Billy Budd

The Unreliable Narrator in The Turn of the Screw and Billy Budd

Narrators of questionable credibility are common in American literature, forcing readers to think for themselves and make decisions about what to believe. Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw and Herman Melville’s Billy Budd: Sailor contain multiple examples of how the unreliable narrator can be used and interpreted. This analysis suggests that while the unreliable narrator is not exclusive to American fiction, the qualities it brings to novels make it especially appealing to the American mind.

From the opening lines of James’ novel, the credibility of the text is suspect. Relayed through the perspective of an unknown first-person narrator, the reader receives no information on the storyteller, other than the fact that he or she is in attendance at a Christmas party where stories are being told for entertainment. Coupled with the lack of information provided about the narrator, the atmosphere of the first scene creates questions. Because the party within James’ story revolves around tale-telling and ghost stories in particular, the reader has to wonder whether the story provided by Douglass that will consume the rest of the novel proper is being told merely as entertainment for the party or as a retelling of actual events.

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