20th century literature--passive narrators

My wife has been working through a list of books dubbed by someone or other as “100 great novels of the 20th century.” The books she’s read so far have included The Great Gatsby, Slaughterhouse 5, White Noise, On the Road, Never Let Me Go, Wide Sargasso Sea, Death Comes for the Archbishop, and Brideshead Revisited.

She observed this evening that the books she’s read tend to have something in common. In each, there is a narrator who is explicitly a character in the novel, but this narrator doesn’t really do anything. Instead s/he reports the actions of some other, much more interesting person or group of people.

My question is: Is this a recognized trend in 20th century literature, and if so, what has been said about the whys and wherefores of this phenomenon?


Wuthering Heights was published in 1847. It’s narrated by Ellen, who plays only a minor role in the story.

You can also count the Sherlock Holmes stories; Watson does take part, but is not the main character. Going further back, it was used in Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” can also be considered an example.

It’s called First Person Observer, and it nothing new. As my examples indicate, it’s especially useful in mysteries. It allows for a first person commentator to give personal impressions, but you can still keep the solution mysterious until the detective explains things.

Ishmael certainly isn’t the most important character in “Moby Dick.”

First-person acounts by minor characters were common long before the 20th century.

One of the most popular styles in Victorian fiction is what as known as “the bar story.” In it’s most usual form, a group of people are sitting around drinking when one of the them starts telling a story. That story is actually what we would today consider the story, and tell it without the framing tale. The teller may or may not be involved in the interior story. The story may be in any genre from adventure to the ghost story.

In short, as others have said, it’s an extremely common and age-old device.

The most famous story I’ve read with this device is Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Well, the framing portion takes place on a ship rather than in a bar, but same thing.

First person is not new, but “who is the narrator and does narrator = author and is he reliable” are characteristic concerns of 20th century postmodern litcrit.

The OP’s wife is thinking along these lines (not that she necessarily knows it) in stepping outside the story to examine the role of the narrator–if the narrator is an existentialist voyeur, what does that make the author? The reader?

The list is by Modern Library, and it’s the Top 100 English-Language Novels of the 20th Century. [If you want a good laugh, look at ML’s list side-by-side with the list that readers put together.] I’ve been working through the same list, on and off, for about a year.