Self-Awareness & Self-Deception: Beyond the Unreliable Narrator

Sarah Stone | May/Summer 2011

Sarah Stone


We refer to reality as if it were tangible-a geographical location or an absolute and identifiable state- but writers often arrive at the reality of the world of their story, if ever, as a kind of byproduct of the characters' everyday self-delusions.

The term "unreliable narrator" suggests that unreliability is a special category and that most narrators (and people) are clear-sighted, rational, and honest. Even a fairly casual consideration of an ordinary day, however, let alone a crisis, suggests otherwise; there's substantial narrative interest in the chaos of the "normal" human mind. It's a little scary, even for people who consider themselves to be recklessly truthful, to count the number of lies (social lies, kind lies, self-serving lies, small semi-truths to avoid long explanations, and outright lies) we tell. Often, we don't allow ourselves to know when we're lying. It's even scarier to look back over the decisions we've made and to try to remember what made those choices seem so smart or so necessary. So one aim in our ongoing project of writing and reading is the passionate desire to get an accurate view of reality.

Traditional notions of the unreliable narrator include the naïve, the deluded, and the deceptive, like the narrators of Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go or Patrick McGrath's Asylum. These brilliant and extreme models may be a little too tempting for writers: creating a deluded narrator or characters can be, at least sometimes, a psychological defense for the author. We create unreliability deliberately as a way of avoiding doing it accidentally. Because, really, how does the author know what reality is? How do the characters know what reality is? How do the work's readers know what the reality is meant to be, and are they willing to accept it?

Writers often miss the self-deceptions we all share, enticed away from everyday irrationality by the literary pyrotechnics possible with a clearly unreliable narrator or with a spectacularly deluded central character: the nonlinear and sometimes surreal thinking, the possibilities for marvelously bad behavior, and maybe, most of all, the pleasures of presenting characters for judgment or sympathy, of standing above and away from them. Grace Paley, always intensely aware of the contrast between our habitual befuddlement and our yearning for clarity, writes, "Now, one of the reasons writers are so much more interested in life than others who just go on living all the time is that what the writer doesn't understand the first thing about is just what he acts like such a specialist about-and that is life. And the reason he writes is to explain it all to himself, and the less he understands to begin with, the more he probably writes...1"

Too often, we don't know what we should trust or fear, or which of the events going on all around us are the important ones, although it seems as if common sense should be able to deliver to us a clear picture of our priorities. Even the expression "common sense" seems like wishful thinking, an idea about plain and honest living that comes from a time before we knew anything about the workings of the mind and the brain (which are related to each other in some fashion endlessly argued over by scientists and philosophers). "Common-self-delusion" might be more apt, or "self-awareness-helpless-to-help-itself." We're groping our way in the dark; we know that we don't know something, but we aren't sure exactly what it is we do or don't know, do or don't see.

Neuroscientists and writers on consciousness, like V.S. Ramachandran and Susan Blackmore, describe the phenomenon of "blindsight," found in people with some form of blindness (often on one side of their vision but not the other) arising from a damaged cerebral cortex.2 Those with blindsight think they don't perceive reality, but in fact they do. The scientists studying perception have discovered this by asking their study participants to point to a spot of light, or to look at a circle full of black and white stripes and determine whether they're vertical or horizontal, or to guess the color of objects invisible to them, or even to pick up these objects.3

Most of the study participants are justifiably indignant at these commands. Quite a few refuse even to try. And yet, when pushed, many can perform their tasks with 90-99% accuracy. Though their eyes and optic nerves can't communicate with the visual cortex, a variety of pathways run from the eyes to the brain. The "blindseers" can't see but perform as if they do, though only under duress. They don't seem to have blindsight on their own, which leads to the creepiness of an experiment described by Blackmore, in which scientists stand over thirsty, blind patients waiting for them to perceive the glasses of water set nearby.

A deluded unreliable narrator can neither perceive nor report on an accurate version of reality, but most characters and narrators, like people in "real life," find themselves navigating the psychological equivalent of blindsight-we cannot see what is in front of us, but we know enough about it to reach out and touch it. When we ignore our intuition, or deliberately deceive ourselves, we create a kind of blank field, pushing information out of the realm of knowledge and into a black hole in the unknown territories of our minds. In this way, we relieve ourselves of the necessity of witnessing the truth. In life, we often try to escape the rigors of our current situations. Fiction, though, is all about putting characters under duress until they show what they're made of, until they collide in some way with reality. We refer to reality as if it were tangible-a geographical location or an absolute and identifiable state-but writers often arrive at the reality of the world of their story, if they ever do, as a kind of byproduct of the characters' everyday self-delusions.

Penelope Fitzgerald's novels show the blind fields of self-delusion in all their bewildering and outrageous glory, as well as characters with a shrewd awareness of themselves and the world. In At Freddie's, the theater-mad denizens of a tiny, ramshackle, endlessly failing stage school-a school which the novel's readers come to understand as central to the ongoing life of the English theater-both do and do not see the dangers they create for themselves. In this, as in her other miniature novels (she called them "microchip novels"4), Fitzgerald creates a grandeur of scale through exact and surprising conjunctions of image, perception, and dialogue and through a calm omniscience that never partakes of the grandiosity or authorial self-magnification that can taint otherwise splendid omniscient novels. As readers, we are always looking through the clear glass of Fitzgerald's prose to the world she depicts, with the characters and place in the foreground, the writer very much in the background.

The proprietor of the Temple Stage School, Freddie herself-a grand, caressing flatterer, mistress of manipulation-seems to have an omniscience with no narcissism. She's calm about students' mocking imitations of her, ruthless in pursuit of the school's interests while apparently having none of her own, and fully aware of the school's importance to the theater, and of the dangers and seductions of advertising, television, and films.

What makes her engaging, even admirable, is the clarity of her obsession. Her values appear, at least for most of the book, noble. She loves the willful mass self-delusion that is theater and has given the whole of her substantial and crafty energies to it, but she knows, quite literally, what the theater costs. This brings us to one of the key questions of this subject-how are we to show characters' obsessions and delusions without branding them as somehow mad, without denying them their dignity? How do we signal whether (and to what extent) the reader is to accept a narrator's or character's view of reality? Though not too closely, where are we, as readers, allowed to identify with a character's perceptions and misperceptions?

Freddie doesn't forget physical reality, but she does practice, for much of the book, an apparent indifference to money and selective inattention about things like safety and functionality, broken into by sudden bouts of avidity on the school's behalf. Her mixture of craftiness and impracticality could be distancing if she didn't have such an extraordinary awareness of the imaginary life of the theater and the real life of actors, as in the following scene, in which Freddie and her exasperated, loyal assistant discuss one of the more problematic students:

"He's acting," said Miss Blewitt.
"Worse than that," said Freddie. "He's acting being a child actor."
But both of them knew that the children came off the stage in a state of pitiful and vibrant excitement that must be allowed to spend its impulse gradually into quiet. Told again and again to take off his make-up in the theater, Mattie always slipped away and displayed his painted face in the Underground, taking pride and feverish pleasure in the passengers' disapproval. To be glanced at from behind newspapers delighted him. The ambition of all children is to have their games taken seriously. Dodging round Covent Garden and up Floral Street with his reddened lips and doe's eyes, he knew very well what kind of strangers were following him, slowed down to let them catch up, then shook them off just as he turned the corner to the school.
"Is he a genius?" the accountant asked.
"I've got one great talent in the school at the moment, but it's not Matthew Stewart. Mattie is something else. He's a success."5

Freddie sees Mattie "acting being a child actor." She understands this as the downside of Mattie's awareness of his ability to invite the audience to deceive themselves. Then, in the next moment, the omniscient narrator shows what both Freddie and her assistant Miss Blewitt ("The Bluebell") know about the altered states produced by the creation of illusion. As so often happens in fiction, the addition of a second knowing intelligence reinforces the perceptions of the first; if more than one character sees/believes something, unless it's otherwise shown to be false, readers are more likely to believe it as well.

Mattie's voyages into the street give us a sense of his addiction to attention, with some hints as to its probable future courses, and his flagrant courting of risk. All the children play dangerously, and the results are probably, depending on your reading of the novel's ending, fatal to at least one of them. In showing all the layers of what each character knows, Fitzgerald makes a bold artistic move-the opposite of inventing an unreliable narrator to protect ourselves from the charge of ignorance-the authorial choice to let at least some of the characters know everything we know and more.

She doesn't do it in a simple way: the characters know an enormous amount, but sometimes they don't know what they know-Freddie and Bluebell know about the children's need to work out their excitement but they don't imaginatively follow Mattie all the way through his potentially dangerous journey. Though Fitzgerald makes it clear that all this is a game ("the ambition of children is to have their games taken seriously"), we are allowed to feel that the playful risk-taking covers up a deeper risk that Mattie doesn't see or doesn't believe in. His feverish excitement has awakened an earlier, more primitive brain and returned him to an animal state, with "reddened lips and doe's eyes," an image suggesting both a precocious sexuality and his willing transformation of himself to prey.
Freddie's canny assessment of him shows her awareness of the costs of a worldly ambition. The desire for attention, the ability to manipulate, the adrenalin high that comes from taking risks that the risk-taker assumes will cost him nothing-all of these are markers for success, but they are also in the way of what Mattie really wants and will never have: genius.
Mattie's friend Jonathan, the obdurate and appealingly unself-conscious young genius, is the exact opposite of Mattie: he doesn't think about himself but spends all his time experimenting with ideas and moments that are beyond his apparent understanding. Mattie, though, has neither the temperament nor the talent for real greatness: his games, self-delusions, and small obsessions both block the possibility of total absorption in the work itself, and, at the same time, are necessary for his emotional survival. The feverish excitement is a guard against despair or giving up, but he can't quite let himself know this.

The school's accountant, however, is uninterested in these artistic questions. Freddie's use of the word "success" reminds him of the school's precarious financial position, and the novel moves on from this discussion and switches subjects, in one of Fitzgerald's masterful, typical evasions. She doesn't let the characters answer the questions they have raised but leaves us to figure out the implications for ourselves. One of the secrets of the success of Fitzgerald's omniscience is that it's not a scolding or lecturing omniscience, but one that trusts us to see for ourselves the implications of the characters' perceptions, misperceptions, rationalizations, and levels of awareness.

Fitzgerald layers her story with the tension that comes from depicting what one character sees that another doesn't. In fact, most of the characters can see each other's misperceptions but not their own.

By the end of the novel, though Freddie seemsto be deceptive rather than self-deceiving, her inattention to the small practical matters that ensure everyone's safety has tragic results. She doesn't see what's in front of her, and, like a blindseer with no one to compel her to follow her intuition, she does not know how much she knows. None of the characters do. Fitzgerald layers her story with the tension that comes from depicting what one character sees that another doesn't. In fact, most of the characters can see each other's misperceptions but not their own.

Another layer comes from allowing readers to understand what the characters haven't yet discovered, or to watch the characters struggling with the enticements of illusion. In the passage below, Hannah, the youngest of the teachers, begins her emotional entanglement with Boney Lewis, an old drunken rogue of an actor, whose combination of grand posturing and deadly truth-telling evokes for her the theater. Hannah loses herself in fantasies about him when she goes to the theater to give a lesson to Mattie, who's playing young Prince Arthur in King John.

"That's Mr. Lewis's coat," said Mattie, faintly.
Hannah was surprised. From the meeting on the stairs she would have thought him only just about able to make ends meet. Perhaps this garment, which was never likely to show its age, was all he had left from more prosperous days. And the ready though inconvenient sympathy welled up. She saw Boney as the needy Colline in La Bohème, obliged to sing a farewell to his favorite overcoat. Still he was in work now, and King John might have a good run. She checked herself, seeming to hear her mother's voice with painful clearness: "Who is this fellow, anyway, some kind of actor? Are you mad, Hannah, or what?" She was getting nowhere with her lesson, and after all it was as a teacher she was paid-and now there was someone coming in, not much privacy here it seemed. The door opened with a large gesture, and Boney made his entrance.6

In the space of a single paragraph, Hannah tacks back and forth, trying on romantic versus practical versions of reality. Fitzgerald doesn't let Hannah wallow too long in one state before switching back-"the ready though inconvenient sympathy welled up" is primarily the narrator's voice, but, since we're very much inside Hannah, there's a suggestion that she knows this about herself. The novel almost immediately gives us a source for her consciousness of her own romanticism, the mother's voice that brings her back to earth with a "painful clearness." Her internalized version of this voice functions here on the side of rationality (though often in fiction a mother's voice may be just the opposite). It tries to steer her away from falling in love, but Boney's sheer effrontery in, among other things, his unashamed dislike of Mattie, wins her, and us, over. And he's right about Mattie, who is generally detestable-only redeemed by his genuine devotion to Jonathan, his obsession, "the tribute," as the narrative says, "of the human being to the changeling, or talent to genius."7 And yet Mattie can't help himself, and neither can Boney, and they see this in each other. As readers, we're invited to share, or at least understand, the characters' irrationality, to root for it to win out.

The novel requires us at every point to think about why and how the characters deceive themselves, and why and how we deceive ourselves. And the characters themselves wrestle with these questions, more or less deliberately. Sometimes writers, enjoying the tension of irony, let characters go on and on in their self-delusions, with no flicker of self-doubt and no other characters calling them on it. But we're usually better off using internal or external arguments to complicate the self-deceptions, romanticism or denial, making the characters seem smarter, more alive, more realistic, even if they're over-the-top grotesque. With one part of ourselves, we would like to be better than we are, but another part of us would like to be left alone to live like a wild hog in the woods-the constant, subtle pull between these two poles makes characters feel more like real people, less like illustrations or mechanisms to carry out the story's needs.

It's hard work, even painful, to tunnel down through the layers of a story, to keep revising until we really know our characters in all their contradictions, until we have a work that fits together with no leftover parts, something coherent and meaningful. A reader of Penelope Fitzgerald's marvelous, enchanting, and heartrending novels might imagine that she went happily to her desk every day, but apparently not. Though she would hardly talk to interviewers, and let her publishers write the acceptance speeches for her prizes, she said once to an interviewer, "I like to have written something, but I think the actual process of writing is really agony. You seize on any excuse-a ring at the door, something, to stop doing it."8

A writer like Fitzgerald is working through ever more complicated tasks in creating her characters. The longer our history with writing, the harder it becomes, in many ways. Young writers imagine that gaining knowledge means being able to work with greater pleasure and certainty, but most writers work more slowly as they go on: the five pages they could once toss off in a morning session may now take several days. It takes time to get at the complex truth of a character. Less experienced writers (and also experienced writers in early drafts) will often manipulate characters: a central character may be presented as the only sane or sympathetic one in the story and everyone else in that person's family/workplace/love life/apartment building etc. is self-deceived and otherwise problematic. It takes a painful digging into the unconscious of both character and writer to produce a work in which all of the characters are as layered as we are in life-the rational or well-meaning part of the self vying for dominance with that wild hog underneath.

It can be handy to have some metaphors or schema for some of our misbegotten strategies for emotional survival-our defense mechanisms. In Vital Lies, Simple Truths: the Psychology of Self-Deception, Daniel Goleman draws on the work of Freud and Harry Stack Sullivan to present a list of "mental maneuvers," or ways "we learn to trade diminished attention for lessened anxiety." Among other defenses, he lists: "Repression: Forgetting and Forgetting One Has Forgotten"; "Denial and Reversal: What Is So Is Not the Case; the Opposite Is the Case"; "Projection: What Is Inside Is Cast Outside"; "Sublimation: Replace the Threatening with the Safe"; "Rationalization: I Give Myself a Cover Story"; "Selective Inattention: I Don't See What I Don't Like" and "Automatism: I Don't Notice What I Do." He describes each of these, and numerous other mechanisms, memorably: repression-"the defense wherein one forgets, then forgets one has forgotten"; denial-"the refusal to accept things as they are"; isolation-"an unpleasant event is not repressed, but the feelings it evokes are"; and selective inattention, which "edits from experience those elements that might be unsettling, were one to notice all-purpose response to everyday agonies."9

Some of these are the kinds of all-out denial that lead to what we traditionally think of as unreliability. Others are ways of evading the pain of reality for the optimist's, or rationalizer's version-optimists may not be unreliable about what has happened,but about their interpretations. In this case, the unreliability does not come from misreporting reality, or from a confusion about events, but from a dramatic misperception of the meaning of those events. If the optimist's family is a bunch of arsonists, it's not that the optimist thinks they didn't burn down the houses, but just that they had a really good reason. The really determined optimist may see the burning of the neighborhood as a well-thought-out effort towards civic improvement and redevelopment.

The defense mechanisms Goleman describes don't cover every aspect of self-deception. At Freddie's, for example, some of the characters' irrationalities probably have more to do with an insistence in living in a world more magical-more theatrical-than the mundane one "realists" inhabit. Some of the adult characters know their obsessions are unreasonable, but there's no help in their self-awareness.

Grace Paley's "Wants" shows the paralysis that can result from too intense a level of awareness. The narrator of Paley's story seems at first to be simply an advanced practitioner of the defense mechanisms that deflect anxiety or pain, but we come to see that the great difficulty for her is actually the opposite: she has a hyper-awareness of herself and the world. The story begins with an encounter with her ex-husband, during which she's entirely pleasant and eager to escape conflict:

I saw my ex-husband in the street. I was sitting on the steps of the new library.
Hello, my life, I said. We had once been married for twenty-seven years, so I felt justified.
He said, What? What life? No life of mine.
I said, O.K. I don't argue when there's real disagreement. I got up and went into the library to see how much I owed them.
The librarian said $32 even and you've owed it for eighteen years. I didn't deny anything. Because I don't understand how time passes. I have had those books. I have often thought of them. The library is only two blocks away.10

She seems to be a realist willing herself to cheerfulness, but she's so overwhelmed that any action at all, including returning decades-overdue library books, becomes a triumph. And then there's the intractable, brave hopefulness that leads her to check out the books again as soon as she's finally returned them-the vision of herself as someone who will read these books is undimmed. It wouldn't be much of a stretch to call this denial.
Although she greets her husband lovingly, almost too lovingly, the strength of the mixed feelings she still has about him becomes clear when he follows her and begins to argue. Her responses may initially suggest that she's calmly indifferent, but the story shows us otherwise. He blames the beginning of the end of their marriage on their not having had the Bertrams to dinner, and she rationalizes not inviting them because "father was sick that Friday, then the children were born, then I had those Tuesday night meetings, then the war began." The ludicrous mix of items of such different scale may make us miss that first key introduction of the topic of the war. The argument escalates until he tells her how well he's doing and then says that it's too late for her. "You'll always want nothing." This remark undoes her: "He had had a habit throughout the twenty-seven years of making a narrow remark which, like a plumber's snake, could work its way through the ear down the throat, halfway to my heart. He would then disappear, leaving me choking with equipment."11

Suddenly we understand how much she doesn't suffer from the defense mechanisms that keep most people from being paralyzed with anxiety. In fact she suffers from their lack-at least when her ex-husband's sharp remark about how she wants nothing reminds her of how impossibly much she does want. She wanted to be a different person, to bring the books back in two weeks, and much more:

I want to be the effective citizen who changes the school system and addresses the Board of Education on the troubles of this dear urban center.
I had promised my children to end the war before they grew up.
I wanted to have been married forever to one person, my ex-husband or my present one. Either has enough character for a whole life, which as it turns out is really not such a long time. You couldn't exhaust either man's qualities or get under the rock of his reasons in one short life.12

When the vision of her yearnings opens up, she has a total inability to practice everyday selective attention; she feels the entire weight of the world's troubles. The war, the civic duties, the library books, the overwhelming riches of the entire New York Public Library just two blocks away-no wonder she had just two books, kept them eighteen years, and then checked them out again. How could you choose otherwise, from everything there is to know? How can a person even return a library book with the sense of the impossible predicament of the world, not to mention her own private life? And the event that jolts her into action, that drops the filters that keep her from feeling the passage of time? She looks out the window and sees "that the little sycamores the city had dreamily planted a couple of years before the kids were born had come that day to the prime of their lives."13

to be left alone to live like a wild hog in the woods-the constant, subtle pull between these two poles makes characters feel more like real people...

Paley leaves it up to readers to decide whether her narrator's extreme awareness is a sign of health, and she's no worse off than the rest of us, or if she's overly scrupulous, so much so as to be nearly paralyzed. One of the great satisfactions of this story, though, is in watching a mind in the full blaze of knowledge, both self-knowledge and knowledge of the world.

Readers don't seem to be able to bear a story or poem that allows its characters to remain in a state of self-delusion without coming to awareness or at least being challenged, either by events or by other characters (whether or not the deluded characters hear or are able to respond). The characters may or may not achieve self-awareness from time to time, and it may well not help them if they do, but we have to feel that the narrative has achieved self-awareness, that we as readers are in touch with a narrative sensibility that, like the unconscious mind, knows more than protagonist or narrator. This may be one of the reasons that discussions of books can wind up spending at least part of their time trying to evaluate the characters as much as the work, sometimes by the morality of their thoughts and actions, but sometimes in terms of the characters' awareness, especially self-awareness. How much do they seem to understand the implications of their own and each other's acts and ways of perceiving the world?

This leads to an underlying question, how aware is the author of the characters' misperceptions? This goes back to the question of how the author knows what reality is. Sometimes readers may feel, uneasily, that there is a disconnection between how they see the characters in a story and the author's apparent partiality or hostility towards those characters. From time to time, writers are more charmed by their characters than readers are. This shows up when the narrative seem to unwittingly support the characters' view of reality. If a character, for example, thinks she's a great leader, and is depicted averting a mob attack, but the readers haven't seen any signs that show why others would listen to or follow her, that's going to create some distance in our reading.

This can also be the most painful part of publication and reviews: the unexpected revelation of whatever the author hasn't seen or understood about the work or its characters. Worst of all is when the author thought a character was behaving reasonably but readers find the person appalling. The depths of what writers don't know about their own work is a big part of why criticism is essential, but, unfortunately, pessimism and shame seem to be particularly endemic among writers. And if writing (and, worse, reading over what one has written)is so often agonizing, how much more painful is it to learn about one's failures of perception in public?

For readers, the drama of a story can come from watching its characters engage in the nearly universal, and only sometimes conscious, battle between the sense of reality we need to have to get through life and the delusions that are more likely to make us as happy as those wild hogs in the woods. In Salman Rushdie's "Free Radio," the narrator, an old man sitting under a banyan tree, judges the young protagonist of the story-Ramani, a rickshaw driver-as he takes up with a "thief's widow" and her children, as he hangs around other young men who fill his head with dreams of movie stardom, as he gets a vasectomy both for the sake of the widow and for the free radio he expects, as the radio-step by step-fails to materialize and Ramani rides around town performing his own broadcasts, as he confronts the medical people and is beaten, and, finally, as he moves away and on to his next delusion, leaving behind radio for the movies.

This six-page story covers a period of two or three years in sixteen short sections by means of the narrator opining at us from under his banyan tree. He tells the reader, "We all knew nothing good would happen to him while the thief's widow had her claws dug into his flesh, but the boy was an innocent, a real donkey's child, you can't teach such people." The narrator even announces that he's tried to help Ramani and been unable to. "We felt bad for him, but who listens to the wisdom of the old today?"14

The narrator here is much less aware of his own filters than Paley's narrator: part of what drives the narrative is the question of who, if anyone in here, has an accurate or useful view of reality. Are they the same thing? As the story goes on, the tension between two desires emerges-the longing to know the truth and the longing for a happy life. They seem to be in opposition, to us, and increasingly, to our narrator as he watches and judges Ramani. In turn, we're watching and judging the narrator. Who is deceiving himself in here, and how, and what does he gain from that self-deception? What does he lose?

The narrative questions have to do with sorting out whether Ramani has or has not made a ruinous mistake by taking up with the thief's widow and her children, and why the community (or at least its elders, or at least one old man speaking as if he were speaking for the community of elders) is judging him and worrying for him. At the simplest level, the narrative questions center around what happens to Ramani, who the observer/narrator is, and what makes this his story to tell. At the next level, the narrative asks, what are the competing visions of life and whose version of reality is to be trusted? All of the story sections carry out multiple tasks: they give us more information about what happens to Ramani, they show the narrator's evolving judgments, and they invite us to judge the narrator as he attempts to interfere. We see the narrator's ugly and public judgments of the widow, but his meanness softens as he develops a grudging and never admitted admiration for the ways in which Ramani employs his self-deceptions to make his extremely hard life quite splendid, in its way, for everyone around him who enjoys the benefits of his "free"-and imaginary-radio:

Ram always had the rare quality of total belief in his dreams, and there were times when his faith in the imaginary radio almost took us in, so that we half-believed it was really on its way, or even that it was already there, cupped invisibly against his ear as he rode his rickshaw around the streets of the town. We began to expect to hear Ramani, around a corner or at the far end of a lane, ringing his bell and yelling cheerfully:
"All-India Radio! This is All-India Radio!"15

We're also allowed to have a little sympathy for the narrator's sheer helplessness. From a practical point of view, Ramani's choices make his life harder and more pinched. Anyone over the age of seven has been in the position of wanting to warn the younger generation, and "mister teacher sahib retired," as the thief's widow calls him, has no better luck than anyone else. We develop more sympathy as the story allows the narrator a measure of increased awareness of the strain Ramani is under as the radio never comes, as he moves away to a new fantasy, as his mind and body show the increasing struggle to keep up his self-delusions.

The narrator begins to admire the effort Ramani puts into maintaining his illusions. He's not aware of his own awareness, or at least he doesn't admit it, though it's unmistakable by the story's end, as he reads and re-reads Ramani's letters and remembers the "huge mad energy which he had poured into the act of conjuring reality, by an act of magnificent faith, out of the thin hot air between his cupped hand and his ear."16

It's just the admission of rereading the letters and that one expression, "act of magnificent faith," that suggests his change, one that stops short of an epiphany-one of the reasons epiphanies so often go wrong or feel false is that they're taken one step too far. This other kind of awareness, an awareness without awareness of itself, keeps the tension intact and lets the end go on resonating. The reader, rather than the character, makes the connections, which gives us some work to do.

Ramani, unlike the narrator of "The Free Radio," lives as if he's unafraid. He doesn't see, and chooses not to see, what's right in front of him. His self-delusions make it possible for him to go on in a version of reality that delights him instead of causing him misery. And, by the end of the story, his delusions have become not only his own means of survival, but a kind of community service, even a sacrifice, maintained at some effort. The story gets us to take sides against our desire for truth and root for something more beautiful, the gift of illusion contained in Ramani's stories, and, by implication, the whole beautiful, and in some ways mad, project of storytelling itself.

Rushdie said in an interview:

I have this notion we're not just born as human beings, but that we actually have to learn how to become human beings, and many of the characters in (The Satanic Verses) are for a long time not really unitary selves, they're just collections of selves. They're kind of masks, they put on this or that role, and they can change very dramatically. And I think that's also true about people, that we are not unitary selves, we are a kind of bag of selves, which we draw out from; we become this or that self in different circumstances.17

Part of the reason we're so interested in trying to separate accurate awareness from misperception may have to do with the sorting out of the "bag of selves," making the choice as to which self, and which reality, is best fitted to survive. As readers, and as writers, we use storytelling to try on these different selves and their possible responses to the disappointments and disasters of life. We don't want to face the terrors of the world and our own natures. Therefore, self-delusion. We do want to know-with sometimes equal and opposite force-how to see what we're blind to, how to gain the knowledge that will help us to name and describe ourselves and our world. Therefore, self-awareness. And, therefore, literature: the act of imagination that teaches us to see in the dark.


Sarah Stone, author of the novel The True Sources of the Nile and co-author (with Ron Nyren) of Deepening Fiction: A Practical Guide for Intermediate and Advanced Writers, teaches in the Writing and Consciousness MFA Program at California Institute of Integral Studies and in the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. This essay will also appear in A Kite in the Wind: Twenty Fiction Writers on Their Craft (Trinity University Press).

  1. Grace Paley, "The Value of Not Understanding Everything." Just as I Thought (New York: FSG, 1998), 186-187.

  2. Susan Blackmore. Consciousness: An Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 263-270.
  3. V.S. Ramachandran. A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness (New York: Pi Press/Pearson, 2004), 28.
  4. Philip Harlan Christense. Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 194: British Novelists Since 1960, Second Series. ed. Merritt Moseley (Asheville, The Gale Group, 1998). 120-127.
  5. Penelope Fitzgerald. At Freddie's (NewYork: Mariner Books, 1999), 16-17.
  6. Ibid., 84-85.
  7. Ibid., 34.
  8. Penelope Fitzgerald, interview by Kerry Fried. "High Spirits: The great Penelope Fitzgerald on poltergeists, plots, and past masters."
  9. Daniel Goleman. Vital Lies, Simple Truths: The Psychology of Self-Deception (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985), 119-122.
  10. Grace Paley. "Wants," in Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1960), 3.
  11. Ibid., 5.
  12. Ibid., 6.
  13. Ibid., 6-7.
  14. Salman Rushdie. "The Free Radio," in The Art of the Story: An International Anthology of Contemporary Short Stories, ed. Daniel Halpern. (New York: Viking, 1999), 513.
  15. Ibid., 516-517.
  16. Ibid., 518.
  17. Salman Rushdie, interview by Michael R. Reder. Conversations with Salman Rushdie (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000), 103.

No Comments