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Unreliable (Narrators) to the Very End

By: Santiago Eastman Herrera




Photo Credits: Unsplash

 
 

One of the benefits of working in a bookstore is getting access to books I’d never think to try. Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita had been on my radar for a while, but it took actually sitting down and reading to understand the possibilities an unreliable narrator can unlock.

 

What is it and where did it come from?

The term for this narration style was first coined in 1961 by Wayne C. Booth, an American literary critic, in his book The Rhetoric of Fiction. The idea gained popularity in the twentieth century, but what falls under the umbrella is still up for debate. Some critics argue that untrustworthy perspectives have been around for hundreds of years, due to their special ability to subvert the reader’s instincts. The playful Wife of Bath in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is a good example, or some characters in Shakespeare’s plays. Unreliable narration adds an extra layer to the story, which pushes the author’s intentions further than a pamphlet or manifesto can. For many characters in classic literature, a large part of what makes them so untrustworthy relies on the morals and social conventions of their culture in a specific time period (in other words, what passes as permissible in London in 1798 won’t ring true for the Southern morays of modern-day Sugarland, Texas). As a result, the way one interprets a narrator’s reliability can change over time, like what happened with the protagonist of The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith. For over a century, Dr. Primrose was seen as a reliable character with “normal” behavior, but as critics began interpreting the novel differently in the twentieth century, Primrose’s values became interpreted as disparate to those of the text. Nowadays, the naïve doctor is seen as a target for the novel’s irony (“Unreliable Narration,” Nünning).


For the most part, unreliable narrators tend to be in the first person, continuously withholding or giving misleading information (or even straight up lying to the reader) to cast doubt on the character’s story (“What is an Unreliable Narrator,” Masterclass). A few obvious signs that you need to take the narrator’s words with a grain of salt includes the narrator contradicting themselves, having gaps in their memory, or even showing how their own logic goes against the logic of the novel’s universe. For example, in “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman or Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood, the main characters are accused of hysteria bending their realities, often going back on previous points they made or acting through a logic of their own that’s not based on anything tangible.


Unreliable narrators are especially useful in genre fiction, as dubious perspectives (whether intentional or not) are a great way to obscure the truth—or at least make it feel uncertain. Many mystery and crime novels use this unreliability to set up shocking revelations and plot twists. For example, many of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories rely on the insanity of the main character to either conceal information until the end or bend the facts towards the character’s bias to make readers more sympathetic to their point of view (like in “The Cask of Amontillado”). By making it so that readers can’t fully trust the narrator’s perspective, authors can engage their audience on a deeper level, forcing them to come to their own conclusions. (Ask anyone who was around when I finally finished Lolita – they’ll tell you the face I was making when I closed the book.)

 

What can you do with one so unreliable?

During my research, I found that these types of narrators can be a way for authors to critique contemporary social conventions. In American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis uses the unreliability of Patrick Bateman to keep the reader on their toes as they try figuring out whether his confessions are trustworthy, but also as a critique of the kind of yuppie banker/stockbroker that worked in Wall Street in the 80s and consumerism culture as a whole (“Q&A: Bret Easton Ellis,” Baker). Bateman is incredibly intelligent: not only able to hold his own during conversations but demonstrate his supposed superiority on any topic—which is part of what makes him so terrifying. His lack of moral compass in normal circumstances makes the plausibility of his crimes that much more real. By the end of the novel, I was left with a sick feeling in my gut and felt forced to decide for myself whether he did everything mentioned or not. I realized just how easy it would be for someone like Bateman to get away with it.

Unreliable narrators can also be used as a way of exploring the idea of metafiction in literature. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn explores a protagonist (Amy) who constantly reinvents her identity, using her manipulative, scheming tricks with those around her to blur the lines between the narrator and the author. In a way, by the narrator departing from reality and creating several alternative ones, Amy uses the power of fiction to her advantage the way an author does when writing stories (thus manipulating not just her loved ones, but the reader as well). In this instance, Amy leaves her role as a main character and strings subjective perceptions into what seems like objective truths, forcing the reader to either suspend their disbelief or question everything she does.


And finally, to go back to Lolita, Nabokov accomplishes both. One of the biggest reasons behind the novel’s infamy is the fact that the main character is a pedophile—to understand Nabokov’s critique of the romance novel, you have to get past the initial shock factor. Humbert Humbert’s almost parodic imitation of the kind of Confessional Writing that was popular in the 50s is central to the climax at the end of the novel. Humbert’s (and Nabokov’s) rhetoric is what makes the book constantly come up in reading circles. To take a note from Wayne C. Booth, the main character is almost able to make a case for himself. His masterful use of objectifying language is so persuasive that Humbert can twist the story enough for people to relate to his feelings of enamoring infatuation and obsession even as he’s describing a twelve-year-old girl. The work becomes a simultaneous critique and the only source of “truth” for Humbert’s universe.


Unreliable narrators are a fascinating choice for potential authors and readers. Executed well, they’re a tool that can offer a deeper understanding of characters or a point of view that an author wants to get across. Whether it’s to throw curve balls and keep the audience guessing, or take a nuanced look at certain aspects of society, unreliable narrators can provide a complex insight that’s just begging for new interpretation.

 

If you’re curious to look for yourself, here are some more well-known examples in different media formats:

Literature:

-       The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

-       Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

-       The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

-       The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

Film:

-       Memento by Christopher Nolan

-       Shutter Island by Martin Scorsese

-       Fight Club by David Fincher

Drama:

-       Othello by Shakespeare (Iago)

-       The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams

Poetry:

-       “My Last Duchess” by Robert Browning

-       (This one is more difficult due to the way poetic speakers work, so good luck)

 

 

Works Cited

Baker, Jeff. “Q&A: Bret Easton Ellis Talks About Writing Novels, Making Movies.” OregonLive, The Oregonian, 7 July 2010, www.oregonlive.com/books/2010/07/qa_bret_easton_ellis_talks_abo.html.


Davison, Neil. “What Is an Unreliable Narrator?” Oregon State University College of Liberal Arts, 23 Sept. 2019, liberalarts.oregonstate.edu/wlf/what-unreliable-narrator.


Muro Llorente, Alicia. “Lie to Me: The Unreliable Narrator as Creator of Identities.” Universidad de La Rioja, Facultad de Letras y de La Educación, 2016, pp. 1–36. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/328163199_Lie_to_Me_The_Unreliable_Narrator_as_Creator_of_Identities.


Nünning, Vera. “Unreliable Narration and the Historical Variability of Values and Norms: The Vicar of Wakefield as a Test Case of a Cultural-Historical Narratology.” Style, vol. 38, no. 2, 2004, pp. 236–52. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5325/style.38.2.236.


Seddon, Holly. “The Unreliable Narrator: All You Need to Know.” Jericho Writers, 21 Sept. 2023, jerichowriters.com/the-unreliable-narrator/.


“What Is an Unreliable Narrator? 4 Ways to Create an Unreliable Narrator in Writing.” MasterClass, 29 Sept. 2021, www.masterclass.com/articles/what-is-an-unreliable-narrator-4-ways-to-create-an-unreliable-narrator-in-writing.

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