Listening for Unreliable Narration: Narrative Noise in the Nineteenth-Century British Novel

Kevin Joseph Stevens, Fordham University


Responding to Ansgar F. Nünning’s oft-neglected call to locate the clues indicating unreliable narration, this dissertation proposes a theory of “narrative noise,” an aural signal of unreliable narration. While critics have recognized that unreliable narrators work in various ways to suppress, censor, or disavow subversive elements of their narratives, I argue that such elements sometimes leave sonic traces that haunt these works. I draw from Jacques Attali’s theory of noise, which posits that harmony (whether musical or social) is only sustained through the suppression of noise, to suggest that unreliable narrators sometimes create “harmonic” narratives—stories that can only appear straightforward, honest, comprehensive, and coherent by forcefully marginalizing subversive noise. By adopting a practice of “close-listening” that attends to a literary narrative’s full soundscape, I highlight the capacity of noise to uncover a narrator’s discernible motives and disrupt a narrator’s seemingly coherent account. Across three novels—Sydney Owenson’s The Wild Irish Girl , Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre—spanning nearly half a century, I reveal that narrative noise marks a narrative disturbance—the sound of a narrator’s credibility rupturing. In doing so, this dissertation identifies a recurring signal of unreliable narration while more broadly exemplifying the profits of further merging sound studies with narratology.

Subject Area

Literature|British and Irish literature

Recommended Citation

Stevens, Kevin Joseph, "Listening for Unreliable Narration: Narrative Noise in the Nineteenth-Century British Novel" (2018). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI10812646.