In the vast realm of fiction, one narrative technique that continues to captivate readers and challenge their perceptions is the concept of the unreliable narrator.
The unreliable narrator, a complex and often enigmatic character, serves as the lens through which a story is told, but their unreliability adds an intriguing layer of uncertainty and ambiguity to the narrative.
From classic works to contemporary masterpieces, these unreliable narrators have left an indelible mark on the literary landscape, forcing readers to question the very nature of truth, perception, and the reliability of storytelling.
In this article we explore 11 of the most compelling examples of unreliable narrators in fiction, where truth and deception intertwine to create unforgettable storytelling experiences.
What is an unreliable narrator?
An unreliable narrator is characterized by their tendency to distort or manipulate the truth, either intentionally or unknowingly.
They may be driven by personal biases, mental instability, flawed memories, or a desire to deceive the reader.
Through their subjective viewpoint, they present events, characters, and their own thoughts and emotions in a manner that is skewed, inconsistent, or contradictory.
As a result, readers are left to navigate a labyrinth of uncertainty, forced to decipher hidden truths and grapple with the unreliability of the narrator’s account.
The Origins and Evolution of the Unreliable Narrator: A Deep Dive into a Complex Narrative Device
The device of the unreliable narrator, though prominent in contemporary literature and film, has deep roots in the soil of storytelling history. Its emergence and evolution can be traced back through centuries, to a time when narratives began to grapple with the subjectivity of human experience.
One of the earliest seeds of this narrative style can be found in ancient Greek drama. In Euripides’s “The Bacchae,” the God Dionysus narrates parts of the play, but his intentions and perspective are shrouded in ambiguity, suggesting the theme of unreliable narration. However, it wasn’t until the advent of modernity that this storytelling device was fully realized and effectively utilized in narrative form.
The birth of the modern novel in the 18th century provided fertile ground for the development of the unreliable narrator. The rise of first-person narratives created a direct link between narrator and character, resulting in narratives where the protagonist’s perception significantly colored the story. Laurence Sterne’s “Tristram Shandy” and Daniel Defoe’s “Moll Flanders” are early examples of works that hint at the narrator’s unreliability, as the eponymous characters’ versions of events sometimes veer into the realm of the implausible or are contradicted by other characters.
In the 19th century, literary works started exploring the human psyche more profoundly. Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” offers a clear-cut example of an unreliable narrator, with the protagonist clearly driven by insanity, thus making his recounting of the murder he committed suspect. This exploration of mental states, delusion, and self-deception became a common theme in narratives employing unreliable narrators.
With the arrival of the 20th century, the unreliable narrator became a prominent feature in modernist literature. Notable examples include Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “Notes from Underground” and Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw.” In Dostoevsky’s work, the unnamed narrator freely admits his irrational nature, casting a pall of uncertainty over the entire narrative. Similarly, in James’s novella, the governess’s account of ghostly encounters is rife with ambiguity, leaving readers to question her mental stability and, consequently, the veracity of her narrative.
Stream-of-consciousness writing in the early 20th century, as pioneered by authors like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, took this further by intimately linking the narration to the character’s consciousness, which was subject to change, fallibility, and misperception. These narratives rendered the line between reality and perception ever more blurred.
The postmodern era saw authors using unreliable narrators to comment on the subjective nature of truth and the limitations of language. Novels like Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita” and Kazuo Ishiguro’s “The Remains of the Day” use unreliable narrators to mask the truth, leading readers to question their assumptions and prejudices.
From ancient Greece to postmodernist literature, the unreliable narrator has evolved and grown more complex, reflecting broader changes in society’s understanding of the self, reality, and the nature of storytelling.
While the origins of the unreliable narrator are multi-faceted and rooted in various literary traditions, its significant prominence in the 20th century marked a key shift in narrative strategies, highlighting the complexity of human perception and the inherent subjectivity of truth.
Psychology of the unreliable narrator
One of the most intriguing aspects of unreliable narrators is their psychological dimension.
Whether grappling with mental illness, trauma, or hidden motivations, these narrators offer a unique exploration of the human psyche.
Their unreliability serves as a mirror, reflecting the complexities of the human mind and its capacity for self-deception and rationalization.
By immersing readers in the subjective experiences of these narrators, authors shed light on the intricate interplay between truth, memory, and personal bias.
Unreliable narrators have the power to captivate readers, challenge their perceptions, and leave them questioning the very fabric of the story.
These narrators lead us through twisted plots, deceiving us at every turn, and leaving us to unravel the truth.
Join us as we explore 11 remarkable examples that demonstrate the power of unreliable narration, engaging us in a dance of deception and revelation that lingers in our minds long after we finish reading.
Humbert Humbert – Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Humbert Humbert’s narrative in “Lolita” is a masterclass in unreliable narration.
Humbert, a highly intelligent and articulate man, is the protagonist of Nabokov’s controversial masterpiece, presenting a distorted perspective on his obsession with a 12-year-old girl named Dolores Haze, whom he calls Lolita.
Humbert presents his story as a memoir, recounting his illicit relationship with Lolita and the events that follow. He portrays himself as a sympathetic, misunderstood character, but his pedophilic desires and distorted perspective make readers question everything he says.
Humbert selectively presents the events and details that support his perspective, omitting information that could challenge his portrayal of the relationship.
He controls the narrative, deciding what to include and what to omit, shaping the reader’s understanding of the story.
He justifies his actions, making the reader question their own moral compass and empathize with a deeply flawed character.
Patrick Bateman – American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
Patrick Bateman, the wealthy and seemingly successful investment banker, narrates his violent and psychotic tendencies.
Ellis skillfully blurs the line between Bateman’s reality and delusion, leaving readers to question whether the horrors he describes are real or figments of his imagination.
Bateman’s fixation on surface-level details, such as brand names, fashion, and social status, is reflected in his narration.
This excessive focus on superficiality calls into question the reliability of his observations, as it suggests that his priorities and perception are skewed.
It challenges readers to question the truthfulness of Bateman’s perspective while navigating between reality and the protagonist’s twisted imagination.
The narrative presents conflicting details and contradictory accounts, leaving the reader uncertain about the authenticity of Bateman’s experiences.
Chief Bromden – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
Chief Bromden, a patient in a mental institution, suffers from severe paranoid schizophrenia, and serves as the narrator of this powerful novel.
This condition affects his perception of the world around him, making it difficult for the reader to determine what is real and what is a product of his delusions.
Kesey creates a narrative that challenges the reader’s understanding of reality and truth where Bromden’s hallucinations and distorted perceptions blur the line between what is happening in reality and what is happening in his own mind.
As the story unfolds, readers discover the extent to which Bromden’s mental state influences his perception of events, highlighting the theme of sanity and the struggle against oppressive institutions.
Amy Dunne – Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
In this psychological thriller, Flynn employs a dual-narrator structure, alternating between the voices of the husband and wife, Nick and Amy Dunne.
The narrative presents contrasting accounts of their marriage and the events surrounding Amy’s disappearance.
Their versions of events often contradict each other, leaving the reader uncertain about what is true or who to believe.
As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Amy is a master manipulator, toying with both the characters within the novel and the readers themselves.
The novel stands out as an example of an unreliable narrator due to its skillful use of contrasting perspectives, deceptive storytelling, hidden motives, complex characterizations, unexpected twists, and psychological manipulation.
Holden Caulfield – The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
Holden Caulfield’s narration embodies teenage angst and rebellion.
However, as readers delve deeper into his thoughts and actions, they realize that Holden’s perspective may not be entirely reliable, raising questions about the reliability of adolescent perception.
Salinger deliberately creates a narrative that challenges the reader’s trust in the narrator’s reliability.
This technique allows for a deeper exploration of themes such as alienation, identity, and the complex nature of reality.
Verbal Kint – The Usual Suspects by Bryan Singer
Verbal Kint narrates an intricate crime story to the police.
Kint, portrayed by Kevin Spacey, serves as the storyteller and central narrator of the film.
From the beginning, he establishes himself as an unassuming, physically disabled individual, which creates a perception of vulnerability and sympathy.
However, as the film progresses, doubts emerge regarding Verbal’s reliability, leading viewers to question his honesty and integrity.
Throughout the film, the audience is taken on a twisted journey and the film’s manipulation of perspective, non-linear storytelling, and ultimate plot twist make it a compelling example of this narrative device.
Briony Tallis – Atonement by Ian McEwan
Briony Tallis, a young aspiring writer, misinterprets and alters events, leading to severe consequences.
Briony’s narration is heavily influenced by her personal experiences, emotions, and desires.
She holds a biased perspective, particularly towards Robbie Turner, whom she falsely accuses of a crime.
Her deep-seated jealousy and romantic feelings towards Robbie color her perception of events, leading her to misinterpret his actions and motivations.
As the story progresses, the readers gain access to the perspectives of other characters, challenging Briony’s version of events.
These shifts expose Briony’s limitations and reveal the discrepancies between her perception and the objective reality.
McEwan masterfully explores the unreliability of memory and the subjectivity of truth, challenging readers to question the authenticity of narrative perspectives.
Pi Patel – Life of Pi by Yann Martel
The protagonist, Pi Patel, tells two different versions of his journey.
The first version involves him surviving on a lifeboat with a zebra, orangutan, hyena, and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.
However, this story seems implausible and hard to believe. In the second version, Pi recounts a much more realistic and brutal version of events, where the animals are replaced by humans, including Pi himself resorting to violence.
As readers immerse themselves in Pi’s fantastical narrative, they are left pondering whether his version of events is a coping mechanism or a legitimate retelling of a miraculous journey.
Pi himself acknowledges this when he asks which version of his story the writer prefers.
The book invites readers to consider the role of imagination, faith, and perception in shaping the narratives we construct about our lives.
The Unnamed Narrator – Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
The unnamed narrator, suffering from insomnia and disillusionment, spirals into a world of violence and chaos.
Palahniuk’s narrator gradually reveals his fractured mental state, and he frequently experiences hallucinations and distorted perceptions of reality.
These hallucinations often involve interactions and conversations with his alter ego, Tyler Durden, blurring the line between what is real and what is imagined.
The Narrator is unaware of his split personality for a significant portion of the story, and this lack of self-awareness raises doubts about the reliability of his narration.
The story deliberately blurs the line between reality and the protagonist’s subjective experiences, making the reader question the nature of their own existence.
Nick Carraway – The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s magnum opus, “The Great Gatsby,” provides a profound illustration of an unreliable narrator.
The novel is narrated through the eyes of Nick Carraway, a bondsman who moves to the East Coast and becomes entangled in a web of opulence, deceit, and unrequited love. However, Nick’s perspective on the characters and events is distinctly subjective and proves to be the catalyst for some of the book’s most intricate elements of interpretation.
While Nick is not deceptive in a traditional sense—there is no twist at the end revealing that he has lied to us—he is undoubtedly biased.
His fascination with Jay Gatsby, the eponymous character, borders on romantic obsession. This affects how the story unfolds, leading readers to question the truth of Nick’s characterizations. After all, can we entirely trust a man who, despite acknowledging the follies of Gatsby’s relentless pursuit of the past, continues to paint him in a positive light, even describing him as “great”?
Nick’s unreliability also stems from his self-identification as “one of the few honest people” he has ever known.
While on one hand, this statement makes the reader want to trust him, it simultaneously makes one wary of his potential self-deception and resultant bias.
There is also an interesting contrast between his claimed honesty and his participation in the morally ambiguous world of the East Coast elite, further adding layers of doubt to his credibility.
Moreover, Nick’s views on the other characters such as Daisy, Tom, and Jordan are colored by his moral judgments and personal involvement in the events. These factors, coupled with the prevalent themes of illusion versus reality in the novel, intensify the feeling of uncertainty. Nick’s subjective descriptions contribute to the novel’s poignant and elusive qualities, as the reader is left to filter truth from the embellishments of his narrative.
“The Great Gatsby” exemplifies the power of the unreliable narrator.
The narrative device does not just add complexity to the novel but forms the backbone of its themes, encapsulating the decadence, idealism, and social stratification of 1920s America through a lens of personal subjectivity.
Fitzgerald’s use of an unreliable narrator deepens our understanding of the novel, pushing readers to examine the narrative and its characters more critically and thoughtfully.
The subjectivity of Nick Carraway, far from undermining the story, instead elevates it into a multi-layered exploration of perception and reality.
Teddy Daniels – Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane
“Shutter Island,” penned by Dennis Lehane and later adapted into a film by Martin Scorsese, presents a different breed of unreliable narrator, demonstrating how the stability of a narrator’s mental state can directly influence the reality perceived by the reader or viewer.
The narrative is centered around U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels, played by Leonardo DiCaprio in the film, who arrives at Shutter Island with his partner Chuck to investigate the disappearance of a patient from a heavily-guarded asylum.
In both the novel and the movie, Teddy is established as a reliable figure initially – a law enforcement official tasked with uncovering a mystery. Yet, as the narrative unravels, a series of disturbing dreams, incongruities, and disorienting incidents cast doubt on Teddy’s reliability. It becomes increasingly apparent that his perception of the world may not align with reality, forcing the audience to question the truth of his experiences and statements.
The cinematic adaptation adds a visual layer to the theme of unreliability. Scorsese uses subtle and not-so-subtle film techniques such as odd camera angles, eerie lighting, and abrupt scene changes to convey Teddy’s disintegrating mental state, making the film version of the story more visually disorienting and adding to the unreliable narrative.
In both versions, the climax throws Teddy’s reliability into complete chaos. It reveals that Teddy is actually Andrew Laeddis, a patient at the asylum, who had been living a delusional fantasy to escape the guilt of his wife’s death and his role in it. This twist fundamentally reshapes our understanding of the story, revealing that most of what we’ve been told is a figment of Teddy/Andrew’s damaged psyche.
The events and characters he interacts with – from his partner Chuck to the patient he is investigating – are reframed as parts of an elaborate therapeutic role-play designed by the hospital staff to shock him back into reality. This revelation raises questions about the entire narrative that preceded it, prompting a reevaluation of every piece of information provided by Teddy/Andrew.
“Shutter Island,” in both its versions, leverages the unreliable narrator to create a narrative of escalating tension and mystery. The story masterfully interweaves Teddy’s delusions with reality, leaving readers and viewers uncertain and disoriented.
This psychological thriller exemplifies how a narrator’s mental state, interwoven with plot development, can manipulate audience perception, delivering a dramatic exploration of guilt, denial, and the human capacity for self-deception.
Engaging with a narrative featuring an unreliable narrator requires readers to adopt an active role, becoming detectives searching for hidden clues and multiple layers of meaning.
We must question and analyze the narrator’s motives, evaluate their credibility, and piece together the fragments of the story to construct our own version of the truth.
This interactive process deepens our engagement with the text, provokes introspection, and challenges our preconceived notions of storytelling.
While unreliable narrators offer a captivating reading experience, they also raise ethical questions. By immersing readers in a narrative crafted by an untrustworthy source, authors force us to confront our own gullibility and susceptibility to manipulation.
This raises important considerations about the responsibility of authors in crafting narratives that might deceive or exploit readers, blurring the line between entertainment and ethical boundaries.
Unreliable narrators bring a unique and intriguing dynamic to fiction, challenging readers to question the veracity of the story they are being told.
From pedophiles to psychopaths, from unreliable memories to deliberate deception, these 11 examples of unreliable narrators in fiction prove that the boundaries between truth and lies can be both fascinating and unsettling.
So, next time you delve into a gripping narrative, keep an eye out for the unreliable narrator lurking between the lines.