This post more than any other contains spoilers. Sometimes it’s a spoiler just to know that you’re dealing with an unreliable narrator.
Unreliable narration is a storytelling technique which requires some work on the part of the reader, trying to work out how much of the story is true and how much is subjective, or an outright lie.
The most fallible, most consistently clueless narrator you could hope to meet might be Ford Madox Ford in the novel The Good Soldier (1915).
— How To Read Literature Like A Professor
Everyone suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.
– F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
THE UNRELIABLE CONTINUUM
Almost every story fits somewhere on the ‘unreliable continuum’. Let’s exclude omniscient narrators, who we should take at face value, but truly omniscient narration is rare.
Far more common is close third person point of view. Harry Potter fans have had fun arguing about how much of his story is objectively true versus how much is subjectively conveyed owing to Harry’s own biases. For example, in The Philosopher’s Stone, Hermione is depicted as ‘annoying’ but as the series progresses, she is no longer so — presumably she has undergone a character arc. But who’s to say that Hermione was ever objectively an irritant? Could it be Harry’s sexist response towards a girly swot who knew more than he did which lead readers to conclude the same?
The following explains, in part, why true omniscient narration may have gone the way of the dodo. It is no longer culturally accepted that there is any such thing as objective truth:
W.G. Sebald once said to me, “I think that fiction writing which does not acknowledge the uncertainty of the narrator himself is a form of imposture which I find very, very difficult to take. Any form of authorial writing where the narrator sets himself up as stagehand and director and judge and executor in a text, I find somehow unacceptable. I cannot bear to read books of this kind.” Seabed continued: “If you refer to Jane Austen, you refer to a world where there were set standards of propriety which were accepted by everyone. Given that you have a world where the rules are clear and where one knows where trespassing begins, then I think it is legitimate, within that context, to be a narrator who knows what the rules are and who knows the answers to certain questions. But I think these certainties have been taken from us by the course of history, and that we do have to acknowledge our own sense of ignorance and of insufficiency in these matters and therefore to try and write accordingly.
For Sebald, and for many writers like him, standard third-person omniscient narration is a kind of antique cheat. But both sides of the division have been caricatured.
Even the apparently unreliable narrator is more often than not reliably unreliable. Think of Kazoo Ishiguro’s butler in The Remains of the Day, or of Bertie Wooster, or even of Humbert Humbert. We know that the narrator is being unreliable because the author is alerting us, through reliable manipulation, to that narrator’s vulnerability. A process of authorial flagging is going on; the novel teaches us how to read its narrator.
— James Wood, How Fiction Works
WHY USE AN UNRELIABLE NARRATOR?
Unreliable narrators are useful for achieving an epiphany in the reader. Chekhov makes the most of this in his later works, in which the reader has an epiphany while the character goes on without one, unchanging.
The unreliable narrator breaks down into at least three different types:
1. The narrator that purposefully leads you astray
2. The narrator whose view of the world is so strident that by sheer force of will they are attempting to lead you astray
3. The narrator who does not attempt to lead you astray but does by dint of their youth and inexperience: Room, Catcher In The Rye
— Fuse8 blog
The Importance of the ‘Ghost’
When creating an unreliable narrator the narrator has to have
1. A secret (“ghost” from their background)
2. A reason for keeping this secret/ghost from us.
Somebody else will be trying to expose that secret. Why does this other character want the secret exposed? Without these things going on in your story, you probably don’t need to make use of an unreliable narrator.
The Grandmother Genre Of Modern Unreliable Narration
Look to gothic literature.
Our modern imperilled (or seemingly imperilled) female protagonists calls to mind the gothic novels of Ann Radcliffe and her heirs. From Emily St. Aubert, the heroine of Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, who is kept prisoner in an Italian castle, to the narrator of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper who is confined to a room with bad interior decorating, these women have to sort out the mysteries of their situations to find the truth. Jane Eyrehas to find out who’s in the attic. The second Mrs. de Winter has to figure out what happened to her predecessor, Rebecca.
Trapped in a duplicitous world, is it any wonder that they retreat into their own versions of reality? Jane Eyre admits to opening “my inward ear to a tale that never ended—a tale my imagination created, and narrated continuously.” The narrator of The Yellow Wallpaper begins to see figures in the walls. The second Mrs. de Winter is so insecure (maybe because she doesn’t get a name!) she believes Mrs. Danvers’ version of the truth and misreads her husband’s feelings about his dead wife.
Unreliable Narration And Feminism
The gothic tradition started something which has continued to this day: A gender imbalance in unreliability. When women are constantly utilised as unreliable, women become intertwined with liars. There is a long history of disbelieving women.
For centuries the testimony of women has been held up to scrutiny and frequently dismissed on the grounds that our biology makes us prone to neurosis, hysteria, irrational subjectivity, and that our judgment can’t be trusted. It’s also a favourite cliche of fiction and drama: the heroine who is repeatedly told by men that she is imagining things, until she starts to question her own sanity. McGowan has repeatedly used the word “gaslighting” of her treatment by men in the industry, a term taken from the 1944 film Gaslight, in which a husband attempts to convince his wife she is going mad in order to cover up his own criminal activity.
It’s curious, then, that in our more enlightened times, when women are no longer routinely incarcerated as hysterics, that we should remain so obsessed with the idea of the female narrator who can’t be relied upon to know her own mind, or even what she saw from the window of her train or apartment. The obvious example is Paula Hawkins’s multimillion-selling The Girl on the Train, in which the narrator’s judgment was impaired by her drink problem. There’s SJ Watson’s bestseller Before I Go to Sleep, which also became a blockbuster film and features a female narrator convinced that something sinister is going on in her marriage, but who struggles to prove it because she suffers from memory loss.
Examples Of Unreliable Narration In Picture Books
Dr Seuss is the standout example of a picture book author with unreliable narrators. Subversive retellings of fairytales can also ask readers to question the truth.
- And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street
- McElliot’s Pool
- If I Ran The Zoo
- If I Ran The Circus
- The Wolf’s Story: What Really Happened to Little Red Riding Hood by Toby Forward, an example of a picture book in which the pictures tell a different story.
- The True Story Of The Three Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith
- Seriously, Cinderella Is SO Annoying!: The Story of Cinderella as Told by the Wicked Stepmother by Trisha Speed Shaken — from the perspective of the stepmother and stepsisters who accuse her of being an insipid little twit
- My Cat, the Silliest Cat in the World by Giles Bachelet — the words tell a story about a cat but the pictures show that the ‘cat’ is actually an elephant.
- Dear Mrs. LaRue: Letters From Obedience School by Mark Teague — has two stories — the black and white imaginings of a dog narrator which match his melodramatic letters home, compared to coloured illustrations depicting ‘the truth’. (There’s a whole series of them.)
- Poor Puppy by Nick Bruel — “Poor, poor Puppy. Poor, poor, poor, poor, poor Puppy!” The book then becomes a counting/alphabet book to demonstrate that Puppy isn’t really poor—in fact he has many playthings at his disposal
- Emma Kate by Patricia Polacco — That adorable Emma Kate has an imaginary friend. They walk to school together every morning and sit together in class. They sleep over at each other’s houses and do their homework side by side. They even have their tonsils out and eat gallons of pink ice cream together. The twist is that the stuffed elephant is imaginary but looks to be inspired by an item in the “real” friend’s possession.
- Green Wilma by Tedd Arnold –Green Wilma is about a girl who wakes up green. Her mother is fussy because she doesn’t feel as thought a green child should go to school. When Wilma gets on the bus the ruckus begins. In art her classmates think its pretty cool to be green. And again more ruckus. She is hungry and finds that flies are what she desires the most. When she spots one on the teachers nose the chase is on. Again, more ruckus. The fly eventually leads her to Millers pond. She jumps in after it and comes face to face with a hungry fish. She immediately wakes up from her dream and relaizes that she is still a little girl and the entire dream was fantasy.
- Olivia Saves The Circus by Ian Falconer — Olivia is a wonderfully unreliable narrator, and this one is a great example in which Olivia the pig tells a tall story. When all of the performers at the circus are out sick with ear infections, it’s up to Olivia to save the day! That’s no problem for Olivia, of course, because she knows how to do everything. From lion taming to trampoline jumping, unicycling to tight-rope walking, Olivia is the ultimate performer (according to Olivia). Olivia is supposed to be telling her classmates about her holidays and spins a tale which revolves around her single-pawedly substituting all artists and clowns and animal tamers of a huge circus show, because the entire performing staff suffered from an ear inflammation and – certainly – because Olivia already knew how to do these things.
- When I Went To The Library
- Make Way For Ducklings by Robert McCloskey — “Some of the purest examples of irony are found in children’s literature, which often needs to allow a child— or the child’s proxy, an animal — to see the world through limited eyes, while alerting the older reader to this limitation. In Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings, Mr. and Mrs. Mallard are trying out the Boston Public Garden for their new home, when a swan boat (a boat made to look like a swan but actually powered by a pedal-pushing human pilot) passes them. Mr. Mallard has never seen anything like this before. McCloskey falls naturally into free indirect style: “Just as they were getting ready to start on their way, a strange enormous bird came by. It was pushing a boat full of people, and there was a man sitting on its back. ‘Good morning,’ quacked Mr. Mallard, being polite. The big bird was too proud to answer.” Instead of telling us that Mr. Mallard could make no sense of the swan boat, McCloskey places us in Mr. Mallard’s confusion; yet the confusion is obvious enough that a broad ironic gap opens between Mr. Mallard and the reader (or author). We are not confused in the same way as Mr. Mallard; but we are also being made to inhabit Mr. Mallard’s confusion.
Examples Of Unreliable Narration From MG Fiction
Probably because truthful children of this age are upheld as morally better people, unreliable narrators in middle grade stories are a bit harder to find. I’m sure it’s to do with the lack of pictures, too. The ironic distance between text and pictures creates unreliable in picture books, whereas the pictures in ‘illustrated books’ serve to help reading comprehension.
Story Of The Treasure-Seekers by E. Nesbit
Moominpappa’s Memoirs by Tove Jansson
Diary Of A Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney — Greg is an unreliable narrator as well as not a great role model. This is attractive to kids. Greg is similar to Bart Simpson or Dennis the Menace in that young readers know exactly what Greg is meant to be. They’re not going to hold him up as a role model. (That said, my daughter has tried to get away with things because Greg does them!)
Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made by Stephen Pastis, in the Wimpy Kid tradition
Millicent Mee, Girl Genius — the Asian-American female version of Timmy Failure
Liar and Spy by Rebecca Stead
Fortunately, The Milk by Neil Gaiman — a father goes out for milk. When he arrives home he spins a tall story for his children about what happened while he was out.
Examples Of Unreliable Narration From Film
- The Usual Suspects
- American Psycho by Brett Easton Ellis — Patrick Bateman is a psychopath living the high life in 1980s Manhattan. He is also a murderer who tortures and rapes. But when Bateman tries to confess to these crimes, he is told he didn’t commit any. So is he a psychopath or does he have some sort of schizophrenic disorder?
- Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk — later adapted for film. This is one of those stories that can definitely be ruined because the reversal is massive. We eventually realize that Durden isn’t our narrator’s new best friend — he’s his cooler, crazier alter-ego.
- The Killer Inside Me directed by Michael Winterbottom was widely panned by critics for its almost unbearable violence against women. You see the main man violently abusing women, then the women would turn around and smile and seem to want it. For people who already have enough violence in their real life, this is indeed unwatchable. For those who can make it to the end of the film, it turns out to have an anti-violence message, because we learn that the violent killer has only been imagining in his own mind that the women are somehow enjoying his violence. This film is an interesting study into how much a writer can or can’t get away with when trying to write a story ‘against’ something, but for most of the story seems to be ‘for’ it.
- The Sixth Sense
- From Goth Girl to Gone Girl: Unreliable Narrators in Literature from Bookish
Examples Of Unreliable Narration In Novels For YA And Older
- The Turn Of The Screw by Henry James — The reader doesn’t know if this is a ghost story or not. The story is the self-reported manuscript of a governess who comes to take care of two orphans, Miles and Flora, at a country house in Essex. After she arrives at the estate, the governess encounters the ghosts of two former employees who have died. She’s the only person who can see the ghosts, but she’s convinced that they’re real. Is this a ghost story or a portrait of a woman’s mental breakdown? This trick whereby the reader isn’t sure if a character is a ghost or not was used by Robert Cormier many years later in In The Middle Of The Night.
- Here Lies Daniel Tate — Daniel is a magnetic, talented, and desperate con artist who has stumbled into the scam of a lifetime. Assuming the identity of long missing boy, Daniel Tate, he is no longer at the mercy of the foster care system, and gains the security of a home and a family that loves him. But he soon discovers his new home is more sinister than it seemed on the surface…and the Daniel he has replaced might not be missing at all.
- Lolita — Can make the reader feel empathy for a pedophile, which makes us examine how much of Humbert Humbert is inside us, and also makes us realise that even badly behaved people are not all bad. People who do bad things are not monsters — they walk among us.
- Life of Pi by Yann Martel — Is Pi adrift on a lifeboat with those animals or is he stranded with other humans, with the animals being allegory?
- The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin — the female narrator has PTSD after a car accident that killed all her friends.
- Liar by Justine Larbalestier — it’s right there in the title.
- The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger
- Atonement by Ian McEwan — Briony Tallis is unreliable because she is only 13 years old and doesn’t understand how the world works.
- Dangerous Girls by Abigail Haas
- If You Come Softly by Jacqueline Woodson
- Dead To You by Lisa McMann
- Perks Of Being A Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
- We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
- Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn — Amy and Nick Dunne is an example of not one but two unreliable narrators. The stand out example of modern unreliable narration.
- The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins — the other standout adult psychological suspense novel of our time.
- In A Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware
- The Woman In Cabin 10, also by Ruth Ware
- The Widow’s House by Clare Goodman — a couple moves into a deteriorating estate in the Hudson Valley, hoping to revitalize their marriage and careers. However, shortly after moving in, the wife, Clare, begins having visions of strangers walking their property and she starts to hear wailing. Could the house be haunted, or is it all in Clare’s mind?
- The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz — Oscar De León is an overweight, sci-fi loving Dominican kid growing up in Paterson, New Jersey. But the narrator is his best friend, Yunior de las Casas. Yunior acts as an omniscient narrator, populating the story with details that he couldn’t have known and admitting that he changed some names between “drafts.”
- Notes On A Scandal by Zoe Heller — Barbara Covett is a lonely history teacher who jumps at the chance to be friends with Sheba, the new art teacher at her school. Barbara falls in love with Sheba but Sheba is heterosexual and not interested. Feeling rejected, this affects Barbara’s ability to remove herself from the situation and report reliably. Barbara paints Sheba as manipulative, but we eventually realise Barbara is her equal in that characteristic.
- The Remains Of The Day by Kazuo Ishiguro — Stevens is the head butler of Darlington Hall. He is loyal, precise and hard-working but his blindness to the world is a brilliant example of dramatic irony. He can’t see the slow demise of the great house where he works. Nor can he acknowledge his feelings for a fellow servant.