Unreliable narrator

Unreliable narrator

In literature, film, theatre, and music, an unreliable narrator (a term coined by Wayne C. Booth in his 1961 book "The Rhetoric of Fiction" [ [http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,60-1824513,00.html Professor Wayne Booth - Comment - Times Online ] ] ) is a narrator whose credibility has been seriously compromised. The use of this type of narrator is called unreliable narration and is a narrative mode that can be developed by the author for a number of reasons, though usually to make a negative statement about the narrator. This unreliability can be due to psychological instability, a powerful bias, a lack of knowledge, or even a deliberate attempt to deceive the reader or audience. Unreliable narrators are usually first-person narrators, but third-person narrators can also be unreliable.

The nature of the narrator is sometimes immediately clear. For instance, a story may open with the narrator making a plainly false or delusional claim or admitting to being severely mentally ill, or the story itself may have a frame in which the narrator appears as a character, with clues to his unreliability. A more common, and dramatic, use of the device delays the revelation until near the story's end. This twist ending forces the reader to reconsider their point of view and experience of the story. In many cases the narrator's unreliability is never fully revealed but only hinted at, leaving the reader to wonder how much the narrator should be trusted and how the story should be interpreted.

The literary device of the unreliable narrator should not be confused with other devices such as euphemism, hyperbole, irony, metaphor, pathetic fallacy, personification, sarcasm, or satire; it may, however, coexist with such devices, as in Bret Easton Ellis’ "American Psycho", a satire [ [http://www.amazon.co.uk/American-Psycho-Bret-Easton-Ellis/dp/033048477X Amazon.co.uk: American Psycho: Books: Bret Easton Ellis ] ] whose narrator may or may not be reliable (and thus not credible). Similarly, historical novels, speculative fiction, and clearly delineated dream sequences are generally not considered instances of unreliable narration, even though they describe events that did not or could not happen.

Some works suggest that all narrators are inherently unreliable due to self-interest, personal bias, or selective memory; "reliable narrators" would be "unreliable narrators without hints or clues of their very own unreliability".

Examples of unreliable narrators


One of the earliest known examples of unreliable narration is Chaucer's "The Canterbury Tales". In the Merchant's Tale for example, the narrator, being unhappy in his marriage, allows his misogynistic bias to slant much of his tale, and in the Wife of Bath's, the Wife often misquotes and misremembers quotations and stories.

Wilkie Collins's early detective story "The Moonstone" (1868) is also an early example of the unreliable narrator in crime fiction. The plot of the novel unfolds through several narratives by different characters, which contradict each other and reveal the biases of the narrators.

A controversial example of an unreliable narrator occurs in Agatha Christie's novel "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd", where the narrator hides essential truths in the text (mainly through evasion, omission, and obfuscation) without ever overtly lying. Many readers at the time felt that the plot twist at the climax of the novel was nevertheless unfair.

Many novels are narrated by children, whose inexperience can impair their judgment and make them unreliable. In "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" (1884), Huck's inexperience leads him to make overly charitable judgments about the characters in the novel; even going so far as to accuse his author, "Mr. Mark Twain," of having stretched the truth in the previous book, "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer", an early example of a fourth-wall breach. In contrast, Holden Caulfield, in "The Catcher in the Rye", tends to assume the worst.

Henry James's classic novella "The Turn of the Screw", in which a young woman experiences ghostly hauntings summoned by supernaturally-powered children, can be interpreted as a novel of unreliable narration, but whether or not the narrator is actually delusional is (perhaps intentionally) ambiguous. It is of note that the story was not interpreted thus until several decades after its original publication. [ [http://www.enotes.com/short-story-criticism/turn-screw-henry-james Henry James The Turn of the Screw Criticism ] ]

Ken Kesey's two most famous novels feature unreliable narrators. "Chief" Bromden in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" suffers from schizophrenia, and his telling of the events often includes things such as people growing or shrinking, walls oozing with slime, or the orderlies kidnapping and "curing" Santa Claus. Narration in "Sometimes a Great Notion" switches between several of the main characters, whose bias tends to switch the reader's sympathies from one person to another, especially in the rivalry between Leland and Hank. Many of Susan Howatch's novels similarly uses this technique; each chapter is narrated by a different character, and only after reading chapters by each of the narrators does the reader realize each of the narrators has biases and "blind spots" that cause them to perceive shared experiences differently.

Charlie Gordon, the narrator in Daniel Keyes's epistolary novel, "Flowers for Algernon" is mentally retarded at the start of the novel but develops greater intelligence and understanding. Following a Rorschach inkblot test early in the novel, Charlie reports that he was told to imagine pictures in the ink contrary to the standardised way of delivering the test. Subsequently, on listening to an audio recording of the test, he realises that his memory was flawed.

In some instances, unreliable narration can bring about the fantastic in works of fiction. In Kingsley Amis's "The Green Man", for example, the unreliability of the narrator Maurice Allington destabilizes the boundaries between reality and the fantastic. The same applies to Nigel Williams's "Witchcraft". [Martin Horstkotte. "Unreliable Narration and the Fantastic in Kingsley Amis's "The Green Man" and Nigel Williams's "Witchcraft". "Extrapolation" 48,1 (2007): 137-151.]


The 1945 film noir classic "Detour" is told from the perspective of an unreliable protagonist who may be trying to justify his actions. [ [http://ferdyonfilms.com/2006/12/detour-1945.php Detour (1945) (Ferdy on Films, etc.) ] ] [http://www.cinematheque.bc.ca/archives/ffnoso98.html] [ [http://www.film-talk.com/forums/lofiversion/index.php/t14372.html Film Talk > Detour (1945) ] ]

Mentally impaired narrators may describe the world as they perceive it rather than as it really is. In the film, "Bubba Ho-tep", the main character is either Elvis Presley or an Elvis impersonator named Sebastian Haff. He appears to suffer from Alzheimer's disease, making it unclear how much of his story is real.

The film "Rashomon" uses multiple narrators to tell the story of the death of a samurai. Each of the witnesses describe the same basic events but differ wildly in the details, alternately claiming that the samurai was killed by accident, suicide, or murder. The term Rashomon effect is used to describe how different witnesses are able to produce differing, yet plausible, accounts of the same event, with equal sincerity. This kind of unreliable narration has also been used for comic effect in movies such as "He Said, She Said" and "Grease", where the two romantic leads offer very different accounts of their relationship.


An unreliable narrator may also appear in songs with a narrative. Eminem often uses his "Slim Shady" persona as an unreliable narrator [ [http://www.allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&sql=10:jhdkyl61xpzb allmusic (((The Slim Shady LP > Overview))) ] ] . In "Stan", however, the unreliable narrator is actually an obsessed fan whose messages to Shady/Eminem become increasingly erratic and eventually commits a murder-suicide. Shady is presented in this song as a reliable secondary narrator [ [http://www.turkishdailynews.com.tr/archives.php?id=22208 Eminem: Poetic genius or obscene ephemera? Fancy a roll in Robbie's bed? - Turkish Daily News March 3, 2001 ] ] .

Another example of growing vehemence revealing the unreliable nature of a narrator is The Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil". The narrator introduces himself as "a man of wealth and taste" and asks for sympathy from the listener, but goes on to recount tales of historic atrocities with apparent glee. Although he repeatedly refuses to reveal his true identity, it becomes obvious that the narrator is, literally, the Devil [ [http://www.allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&sql=33:sm6ftbaykl2x allmusic ] ] .


In the final episode of M*A*S*H, unreliable narration is used to great dramatic effect.

In the House episode "No Reason," it is slowly revealed that the events portrayed may be House's hallucination rather than reality. [ [http://blogcritics.org/archives/2006/05/24/011244.php TV Review: House Season Finale - "No Reason" ] ] . In the series How I Met Your Mother, the narrator Ted Mosby will often alter events of the story, either due to his desire to shield his kids from obscene material (Game Night), (How I Met Everyone Else) or to failing memory (The Goat), (How I Met Everyone Else).

Works featuring unreliable narrators

Literature featuring unreliable narrators:

* Martin Amis's "Time's Arrow" [ [http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/02/01/home/amis-arrow.html?_r=1&oref=slogin The New York Times: Book Review Search Article ] ]
* Emily Brontë's "Wuthering Heights" [ [http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0029-0564(197303)27%3A4%3C449%3ATUNIWH%3E2.0.CO%3B2-6] ]
* Angela Carter's "Wise Children" [ [http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9E0CE3D91730F93AA25752C0A964958260&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=print 'Comedy Is Tragedy That Happens to Other People' - New York Times ] ]
* Robert W. Chambers' The Repairer of Reputations
* Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Canterbury Tales"
* Wilkie Collins's "The Moonstone" [ [http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G1-97074176.html Historicizing unreliable narration: unreliability and cultural ] ]
* Mark Z. Danielewski's "House of Leaves"
* Fyodor Dostoevsky's "Notes from Underground"
* Dave Eggers's "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius"
* Bret Easton Ellis's "American Psycho"Sarah Webster. When Writer Becomes Celebrity. "The Oxonian Review of Books", Vol. 5, No. 2 (spring 2006) [http://www.oxonianreview.org/issues/5-2/5-2webster.html] ]
* William Faulkner's "The Sound and the Fury"
* F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby"Thomas E. Boyle. Unreliable Narration in "The Great Gatsby". The Bulletin of the Rocky Mountain Modern Language Association, Vol. 23, No. 1 (Mar., 1969), pp. 21-26 [http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/1346578] ]
* John Fowles's "The Collector"
* Jonathan Safran Foer's "Everything Is Illuminated"
* Kazuo Ishiguro's "When We Were Orphans"Mudge, Alden. "Ishiguro takes a literary approach to the detective novel." [http://www.bookpage.com/0009bp/kazuo_ishiguro.html] ]
* Daniel Keyes' "Flowers for Algernon"
* John Knowles' "A Separate Peace"
* James Lasdun's "The Horned Man" [ [http://www.darkecho.com/darkecho/reviews/horned.html DarkEcho Review: The Horned Man by James Lasdun ] ]
* Patrick McGrath's "The Grotesque"
* Vladimir Nabokov's "Pale Fire" [ [http://www.rci.rutgers.edu/~wcd/palenarr.htm Dowling on Pale Fire ] ]
* Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart"
* Marcel Proust's "In Search of Lost Time" [ [http://poeticstoday.dukejournals.org/cgi/content/abstract/25/1/91 Proust, His Narrator, and the Importance of the Distinction - Landy 25 (1): 91 - Poetics Today ] ]
* Thomas Pynchon's "Mason & Dixon"
* Philip Roth's "Portnoy's Complaint"
* J.D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye""The Guardian", [http://film.guardian.co.uk/patterson/story/0,,1998611,00.html "A legitimate artistic gambit"] , Saturday January 27, 2007]
* Lemony Snicket's "A Series of Unfortunate Events"
* Daniel Handler's "The Basic Eight"
* Laurence Sterne's "The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman"
* Jim Thompson's "The Killer Inside Me"
* Mark Twain's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn"
* Shirley Jackson's "We Have Always Lived in the Castle"
* Gene Wolfe's "The Fifth Head of Cerberus" [http://home.austin.rr.com/lperson/wolfe.html Interview with Gene Wolfe Conducted by Lawrence Person] ]

Films with an unreliable point-of-view (or points-of-view):

* "The Usual Suspects"
* "Memento" [http://www.reel.com/movie.asp?MID=131667&buy=closed&PID=10099964&Tab=reviews&CID=18]
* "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" [Ferenz, Volker, "Fight Clubs, American Psychos and Mementos," "New Review of Film and Television Studies", Vol. 3, No. 2 (1 November 2005), pp. 133-159, ( [http://taylorandfrancis.metapress.com/link.asp?id=j0496042631634l1 link] , accessed 5 March 2007, reg. required).]
* "Fight Club"
* "Hero" (2002) [ [http://www.montrealfilmjournal.com/review.asp?R=R0000709 "Hero" review in the "Montreal Film Journal"] ]
* "Rashomon"
* "300" [ [http://www.scifi.com/scifiwire/index.php?category=0&id=34442 Interview with "300" director Zack Snyder] ]
* "Box" segment in "Three... Extremes"




Smith, M. W. (1991). "Understanding Unreliable Narrators". Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

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