Narrator of The Philosopher’s Pupil

I’ve been writing a bit about narrative voice lately on this humble blog, and in a recent post (about all narration actually being in first person) I brought up the unique narrator of Iris Murdoch’s novel The Philosopher’s Pupil. I’ve finished the book (finally), and the last paragraph really gives a delightful payoff in terms of narrative voice.

I noted in that other post that the narrator of the Murdoch novel makes occasional appearances as an interactive character in the story while still having omniscience regarding everyone’s thoughts and motivations, including even those of a dog. The narrator is from an old family in the village and goes by the name of N (for narrator?).

At one point N is referred to as “an impotent voyeur” by one of the characters. But N is from an established family in the town, so at another point a character states that people tend to do what N wants them to do. I love this kind of sly, self conscious reference to the role of a narrator in the story. In many ways, a narrator is both a powerless reporter and a weaver of characters’ lives.

Granted, the author is allowed to give her narrator whatever powers she wishes, but it was hard to avoid noticing that what seemed to be a mortal narrator could have such broad knowledge inside others’ heads. Was Murdoch up to something supernatural with this character perhaps? I didn’t think so since the supernatural doesn’t enter her books very often. (Secretive, controlling characters who manipulate the lives of other characters are common in her books, but they generally don’t have supernatural powers.)

The last paragraph, in a bit of meta fiction, addresses this point with a bit of playfulness. This is the narrator speaking:

“The end of any tale is arbitrarily determined. As I now end this one, somebody may say: but how on earth do you know all these things about all these people? Well, where does one person end and another person begin? It is my role in life to listen to stories. I also had the assistance of a certain lady.”

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