The Unreliable Narrator in Agatha Christie's the Murder of Roger Ackroyd

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The drawing of narrative inferences by the reader is very important to interpret the work well. However, the author, while writing a story, can treat some incidents in detail and barely mention or even omit others. He may distort these incidents, may not observe chronological sequence, he can use messengers or flashbacks, and so on and so forth. The function of resorting to these varied narrative techniques is to emphasize or de-emphasize certain story-events, to interpret some and to leave others to inference, to show or to tell, to comment or to remain silent, to focus on this or that aspect of an event or character. The use of the unreliable is a very important and unconventional narrative technique used by authors in creating an air of suspense and uncertainty around the story.

An unreliable narrator is one whose rendering of the story and/or commentary on it the reader has reasons to suspect. The unreliability of a narrator can source from his limited knowledge, his personal involvement and his problematic value-scheme. The use of this narrative technique is especially very effective in detective fiction where after being misdirected throughout the text the reader is left baffled by the striking revelations at a late crisis point. Agatha Christie, known as the Queen of Crime, having penned crime novels that are most widely published and read, has used this technique in an ingenious and successful way in her novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926). As quoted in the essay “Narration: Levels and Voices” in the book Narrative Fiction by Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan, “…when the outcome of the action proves the narrator wrong, a doubt is retrospectively cast over his reliability in reporting earlier event,” gives a substantial reason for the reader to question the reliability of the narrator, it however requiring the reading of the entire novel. In the aforesaid novel by Agatha Christie too the unreliability of the narrator cannot be established until the end when he confesses about being the murderer of Roger Ackroyd and about his causative involvement in the death of Mrs. Ferrars. But after his confession the reader is bound to look back on his narration of the entire story trying to point out some loopholes in the narrative.

The use of ellipsis and absences of certain details play a pivotal role in misdirecting the reader as well as preventing the reader from suspecting the narrator’s reliability. In most detective novels certain marked gaps are sustained until the end of the work only to be filled in during the final pages. The complete avoidance in mentioning about the Dictaphone in this novel, which later proves to be an important piece of evidence, is an efficient illustration of the use of absence by Christie. On similar Continued to Page 2

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grounds, the complete silence of Dr. James Sheppard, the narrator, on matters that he had full knowledge about, keeping the reader in the dark about the actual fact, is what can be called the use of marked (or explicit) ellipsis. The reader is constantly hinted about the narrator covering up certain vital pieces of information by his repeated admission of the fact that he has mastered the art of concealing information and deceiving people by his pretentious ignorance. The reader, however, is usually unsuccessful in locating these flaws in his narrative and allows himself to be misguided. Gerard Genette characterizes certain ellipses as hypothetical. These are those ellipses which are impossible to localize or – on occasions- to place in any spot at all, but which are revealed after the event by an analepsis. “That earnest tete-a-tete between Ralph Paton and Mrs. Ferrars the day before struck me disagreeably” (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, 1926, Harper Collins, pp. 22). This affirmation of Dr. Sheppard and his unnatural “premonition” regarding the meeting between Mrs. Ferrars and Ralph Paton leaves a gap that cannot be placed at any definite spot at that...
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