The Narrator as Literary Device in “Luck,” by Mark Twain
Mark Twain uses the narrator as a literary device in his short story, “Luck.” The author first uses his own voice to give the story an air of authenticity. He then changes narrators, building on the original air of authenticity to create a second authentic narrator. By using the literary device of a first person point of view for both narrators, Twain is able to manipulate not only the actions that take place in the story, but he is also able to manipulate the reader’s understanding of, and his or her opinion of, the characters and events in the story.
The narrator that an author chooses creates the perspective of the story. The narrator is rarely synonymous with the author; however, it is not an unheard of occurrence for the two to be identical. Twain is briefly the narrator of this story, given that he manipulates the readers’ perspective by declaring this story to be a true one and not “a fancy sketch” (Twain page).
He increases this authenticity by signing his initials to the statement, thereby injecting himself into the action of the story. Because this practice is not a common one in fictional stories, although it was more common at the time that this story was written than it is now, Twain’s “appearance” in his own fictional work gives it a suggestion of being a work of nonfiction.
The first person narrator that Twain chooses to tell the majority of the story is ostensibly a unnamed clergyman, formerly a “cornet” (second lieutenant) in the British army under a lieutenant-general the first narrator gives the pseudonym “Scoresby.” Simply by setting the fiction of the need for a pseudonym for the lieutenant general, Twain has created the suggestion of literal truth for the story about to follow. The second narrator, however, is an unreliable one.
By stating that Scoresby’s success comes solely from luck, it is clearly apparent that the clergyman’s opinion would differ from that of the lieutenant general. There is some question as to why these opinions would differ, at least from the clergyman’s perspective. While it should come as no surprise that Scoresby would certainly prefer to characterize his success as deriving from skill, the clergyman could have one of three reasons for having a different opinion. All of these reasons extend from his knowledge of how Scoresby came to be a member of the military. First, it is possible that Scoresby is truly an inept, but lucky, man.
The reader is left to reason for him or herself whether Scoresby could possibly be that fortunate. Twain relies on the knowledge that many people have had surprising luck in their lives, or know of people who have had such luck. By failing to mention names of actual battles and by failing to provide the “real” name of the lieutenant general in question, the series of events might seem plausible.
Second, clergyman might be operating from a feeling of guilt that he allowed Scoresby to cheat his way into the military without speaking up about his role in that cheat. His guilty feelings might color his perspective on Scoresby’s actual successes. After all, having gotten into a military school, it seems logical that Scoresby might have learned some practical knowledge and skills no matter how he came to be enrolled.
The narrator appears to be unwilling to acknowledge this fact, however. Finally, the clergyman might be operating from the desire to have his name attached to that of a successful man. By crediting himself for getting Scoresby into the school while at the same time denigrating the lieutenant general’s own skills and knowledge, the clergyman makes himself more important in his own military role–at least in his own eyes.
Twain uses the role of the narrator as a literary device for controlling the reader’s perspective of the subject of the story. By injecting a first person narrator into the action of the story, Twain creates a situation whereby the reader’s perception is easily manipulated. Ultimately, however, the reader is left to decide on the authenticity of the story, due to the unreliability of the narrator. In the end, the reader must decide on the actual role of both the narrator and of the possible role of luck over the course of Lieutenant-General Scoresby’s career.
Twain, Mark. “Luck.” Publication. City: Publishing House, date.