As defined in my previous work, (un)reliability is one of five types of hypothesis or integration mechanism, whereby readers account for textual incongruities. In principle, we may always appeal to alternative logics of resolution: ambiguous data may be attributed to generic convention, as in the detective story, and/or to functional drives, like surprise, no less than to the teller's blind spots. What distinguishes the perspectival or the unreliability hypothesis is that it brings discordant elements into pattern by attributing them to the peculiarities of the speaker through whom the world is mediated. This links up with Meir Sternberg's model of how fictional communication works through quotation. To infer unreliability is to make sense of the text at a quotational remove, with the mediator as ironized quotee set into the overall narrative for a purpose. And the ultimate quoter along the chain of transmission is the author, our frame-sharer and our normative reference-point for every intermediate viewpoint.
To test and illustrate these relations anew, they are extended here beyond the traditional semiotic boundaries of language, so that mediation extends to the very medium. My test case is a dramatic monologue in which the narrator manifests (un)reliability through verbalization of a visual artwork (throughekphrasis, in short). Here the difficulties of translating between media or art forms intersect with those of managing a quote within a quote. Semiotic and perspectival complexities arisetogether. Furthermore, to quote or re-present an artwork in words is to frame one global act of communication within another. The perspectives involved in visual discourse—painter versus beholder—are thereby reset into the verbal discourse about the visual discourse. So, in ekphrasis, the quoting chain goes from literary author to narrator to plastic artist, with their respective ends, skills,vehicles, audiences, and at times with further mediators en route. Ekphrastic speakers can therefore betray themselves—as this one does—in more ways than usual, against more diverse (e.g., aesthetic) norms and to richer ironic effects. In my example, Blake Morrison's “Teeth” (appended below), the issues and disparities of point of view multiply even further. Due to a strategic allusion to Robert Browning's “My Last Duchess,”the modern speaker unknowingly echoes the Renaissance Duke, and the Duchess's picture hovers behind the re-presentation of the modern artwork. In such light, readers infer that the monologist has similarly murdered his wife once we catch and decode the underlying intertextual cum intermedia allusion. This goes to shownot only that (un)reliability hinges on reading but also that different orders of (un)reliability (e.g., between flat and fine judgments, as on the speaker here) correlate with different orders of reading.