Perspectives of Self: Unreliable Narration, Women, and the Dynamics of Mental Illness
This thesis examines the relationship between unreliable narration and the depiction of mental illness in three female centred novels: The Trick is to Keep Breathing (1989) by Janice Galloway, My Year of Rest and Relaxation (2018) by Ottessa Moshfegh, and Sorrow and Bliss (2020) by Meg Mason. Each novel examines the relationship between illness and reliability through a unique historical context, gendered perspective, and narratological foundation, and will thus act as case studies for my literary analysis. Mental illness refers to a multitude of psychological conditions that affect an individual’s disposition, perception, and behaviour. Lived experience, cultural and environmental influence, and genetic factors can each contribute to the development and prolonging of mental health issues, effecting approximately one in four people worldwide. Mental illness and literature have a long history. While earlier depictions of the mentally ill – as a subject of both fascination and fear – contributed to the social stigmatization of these disorders, modern engagement with the subject of mental health actively counteracts these earlier impressions.
The exploration of mental illness through the lens of first-person narration allows for an enveloping experience with the subject matter, elevating audience understanding and sympathy. First-person narration provides readerly experience through the eyes and perspective of their narrator, generating a personalized and intimate account of events. It can significantly impact reader understanding and interpretation of the story, while also creating a sense of subjectivity for further immersive effects. The first-person narrator, as described by narrative theorist James Phelan, is the reader’s personal guide within the fictional story-world, one who may intentionally or unintentionally distort the truth on account of character bias, knowledge limitation, memory distortion, or deception. Unreliable narration highlights the reader’s inclination to trust the narrating perspective, even when this figure has an agenda of their own. In dramatizing the disparity between one character’s understanding of the truth from another’s, authors incline us to question the supposed objectivity of their narrators and expose new meanings through this doubled communication. Because a narrator’s psychological state can influence their reliability, mental illness is considered a common mechanism through which unreliable narration is conceived and implemented in fiction.
My first chapter analyses The Trick is to Keep Breathing and focuses on the synthetic component of the text, highlighting the concept of normality and the mechanisms by which one attempts to maintain it. My second chapter analyses My Year of Rest and Relaxation, exploring the ways in which absurdity implicates narrative distance and the fine line between self-help and self-destruction. And my third chapter analyses Sorrow and Bliss through the narrative parallels with author Jean Rhys, examining the interpersonal and generation affects mental illness can have on relationships and diagnosis. It is through these authors’ use of unreliable narration that their portrayal of mental illness is elevated; and by considering narrative as a rhetorical act – on account its ability to affect both the individual and the collective – it highlights how fictional representations of mental health issues hold real world ramifications for the reduction of stigma, understanding of treatment, and social acceptability.