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Shadow & Claw (The Book of the New Sun #1-2)
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2011 Reads > S&C: Severian as (Unreliable) Narrator

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message 1: by Jlawrence, S&L Moderator (last edited Feb 11, 2011 07:35PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jlawrence | 960 comments Mod
Severian claims in the first chapter that he is cursed with what we would consider a photographic memory - he remembers everything that happened to him in precise detail, and is effortlessly calling these memories up to tell his tale to us.

However, as early as chapter 3 his reliability is called into doubt, directly, by himself. He's searching through the papers of recently arrived 'clients' to be handled by the Torturer's Guild, expecting to find among them rebels against the Autarch, rebels who follow Vodalus, whom Severian met, killed for, and swore loyalty to in chapter 1. Finding none -

"...suddenly I felt Vodalus had only been an eidolon created by my imagination from the fog, and only the man I had slain with his own ax real....It was in that instant of confusion that I realized for the first time that I am in some degree insane...I could no longer be sure my own mind was not lying to me...and I who remembered everything could not be certain those memories were more that my own dreams. I recalled the moonlit face of Vodalus; but then, I had wanted to see it. I recalled his voice as he spoke to me, but I had desired to hear it, and the woman's voice too.

One freezing night, I crept back to the masoleum and took out the chrisos [the coin Vodalus gave him] again. The worn, serene, androgynous face on its obverse was not the face of Vodalus."

I remember this confession of possible insanity impressing me strongly the first time I read these books, and, as far as I can remember, Severian never again directly calls into doubt the tale he's telling us. But this early confession of unreliability effects the entire tale.

What are your first impressions of Severian as a character and a narrator?


message 2: by Jared (new)

Jared (jared_king) | 51 comments My impression of the way Severian portrays himself is as honest sometimes to the point of being rude when dealing with other characters, but i have caught him out on occaision to lie/contradict himself. I remember Severian saying that he had only visited whores once and let his friend keep the money in subsequent visits, but when he is describing his feelings for Ageia, he mentions that he has 'known' several of those types of women. Perhaps he had after Chatelain Feckla, sometimes i fall asleep while listening till 2am...


message 3: by Jlawrence, S&L Moderator (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jlawrence | 960 comments Mod
Jared, that's excellent - I've read elsewhere that Severian contradicts himself in various places, which I never picked up on when I originally read the books, so I'm on the lookout for instances like that this time.


Larry (lomifeh) | 88 comments I've been looking at this since I saw the post, looking for moments and I do see what you mean. He even states he knows he is somewhat insane and seems to doubt his experiences at times. Not his memory of them, but if they actually happened. A fine distinction and leads to the idea that it's not that he is misremembering, forgetting, or embellishing but that he cannot trust what happened to be what he experienced.


Colin | 278 comments I found it interesting with his descriptions about his relationship with Thecla, from what i can recall, it seemed as cutesy and sweet, and storybook as you could get. Yes, he and or the people he was associated with would eventually kill her/torture her, but his narrative was making it sound like they had a mutual companionship where he would comfort her, etc.
YET, when he is with Agilus and Agia in their cell, before the execution, and he strikes/pushes Agia away against the wall, he seemingly mentions off hand that she raged at him, trying to scratch out his eyes, etc, JUST LIKE THECLA USED TO DO when things got too much for her.

That caught me by surprise. I understand that memoirs don't tell every waking moment of every day of the subject, but i thought that was pretty huge. If he treats that as inconsequential, worthy of a "Oh, sometimes she would do this, but anyways, like i was saying..." what else is he withholding from us?


message 6: by Veronica, Supreme Sword (new)

Veronica Belmont (veronicabelmont) | 1680 comments Mod
Jared wrote: "My impression of the way Severian portrays himself is as honest sometimes to the point of being rude when dealing with other characters, but i have caught him out on occaision to lie/contradict him..."

I caught the whores reference too. He apparently has pretty selective memory sometimes!


message 7: by Jlawrence, S&L Moderator (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jlawrence | 960 comments Mod
Colin, you're right -- that's quite a big 'new fact' to learn about the time he and Thecla spent together. I just read it on the train home, so I want to quote it:

*** SPOILERS, Shadow, Chapter 29 ***



In Agilus' cell, Agia is pleading for Severian to spare Agilus' life (even though she and Agilus conspired to kill Severian). She throws herself at Severian sexually and at the same time reaches for something in his sabretache - and

"I slapped her wrist, perhaps harder than I should, and she flew at me, clawing for my eyes as Thecla used sometimes to do when she could no longer bear the thoughts of imprisonment and pain."

Then Severian pushes Agia into the wall.

As Larry mentions in the Thecla thread, it suggests Agia was raging against Severian directly while Thecla was raging against her situation. But in any case, you're right, it's another example that makes you wonder what else Severian's omitting, and what else he might let slip out later.


message 8: by Jlawrence, S&L Moderator (last edited Feb 18, 2011 11:17AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jlawrence | 960 comments Mod
Adrienne wrote: "And along those lines, there was another little instance of unreliability slightly later...

I caught that one, too! Along with the others, it seems to be adding up to a pattern of Severian omitting things that show him more prone to human weaknesses (of both good and bad varieties). Although, the motivation behind the Thecla contradiction that Colin noted seems more complicated than that.


Bobbi (blafferty) | 11 comments It's really interesting to read these comments since it has been years since I read these books - I felt that I remembered the whole story as almost a dream, with little detail, but as I read the comments about each of these contradictions I remember them vividly and the contradiction I felt when I read them.

I think a lot of this is about the depth of the character Severian. Most first person narrators we feel we can trust because the author is merely pretending to be the character - s/he knows the story all the way through and can be relied upon to be true to the plot and any subplots. However, Severian is his own man. As such, he interprets events through his own filters. And as a person, he is quite flawed and has been raised in a severely warping situation.


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