The Power of the Narrator in "Of Cannibals"
William Bostwick '07, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2005
Early in his essay "Of Cannibals," Michel de Montaigne describes a wholly undesirable kind of narrator — one who cleverly bends the truth in order to sway the reader to his point of view. He contrasts this example with that of a "plain ignorant fellow" who is impartial, though not as thorough in his descriptions.
This man I had was a plain ignorant fellow, and therefore the more likely to tell truth: for your better-bred sort of men are much more curious in their observation, 'tis true, and discover a great deal more; but then they gloss upon it, and to give the greater weight to what they deliver, and allure your belief, they cannot forbear a little to alter the story; they never represent things to you simply as they are, but rather as they appeared to them, or as they would have them appear to you, and to gain the reputation of men of judgment, and the better to induce your faith, are willing to help out the business with something more than is really true, of their own invention. Now in this case, we should either have a man of irreproachable veracity, or so simple that he has not wherewithal to contrive, and to give colour of truth to false relations, and who can have no ends in forging an untruth. [p. 2]
1. Soon after this explanation, de Montaigne launches into a richly detailed depiction of life in a cannibalistic tribe in Brazil. His thorough observations seem the product of a curious mind and not the thoughts of a "plain ignorant fellow." Are we then to believe that the narrator is manipulating us be stretching the truth, or is he "a man of irreproachable veracity" (p. 2)?
2. The narrator's own beliefs are hard to miss, especially when he bemoans the faults of his society. However, these opinions are sandwiched between a wide range of anecdotes, from ancient Latin quotations to bible passages. Has the narrator altered these to prove his point as well? If so, are they still necessary to his argument, even after he explains to the reader the motives behind the use of such facts?
3. With the quoted passage in mind, is the narrator still effective in presenting his ideas to the reader? Is this essay more or less effective than one without such a disclaimer attached to it?
Text (1877 edition: Translated by Charles Cotton. Edited by William Carew Hazilitt.)
Last modified 14 February 2005