupted timeline which underlines the fact that the trauma is always with her. The disrupted timeline takes shape when a narrative from Etsuko’s past interrupts her present circumstances. As Etsuko’s mind races with memories and jumps from past to present, the readers also feel the abrupt shifts in her mind from past to present. The disrupted timeline simply allows readers to crawl into that feeling and understand what it is like to be in her head after the death of her daughter. Cathy Caruth explains this phenomenon by stating that “trauma is best conveyed ‘directly’ -- since attempts to thematize and make it comprehensible betray its essence as unassimilable shock -- then the best kind of text is one that actually induces trauma in its readers” (Forter 262). In short, to explain trauma step by step would devolve it. Readers would not be able to understand the full effects of trauma through a straightforward explanation. Thus, novels like A Pale View of Hills and Atonement work to induce the feeling of trauma within the readers. So perhaps Briony was somewhat correct when she aimed to directly transmit certain feelings to her audience. She would not do so by giving a factual account, but rather by telling a story that provokes a certain feeling. Through this technique, we come to understand the mental states of unreliable narrators as their narration is employed by the author in order to convey the feeling of trauma in the narrator and invoke that same effect in the reader.

Feeling the effects of trauma is just another effect of being incorporated into the narrative of a story. We are included in McEwan’s Atonement as we are given the final say as to whether or not Briony has atoned for her life-altering lie. In these ways, the reader becomes an active participant in the fictional narratives, not only because readers are complicit and given the power to judge, but also because they have to continuously distinguish between the truth and fabrications created by the narrator. Meanwhile, readers come to understand the cause of unreliability as trauma and are therefore able to expand Booth’s model of narration. In regards to both novels, the authors employ unreliable narrators as a technique to communicate the feeling of trauma because “unreliable a mode of indirect communication” (Phelan 224). Regardless of the cause or effect of unreliable narration, it is a form of communication. In the case of Briony, she conveys the story of a disillusioned, and largely unlikeable, young girl in order to atone for her mistakes. She alters past events in order to create a world where she did not mess up so badly. However, she paints herself in a quite unflattering light, in order for the reader to support Robbie and Cecilia, because she was “not so self-serving as to let them forgive [her]” (McEwan 351). This acts as a further step towards atoning as she recognizes and paints herself as the bad guy, again, mirroring her theory of directly transmitting feelings to the reader. By making herself unlikeable, the reader feels trauma through the experiences of Robbie and Cecilia, as years of their life together are ripped away from them and we are left feeling like a victim of Briony’s theft as well. 

Through experiencing the feelings provoked by a narrator’s trauma, we begin to see the writing of fiction through unreliable narration as not only a cause and effect, but also a form of treatment for trauma. Once we understand the toll a traumatic experience takes on an individual, we can gain a deeper understanding of the need for and process of fiction. It is as if we are given the tools to psychoanalyze the constructed narrators’ fallibility through the authors’ techniques of unreliable narration. In order to psychoanalyze our narrators, one must understand Freud’s definition of psychoanalysis. From Greg Forter’s piece, we learn that psychoanalysis was founded as a treatment that “sought facilitate the naming and integration of trauma into the patient’s self-understanding” (Forter 263). According to Freud, “to cure such patients, it thus becomes necessary to help them recall and put into words (“abreact”) what up till now has dwelt in them as a kind of internal, unassimilated alterity” (Forter 263). The process of psychoanalysis is dependent on a patient's ability to abreact her experience in order to incorporate it into her present state. It sounds like writing; work through an experience and incorporate it into understanding of self by putting it into words.

For example, in A Pale View of Hills Etsuko literally replaces herself with another person in order to explain her relationship with her daughter. This dissociation from everything she experienced in Japan conveys a deep rooted inability to explicitly accept the integration of trauma into her self-understanding (Forter 263). As she tells her story, she does alter it for current circumstances, which makes it closer to narrative memory, but she does not include her feelings, which makes her story significantly less personal. This idea recalls Van der Kolk and Van der Hart’s writing on Janet. After Iréne was finally able to tell the story of her mother’s death, in which she explained how it made her feel, Janet explained Iréne’s “memory was now accompanied by feelings” and therefore “it had become complete” (Van der Kolk and Van der Hart 162). Drawing from this statement, we see that, not only does a storyteller need to tell her story to others, she also needs to include the internal experience of the event or incident to fully feel and subsequently overcome the harsh impacts of her traumas. Etsuko did not incorporate her feelings, nor did she explicitly integrate her trauma into her self understanding, because reality remained dissociated. Etsuko told her story, but she did not convey nor come to understand her own feelings about her experiences and thus continues in her fallibility as she could not accept reality. While the narrative may have been successful in inducing the feeling of trauma in its readers, Etsuko as a narrator is unable to accept and overcome her experiences and therefore remains a victim to her trauma.

In contrast, Briony incorporates her feelings into the narrative and she integrates her experiences of trauma into her self-understanding. Briony consistently incorporates personal feelings and thoughts throughout the novel. In this, we see her narrative becoming complete as she conveys and accepts emotions. Additionally, she owns up to her actions in the end of the novel. She explains everything she did and accepts what she has done. By doing so, she follows the guidelines of overcoming trauma and continues to incorporate the reader into the novel. Meanwhile, Etsuko fails to illustrate reality and thus distances the reader by causing us to question everything we have read. In the case of Briony, we experience trauma, but we are ultimately left with a decision: did she atone or not? Because Briony accepted the reality of the trauma she experienced and invoked, the novel is clarified. Contrastingly, Etsuko leaves us flustered and confused. Thus, Briony succeeded in finding a sense of peace by the end of her novel, while Etsuko leaves us in the past, just as she remains. This allows us to see that although the novels end differently for the narrators, we as the readers still experience an understanding of their trauma (their cause of fallibility) through their unreliable narration.

While unreliable narration may prove to be frustrating or confusing as a reader, it is important to consider its origin and its purpose. In the case of McEwan’s Atonement and Ishiguro’s A Pale View of Hills, the narrators’ unreliability stems from their past traumas, which induce a form of fallibility. Ultimately, while Etsuko is unable to fully form a narrative memory and gain a sense of self acceptance, both narrators are successful in incorporating and conveying the feeling of their traumatic memories through distorted narratives. These traumas cause unreliability as the narrators’ accounts work to illustrate traumatic memory in the altered form of narrative memory. While this alteration may seem like a fabrication, it is in fact working more complexly as it induces a stronger understanding of the narrators’ traumas or the reader. To gain this understanding, we cannot limit the narrators to Booth’s binary of unreliable and fallible narration. Instead, we must understand that their fallible nature stems from trauma and plays into an inability to be reliable.

Through false accounts and distorted timelines, we come to understand the narrators’ experiences of trauma as readers feel the inability to both make sense of and accept reality. Thus, readers come to a deeper understanding of unreliable narration through trauma, rather than meet the unreliability with frustration and endless questions. Ultimately, by understanding trauma as the spark of fallibility and unreliable narration, the reader can recognize her own empathy for the narrator as traumatic memory is abreacted into the narrative memory and the narrator works through her trauma.

Works Cited

Broman, Clifford L. “Sexuality Attitudes: The Impact of Trauma.” The Journal of Sex Research, vol. 
40, no. 4, JSTOR, 2003, pp. 351-357.

Caruth, Cathy, et al. “The Intrusive Past: The Flexibility of Memory and the Engraving of Trauma.” 
Trauma: Explorations in Memory. Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1995, pp. 158–179.

Forter, Greg. “Freud, Faulkner, Caruth: Trauma and the Politics of Literary Form.” Narrative, The 
Ohio State University Press, 2007.

Ishiguro, Kazuo. A Pale View of Hills. Faber & Faber, 2010. McEwan, Ian. Atonement. Jonathan Cape, 

McEwan, Ian. Atonement. Jonathan Cape, 2001. 

Olson, Greta. “Reconsidering Unreliability: Fallible and Untrustworthy Narrators.” Narrative, vol. 
11, no. 1, 2003, pp. 93–109.

Phelan, James. “Estranging Unreliability, Bonding Unreliability, and the Ethics of ‘Lolita.’” 
Narrative, vol. 15, no. 2, JSTOR, 2007, pp. 222 -

Ryan, Kiernan, “Sex, Violence and Complicity: Martin Amis and Ian McEwan.” An Introduction to 
Contemporary Fiction: International Writing in English Since 1970
. Edited by Rod Mengham. 
Cambridge: Polity Press, 1999, pp. 203-18.