The Dictionary of Fictional Techniques: The Ishmael Narrator

The Dictionary of Fictional Techniques is a running feature in which I observe, name, and discuss heretofore uncategorized (at least to my knowledge) literary devices. This post is related to our Riot Read of The Great Gatsby. Check out related posts here.

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 “The Ishmael Narrator”

Definition: A character who serves as a first-person narrator, but is secondary to, and sometimes wholly apart from, the main action of the story

Examples: Ishmael from Moby Dick, Nick Carraway from The Great Gatsby, Lily Briscoe from To The Lighthouse, John Dowell from The Good Soldier.

Discussion: The Ishmael narrator blends the elements of standard first-person narration and limited third-person narration. It has the intimacy and energy of the former and the distance and emphasis on observation of the latter. This tension between closeness and separation is the signal quality of the Ishmael narrator. While these figures may not be vital to the story (though sometimes, as with Ishmael himself they can be important), they control the tone and attitude of the story.

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What other examples of “the Ishmael narrator” are out there? (To discuss Nick Carraway and his role as narrator in The Great Gatsby, check out this thread in the forums.

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All entries in The Dictionary of Fictional Techniques are original, unless otherwise cited. (This means that they aren’t ‘real words,’ so don’t use them in your freshman comp essay)

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