If every chapter of a novel has as its narrator a different character, is it an example of a metafictional novel? I presume it is not specific to metafiction to have multiple narrators, but can a metafictional novel have multiple narrators?
No, the mere presence of multiple narrators does not make a novel metafictional. Nor do metafictional novels necessarily confine themselves to just a single narrator. While metafiction depends on the manipulation of narrative point of view, the number of narrators has no bearing on whether or not a given work is metafictional. Patricia Waugh defines metafiction as follows:
Metafiction is a term given to fictional writing which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artefact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality. In providing a critique of their own methods of construction, such writings not only examine the fundamental structures of narrative fiction, they also explore the possible fictionality of the world outside the literary fictional text. (p.2)
The defining characteristic of metafiction is that the work itself foregrounds its status as a fictional artefact in a self-reflexive way. Having multiple narrators is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for a work's being metafictional. A quick look at two early English novels, and at one from the 1960s, can illustrate the complex relationship between narrative point of view and metafiction.
Are multiple narrators sufficient for metafiction? Richardson's Pamela
The novel often credited with being the earliest in the English language, Samuel Richardson's Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740), uses multiple narrators. The mechanisms by which the story is told include:
- Letters from Pamela to her parents
- Letters from either or both of her parents in reply
- Entries from Pamela's journal
- Insertions from an "editor" that supply incidents not otherwise covered.
Despite these different narrators and narrative mechanisms, the actual fictional world is never broken: we are never made aware that we are watching a fictional world being constructed, and the author does not comment on that world in a way that reveals its status as a constructed fiction.
Richardson identifies himself as the "editor" who supplies the incidents missing from the letters and journal entries. This authorial presence within the work, however, still does not tip Pamela over into the realm of metafiction. In his so-called editorial role, Richardson still advances the narrative in a linear fashion and tells the story straightforwardly. He does not hold the fictionality or constructedness of the narrative itself up for examination, and the fictional world itself appears stable.
Pamela therefore shows that multiple narrators and even an authorial persona intruding on the text are not sufficient to make a work metafictional.
Are multiple narrators necessary for metafiction? Sterne's Tristram Shandy
Conversely, neither multiple narrators nor an authorial presence are necessary to make a work metafictional. Laurence Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, published in installments between 1759 and 1767, has only a single narrator: the eponymous and hapless Tristram. Tristram is not a stand-in for the author. Yet the self-reflexive way in which he narrates the story makes the work metafictional.
For example, at one point, Tristram discusses the rules he will follow in telling his story. In Ars Poetica, the Roman poet Horace counseled that epic poets should not relate their narratives linearly, beginning ab ovo, "from the egg"; rather, they should plunge in medias res, into the middle of things (ll. 147–148). Tristram declares that he will flout Horace's edict and tell his story ab ovo.
[R]ight glad I am that I have begun the history of myself in the way I have done; and that I am able to go on, tracing every thing in it, as Horace says, ab ovo.
Horace, I know, does not recommend this fashion altogether: but that gentleman is speaking only of an epic poem, or a tragedy—(I forget which;) besides, if it was not so, I should beg Mr. Horace's pardon; for in writing what I have set about, I shall confine myself neither to his rules, nor to any man's rules that ever lived.
To such, however, as do not choose to go go far back into these things, I can give no better advice than that they skip over the remaining part of this chapter; for I declare beforehand, 'tis wrote only for the curious and inquisitive. (p. 18)
Hilariously literalizing ab ovo, Tristan makes pretty clear that he will begin by narrating the story of his conception. He then says, in effect: well, if you're upset that I'm not following Horace's rule, just skip the rest of the chapter. Sterne knows full well that it would be a very unusual sort of reader who would be concerned enough about the rules of narrative structure to pass up an invitation to read about sex. This performative play between the content of a narrative (Tristram's conception) and its constructed nature (the choice to begin ab ovo), as staged by a self-reflexive narrator (Tristram himself), is by definition metafictional.
Tristram Shandy therefore shows that neither multiple narrators nor an authorial persona within the text are necessary to make a work metafictional.
Can a metafictional narrative have multiple narrators? Johnson's Albert Angelo
The presence of multiple narrators itself is not inherently metafictional, as Pamela shows. However, it is possible for an author to manipulate narrative point of view such that some or all the narrators comment upon the world created by one or more of the other narrators, foregrounding the narrative's status as a created artefact. Such a technique would be metafictional. One example is B. S. Johnson's 1964 novel Albert Angelo. The novelist Ariel S. Winter describes the novel as follows:
Let’s get it said up front: Albert Angelo has holes cut in its pages. It also has text in two columns, the left as dialog, the right as the interior thoughts of the eponymous protagonist. It also has reproductions of an advertisement, and sections in the form of a play, and multiple narrative viewpoints. The story is of a young struggling architect working as a substitute teacher in a bad neighborhood while brooding about his ex-girlfriend. But it’s really about novels and writing, and it is alternately funny and very serious.
Part of the narrative is told in the form of assignments turned in by Angelo's students at his substitute teaching job. These assignments allow us to see Angelo and his problems from the pupils' perspective, providing ironic comment on his own. The holes cut out in some of the pages let the reader see incidents that happen further along in the story, undermining the narrative through a juxtaposition of future events with the narrative present. Finally, the novel ends in Johnson's own voice, in a coda where he asserts: Telling stories is telling lies. The authorial voice intruding to highlight the fictional nature of the narrative is metafictional. The presence of these multiple narrative voices in Albert Angelo shows that it is possible to have multiple narrators in a metafictional novel.
From the very early history of the English novel, the works of pioneers such as Richardson and Sterne (and, one might add, those of the intervening Henry Fielding) demonstrate that there is no relationship between the number of narrators in a novel and whether or not the novel is metafictional. This is true regardless of whether the novel in question includes a narrator who is identified as the author's surrogate. The more recent example of Johnson shows that multiple narrators can be compatible with a metafictional narrative. But as the other two examples show, multiple narrators are neither necessary nor sufficient for a text to be metafictional.
- Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus). Ars Poetica. c. 19 BCE. The Latin Library. Accessed 23 February 2021.
- Johnson, B. S. Albert Angelo. 1964. New York: New Directions, 1987.
- Richardson, Samuel. The History of Pamela, or, Virtue Rewarded. 1740. New York: W. C. Borradaile, 1830. Archive.org. Accessed 23 February 2021.
- Sterne, Laurence. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. 1759–1767. In The Works of Laurence Sterne. New York: Derby & Jackson, 1857. Archive.org. Accessed 23 February 2021.
- Waugh, Patricia. Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction. New York: Methuen, 1984. Archive.org. Accessed 23 February 2021.