"What is a Narrator?": A Literary Guide for English Students and Teachers

View the full series: The Oregon State Guide to English Literary Terms

What is a Narrator? Transcript (Spanish and English Subtitles Available. Click HERE for Spanish Transcript)

By J.T. Bushnell, Novelist and Oregon State University Senior Instructor of Literature

24 February 2020

So, in real life, we run into stories all the time, and it’s usually pretty easy to tell who the narrator is. Maybe your friend tells you a story to explain why she got grounded. Okay. Your friend is the narrator. She’s the one narrating the story. Afterward, maybe your friend’s grandfather sits you both down and tells a story from his childhood to teach you some valuable life lesson. Who’s the narrator? Easy! The grandfather. 

But what if the situations aren’t so straightforward? What if your friend tells your grandfather’s story? What if she makes her voice deep and husky, like her grandfather’s, and starts using words like “whipper-snapper” and “jalopy.” What if she even starts saying the things that happened to him, happened to “me.” What if she did it on stage for a talent show, and it was all so perfect that it didn’t even seem like a joke. Or to take it a step further, what if she wrote it all down. In other words, what if she tells her grandfather’s story while pretending to be her grandfather. Who’s the narrator then? 

This is exactly the confusion many students run into when they read a story on the page. You know the author wrote the story, but is the author the one narrating it? In fiction, the answer is almost always no. The narrator is the fictional construct the author has created to tell the story through. It’s the point of view the story is coming from. 

Think of it this way. In fiction, we like to let ourselves be tricked. We try to stop seeing our friend on the stage and focus on the performance. When that happens, it’s like we’re actually listening to the grandfather. And so when he says, “I tied up that whipper-snapper and threw him in the trunk of my jalopy”—or whatever he says—we know it’s the grandfather telling the story. He’s the narrator. Your friend is just the person putting on the act.

Well, it’s the same in a book. In the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, for example, Harper Lee is the author. She’s the one putting on the act. Part of her performance is to tell the story using the voice and perspective of one of the characters, a little girl named Scout. So when the novel states, “I told Atticus I didn’t feel very well and didn’t think I’d go to school any more if it was all right with him,” we know that’s Scout speaking. Scout is the narrator. She’s the one narrating the story.

Now let me ask you a question. Say a little girl comes up to you, six or seven years old, and starts telling you a story about the maniac who lives across the street. She says he’s six-and-a-half feet tall and dines on raw squirrels and cats, which is why his hands, by the way, are always blood-stained, because if you eat a raw animal, you can never wash the blood off. Oh, and when people’s flowers freeze during cold weather? It’s because this man has snuck out at night to breathe on them. 

You believe her? 

Probably not—unless you’re six or seven yourself, in which case, the obvious response is to go peek in his windows. For the rest of us, the story shows us more about how the little girl’s mind works than it does about her neighbor. The same is true in a written story. We don’t trust the narrator, Scout, to interpret everything correctly. But we do trust the author, Harper Lee, to show us Scout interpreting things incorrectly, like she does with these descriptions of Boo Radley. It’s all just part of Harper Lee’s act, and she gives a virtuoso performance. And it’s one reason why distinguishing between the author and the narrator is so important in understanding how to interpret a story. 

Want to cite this?

MLA Citation: Bushnell, J.T.. "What is a Narrator?" Oregon State Guide to English Literary Terms, 24 Feb. 2020, Oregon State University, https://liberalarts.oregonstate.edu/wlf/what-narrator. Accessed [insert date].

Further Resources for Teachers

Sherwood Anderson's short story "Death in the Woods" offers a great opportunity for students to distinguish between the narrator and the author.  In that story, the narrator consistently interrupts his story about events in his childhood to ask how he knows certain details of the story that he couldn't possibly have known. These moments call attention to the fact that Anderson is "playing" the narrator here, and this distinction means that the story is really two stories in one--one story about a woman in the woods and another about a young boy (the narrator) who confronts death and sexuality at the same traumatic moment. 

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The Oregon State Guide to English Literary Terms