Modernism killed the omniscient narrator, and postmodernism deconstructed the very idea of narrative. Unreliable narrators have become the norm in literature and film, from Nabokov's Lolita to David Fincher's Fight Club. But this is changing. Metamodernism is reclaiming the reliable narrator in innovative and unexpected ways.
Roland Barthes begins his seminal essay, ‘The Death of the Author’ (1967), with the assertion that writing is that “neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing.” As contemporary consumers of postmodern and post-postmodern narratives, this might seem obvious to us. We are no longer used to assuming that a text — be it a film, a novel, a song or a TikTok — bears any real connection to its author. Even the most mundane of these examples, the dreaded six second TikTok, we know is, on some level, performative. We know there is no true guarantee of authenticity in the content we consume online, even if the creator goes to great lengths to create that illusion. Just as Barthes would have it, as soon the narrative act begins, all connection to the voice in reality, its identity and intentionality, dies. This is what he means by the death of the author. All that remains behind is a narrator or narrative voice, a vague guide that we can never fully trust. For most, there is no narrator that is completely reliable. From Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955) to David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999) and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005), we have come to recognise and crave stories that expose subjective unreliability. But when did these stories become the norm? We now seem intent on questioning every narrator we come across, paradoxically doing away with the need to distinguish between those that are reliable and those that are not. In doing so, we have killed the narrator. It is time to reclaim them.
Were it not for the omniscient narrator, there would be no unity.
If we think back to our own recent past — perhaps to a childhood where parents, siblings or teachers would read to us in the quite moments of busy, boisterous days — we realise that we have not always been so mistrusting of narrators. That cliché beginning to every fairy tale, “Once upon a time…,” carries in its omniscience authority, certainty, as well as distance. In these stories of old, characters and narrators are never, ontologically speaking, part of the same world. As Nicole Timmer writes, “A narrator is in a position to know what is going on inside somebody’s head in a way that is not possible to achieve for characters, who remain trapped in their own mind. This inequality can, from a logical perspective, not be dissolved.” But it is this very inequality that literature has since tried to undo.
Gone are the days of the Victorian novel, and their omniscient narrators. In his essay on Middlemarch, George Eliot’s magnus opus from 1871, Eugene Goodhart writes that “In the age of perspectivism, in which all claims to authority are suspect, the omniscient narrator is an archaism to be patronized when it’s found the works of the past and to be scored when it appears in contemporary work.” This critique is not only levelled at Victorian realism, but at the modernist novel as well. George Eliot, in her essay ‘Notes on Form in Art’ (1868), writes that aim of the novel is to contain all “relations bound together in a wholeness.” Of course, these “must be recognised as separate wholes before they can be recognised as wholes composed of parts.” This is the role of the omniscient narrator, to unify and contains these perspectives in one viewpoint. At the core of Middlemarch, the same sentiment is contained by the metaphor of “the pierglass.”
As the container of every scratch, every line that becomes a life, every web that entraps and contains each character, the pierglass is opaque to everyone except the narrator. In Middlemarch, Eliot aims to show how the social body is one, infinitely connected by those who live within it. Each and every one of her characters in the novel is driven by a desire to master the world. From finding the key to all mythologies to discovering the “primitive tissue,” each narrative attempts to override the other. Were it not for the omniscient narrator, there would be no unity. This matters in the world of Middlemarch because, at its core, it is a realist project. If there is no social unity in the novel, there is no harmony in the society it aims to represent.
Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927) is also concerned with unity, but for a very different reason. The novel’s most characteristic feature is its stream of consciousness. The narrative voice is not able to access every recess of the minds of the characters. Unlike the omniscient narrator of the Victorian realist novel, the free indirect discourse of Woolf’s modernist, experimental novel undulate and drift with the tides. Each consciousness floats off and roams to the far corners of the page, testing the limits of the narrative shape itself. Woolf ends the novel in much the same way: “Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.” We will never know what epiphany has led Lily Briscoe to her artistic culmination. She is so shrouded in the narrative mist of the novel that it does not matter. What does matter, however, is how, with this final line, Lily’s closing words complete the circle of consciousness. The fatigue of enduring Lily’s every thought, so indivisible as they are from the narrative material of the text, is rewarded with an ending that fades into the misty sea air. To the Lighthouse’s ending is artificial in its closure. Not only does Woolf’s novel question the very nature of a unified ending, of a society that can be contained in such a unity, but it questions the ontology of the narrative voice itself. After all, who’s thoughts are those reported in the last line? They might be Lily’s but we cannot be sure because there is no narrative voice that can confirm this to us. Gone are the certainties of Eliot’s objectivity and external reality. In its place, Woolf’s novel plays with doubt and questions subjectivity itself.
In postmodernism, it is this doubt that drives a cultural distrust in the narrator. What in modernism was a playful and experimental exploration of narrative perspective has become a suspicion of subjectivity altogether. From Jean-Paul Sartre’s attack on François Mauriac — “there is no more place for a privileged observer in a real novel than in the world of Einstein” — to Mikhail Bakhtin’s claim that “omniscience is the tyranny of the monologic,” the postmodern narrative cannot but deconstruct its own use of perspective. We are by now, I hope anyways, all familiar with the perspectival gymnastics of Fight Club. Edward Norton’s character, The Narrator, asks himself, in a moment of desperation and anguish: “Is Tyler my bad dream? Or am I Tyler's?” He is, of course, referring to the elusive soap salesman Tyler Durden, played by Brad Pitt. But he is also referring to himself. Tyler is all of the above, and some. He is The Narrator’s worst nightmare because Tyler Durden is The Narrator, every aspect of himself that had repressed and has been, over the course of the film, unleashed. Fight Club is a post-modern masterpiece, in which David Fincher’s Narrator rebels against late twentieth-century capitalism and starts an anarchist fight club. However, beyond the story itself, David Fincher is set on a different form of anarchy. Fight Club is driven by the postmodern desire to destroy narrative altogether, to deconstruct and dismantle it. Fight Club is, at its core, self-conscious of how the world creates and consumes entertainment. To achieve this, Fincher must destroy The Narrator both in the film, and beyond.
However, with the death of the narrator, postmodernism has left little in its wake. We have become so used to the idea of the unreliable narrator, the Tyler Durdens that plague our screens and pages, that ambiguity has become the new normal. Rather than a privileged observer, we are now accustomed to observers who we privilege with our deconstruction. Rather than having an omniscient narrator who acknowledges varying subjectivities, and yet manages to contain them in its focus, we now have subjectivities that unravel completely. This nihilism, however, feels out of touch. That is why a change is coming. In that same essay on Middlemarch, Eugene Goodhart wrote this: “I want to argue for a paradox … that omniscient narration may be necessary in a world riven by opposing perspectives, that a respect for the variety of perspectives that exists in the world depends upon it.” This sentiment is exactly what new critical perspectives, such as metamodernism, call for.
Metamodernism is one of the new terms with which critics aim to describe our cultural period. However, although it can be said to have begun around the turn of the millennium, it is primarily a ‘structure of feeling’ that simultaneously emerges from and reacts to both modernism and postmodernism. It is characterised, by its most fervent advocates Robin van den Akker and Timotheus Vermeulen, as an “oscillation, rather than synthesis, harmony, reconciliation, and so on.” It is this attitude of oscillation that is changing our narrators.
What we are seeing in metamodern works of film and fiction is a resurrection of the narrator.
Even if you have not had the pleasure of watching Greta Gerwig’s 2023 hit film Barbie, you will know that Helen Mirren plays its Narrator. Even by just watching the trailer, you’ll hear her iconic voice overlaid on the opening sequence of the film: “Since the beginning of time, since the first little girl has existed, there have been dolls.” This opening goes beyond that cliché introduction I alluded to previously. The Narrator’s reference to these fairy tales, rather than conjuring feelings of mistrust, only connects us with the film more. References, in metamodern works, are to be enjoyed. As Mary Holland notes, the twenty-first century is characterised by a mood of possibility, and this is often captured through self-conscious acts of language. However, these are simultaneously tempered by a crucial self-awareness. The irony of Helen Mirren’s claim, that since the beginning of time there have been dolls, is not lost on us. She, is aware, then, that her narration operates in a modernist vein, whist simultaneously working to deconstruct itself. We find joy in her narration when we revel in the absurdity of this oscillation.
Therefore, Helen Mirren is an omniscient narrator, in that she knows everything going on in Barbieland, but she is also more. She is a meta-Narrator, able to pause and comment on the external structures of the film’s narrative. When Stereotypical Barbie complains she’s no longer “stereotypical Barbie pretty,” Helen Mirren interrupts the film — as in physically halts narrative time and motion — by saying “Note to the filmmakers: Margot Robbie is the wrong person to cast if you want to make this point.” This works because it allows for Barbie to be guided by an omniscient perspective whilst playfully pointing to its own constructed-ness. Barbie both questions and relishes in its own fabricated unity.
Rather, narratives now aim to celebrate the possibility and polyphony of their voices and identities, whilst knowing that all representation is limited in its scope.
What we are seeing in metamodern works of film and fiction is a resurrection of the narrator. This is not a return to an omniscient realism, a playful experimentalism or a nihilistic deconstruction. Rather, it is all of the above at the same time. It is the death of the narrator as we know it. In its wake, we are seeing a rebirth, one in which anything and everything can and is narrative. What’s most important is that we acknowledge this with a light-hearted self-awareness. We have since moved on from Barthes’s assertion that writing is a neutral space. Rather, narratives now aim to celebrate the possibility and polyphony of their voices and identities, whilst knowing that all representation is limited in its scope. We no longer need to be fearful of that distinction between fiction and truth. Metamodernism shows us that in all fiction there can be truth, that reference brings connection, and that the narrator is just another tool in our toolbox with which to understand the world.