The Mark Blog

Bookmark This: The 10 Best Narrators in Literature

Publisher's Weekly was so enamored with Oppen Porter, the narrator of Antoine Wilson's Panorama City, that they asked Antoine to list his ten favorite narrators of all time. Our current Mark program instructor introduces his list by designating two narrator types. Read on below or check out the Publisher's Weekly page.


The first-person narrator descends from the ancient storyteller unspooling his tale around the fire for the delight and edification of his people. But on the page, two things transform him. One, we readers can ask “Who is this speaker? Why is he telling us this story, and what isn't he telling us?” Two, he can go on as long as he wants. The first case invents the so-called Unreliable Narrator, the second gives rise to what I like to call the World Swallower.

Whether insane, overheated, strung-out, or merely young and naïve, Unreliable Narrators always deliver more than their characters intend to. Comic or tragic, serious or absurd, they can tell just about any story while also reflecting our capacity for self-deception, our limited sliver of knowledge about the world, and the limits of language itself.

The World Swallower is the unhinged cousin of the old-school omniscient author-narrator (the one who used to say “dear reader”). He stretches (or obliterates) the boundaries of what a character might be able to know. Whether deployed to illuminate the scope of human imagination or to bring under one flimsy umbrella the whole of experience, the World Swallower is the ultimate stand-in for an author who has devoted himself or herself to their art.

There exist other varieties of first-person narrator, of course, and other ways to describe them, but my favorites (aka this Top Ten) are the Unreliables and the World Swallowers.

(For each book, I’ve also included an alternate, a sort of spiritual cousin to the one on the list.)

10. Huck Finn, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain - Huck's narration exemplifies the triumph of the spoken over the written, the colloquial over the official. With this novel, Twain deployed his skills as a master ventriloquist to rejuvenate American literature, delivering adult ideas through the mouth of a child naïve. (Alternate: Scout, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.)

9. Holden Caulfield, The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger - Another child narrator, so inflected with the language and perspective of a kid that the novel is often assigned to kids themselves, most of whom fail to see beyond Holden's puerile litmus of phony/not-phony. The power lies in the book's structure (pitting dying nobly against living humbly, at one point), and in reading it from an adult's perspective. Having already lost some innocence, we grown-ups understand the significance of Holden's position better than he ever could. (Alternate: Elaine, Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood.)

8. F**khead, Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson - A narrative of down-and-out druggy recovery told by an unreliable narrator. F**khead can't even keep his own story straight; he revises along the way. But what Johnson achieves here is innovative and moving. This is a true novel-in-stories, taking the overarching narrative of recovery from the novel form, while allowing F**khead's voice to evolve from chapter to chapter, a discontinuity enabled by the term “short story.” The events of the first story/chapter are no more or less strange than the last, but along the way the voice transforms from imagistic confusion to candid clarity. (Alternate: Esther Greenwood, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.)

7. Ditie, I Served the King of England by Bohumil Hrabal - Hrabal is a modern master of the literature of the Fool. But unlike his forebears (cf Jasek's novel The Good Soldier Svejk), Hrabal lets his fools speak for themselves, giving them the microphone to narrate their own stories in all of their venal, occasionally insightful, narrow-minded glory. Ditie, a hotel waiter, likes to brag that he once served the Emperor of Ethiopia. A poor judge of seemingly everything, he marries a stern German athlete just as the Nazis are taking power. James Wood's review of Hrabal's work is a must-read. (Alternate: Stevens, The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro.)

6. Charles Kinbote, Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov - Yes, yes, I know, why isn't Humbert Humbert on this list? Because far more interesting (to my mind) is Nabokov's second-most famous creation, Charles Kinbote. Pale Fire is a strange hybrid form; the novel consists of Kinbote's cranky Foreword, a 999-line poem by someone called John Shade, and the footnotes to that poem, in which Kinbote attempts to claim the work for himself in a sort of lit crit hijacking attempt. In doing so, Kinbote manages to both swallow the world and emerge as one of the least reliable and most amusing narrators I've ever read. (Alternate: Humbert Humbert, Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov.)

5. Invisible Man, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison - A song of subjectivity, at times wildly uneven, partly inspired (according to Ellison) by Eliot's “The Waste Land,” the novel comes to us via an unnamed narrator under the guise of autobiography. Invisible Man shimmers as literature for what Ellison turned his back on, the realist protest novel, in favor of a personal and experimental style, one that allows erudition, feverish lyricism, command of the vernacular, fluency in pop culture, jazz, science, preaching, and discourses on communism. A voice to swallow not the world, per se, but the world's many voices. (Alternate: The Underground Man, Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky.)

4. Franz-Josef Murau, Extinction by Thomas Bernhard - Bernhard's narrators are distinguished by their musicality, repetition, and relentlessness. The intellectual black sheep of a powerful Austrian family, Franz-Josef Murau must leave his exile in Rome when he finds himself sole heir to hisfamily's estate, Wolfsegg. Brilliant, darkly comic, and enlightening, Murau's pseudo-autobiography is a triple-shot of bile from the Austrian master. (Alternate: Any of Beckett's narrators.)

3. Ruth, Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson - In relating her and her sister's somewhat feral childhood in fictional Fingerbone, Idaho, Ruth depicts events and scenes she could not have witnessed firsthand but which have taken root in her imagination. The result is an intimate bildungsroman interwoven with a world-swallowing depiction of place, people, and history. All told through a voice that, at times, approaches the “I am nothing. I see all.” of Emerson's Transparent Eyeball. As stealthy as it is ambitious. (Alternate: Del Jordan, Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro.)

2. Ishmael, Moby-Dick by Herman Melville - “Call me Ishmael,” he says, but can we still call him Ishmael by the final chapter, when we get (spoiler alert) a third-person description of the destruction of the Pequod? Ishmael is the ultimate world-swallowing narrator, one who bursts at the seams with the volume of all he has swallowed, narrative consistency be damned. (Alternate: The author/narrator of Don Quixote.)

1. M., In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust - Cookie, tea, go! (Alternate: Howie, The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker.)