Unreliable Third Person Narration? The Case of Katherine Mansfield

Terence Patrick Murphy 1  and Kelly S. Walsh 1
  • 1 Department of English, Yonsei University, Seoul 03722, Korea
Terence Patrick Murphy and Kelly S. Walsh


The concept of an unreliable third-person narrator may seem a contradiction in terms. The very act of adopting a third-person stance to tell a story would appear to entail an acceptance of a basic need for truth-telling, a commitment to what Wayne Booth terms the implied author’s “norms of the work.” Nonetheless, in the essay that follows, three of Katherine Mansfield’s short stories – “A Cup of Tea” (1922), “Bliss” (1918) and “Revelations” (1920) – will be examined in order to demonstrate how the strategic suppression of the distinction between the voice of the narrator and that of the central character can lead to a strong sense of unreliability. In order to read such narratives effectively, the reader must reappraise the value of certain other stylistic elements, including the use of directives involved with directly quoted speech, seemingly minor discrepancies between adjacent sentences and, perhaps most importantly, the structure of the fiction itself. We contend that Mansfield’s use of this form of unreliable third-person fiction is her unique contribution to the short story genre.

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The Journal of Literary Semantics has pioneered and encouraged research into the relations between linguistics and literature. Widely read by theoretical and applied linguists, narratologists, poeticians, philosophers and psycholinguists, the journal publishes articles of a philosophical or theoretical nature that attempt to advance our understanding of the structures, dynamics, and significations of literary texts.