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Journal of the International Association for Semiotic Studies / Revue de l'Association Internationale de Sémiotique

Editor-in-Chief: Danesi, Marcel

IMPACT FACTOR 2018: 0.509

CiteScore 2018: 0.23

SCImago Journal Rank (SJR) 2018: 0.232
Source Normalized Impact per Paper (SNIP) 2018: 0.478

Agenzia Nazionale di Valutazione del Sistema Universitario e della Ricerca: Classe A

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Volume 2006, Issue 162


Understanding and handling unreliable narratives: A pragmatic model and method

Theresa Heyd
  • Lecturer, Researcher, and PhD candidate in the Department of English Language and Linguistics at the Heinrich-Heine-Universität, Düsseldorf.
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Published Online: 2006-10-26 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/SEM.2006.078


This paper explores the pragmatic foundations of unreliable narration (UN), a narrative technique highly popular in western literary texts. It sets out by giving a critique of the competing theoretic frameworks of UN, namely the seminal Boothian concept and more recent constructivist approaches. It is argued that both frameworks neglect a pragmatic perspective as the most viable way for identifying and analysing UN. Such a pragmatic model is then developed on the basis of theories of cooperation, such as the Gricean maxims, relevance theory, and politeness. The emerging definition of UN treats a narrator as unreliable if he or she violates the cooperative principle without intending an implicature. This model is tested against three prototypical UNs: Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day, and Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart. These sample analyses yield a typology of UN: while pragmatic deviation is shown to be the intrinsic feature of the phenomenon, unreliable narrators vary according to their degree of intentionality. Finally, two recurring issues in the UN debate are briefly discussed: the existence of textual clues of UN, and the role of the reader in constructing unreliability.

Keywords: Unreliable narration; pragmatic deviation; maxims of conversation; cooperation; intentionality; stylistic markers

About the article

Theresa Heyd

Theresa Heyd (b. 1980). Her research interests include CMC, pragmatics, sociolinguistics, and the linguistics of literary discourse.

Published Online: 2006-10-26

Published in Print: 2006-09-01

Citation Information: Semiotica, Volume 2006, Issue 162, Pages 217–243, ISSN (Online) 1613-3692, ISSN (Print) 0037-1998, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/SEM.2006.078.

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