An unreliable narrator is a narrator, whether in literature, film, or theatre, whose credibility has been seriously compromised. The term was coined in 1961 by Wayne C. Booth in The Rhetoric of Fiction. While unreliable narrators are almost by definition first-person narrators, arguments have been made for the existence of unreliable second- and third-person narrators, especially within the context of film and television.
Sometimes the narrator's unreliability is made immediately evident. 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 the character's unreliability. A more dramatic use of the device delays the revelation until near the story's end. This twist ending forces readers to reconsider their point of view and experience of the story. In some cases the narrator's unreliability is never fully revealed but only hinted at, leaving readers to wonder how much the narrator should be trusted and how the story should be interpreted.
Attempts have been made at a classification of unreliable narrators. William Riggan analysed in his study discernible types of unreliable narrators, focusing on the first-person narrator as this is the most common kind of unreliable narration. Adapted from his findings is the following list:
- The Pícaro: a narrator who is characterized by exaggeration and bragging, the first example probably being the soldier in Plautus's comedy Miles Gloriosus.
- The Madman: A narrator who is either only experiencing mental defense mechanisms, such as (post-traumatic) dissociation and self-alienation, or severe mental illness, such as schizophrenia or paranoia.
- Examples include Franz Kafka's self-alienating narrators, Noir fiction and Hardboiled fiction's "tough" (cynical) narrator who unreliably describes his own emotions, Barbara Covett in Notes on a Scandal, and Patrick Bateman in American Psycho.
- The Clown: A narrator who does not take narrations seriously and consciously plays with conventions, truth, and the reader's expectations.
- The Naïf: A narrator whose perception is immature or limited through their point of view.
- The Liar: A mature narrator of sound cognition who deliberately misrepresents themselves, often to obscure their unseemly or discreditable past conduct.
This typology is surely not exhaustive and cannot claim to cover the whole spectrum of unreliable narration in its entirety or even only the first-person narrator. Further research in this area has been called for.
It also still remains a matter of debate whether and how a non-first-person narrator can be unreliable, though the deliberate restriction of information to the audience—for example in the three interweaving plays in Alan Ayckbourn's The Norman Conquests, each of which shows the action taking place only in one of three locations during the course of a weekend—can provide instances of unreliable narrative, even if not necessarily of an unreliable narrator.
Definitions and theoretical approaches
Wayne C. Booth was the earliest who formulated a reader-centered approach to unreliable narration and distinguished between a reliable and unreliable narrator on the grounds of whether the narrator's speech violates or conforms with general norms and values. He writes, "I have called a narrator reliable when he speaks for or acts in accordance with the norms of the work (which is to say the implied author's norms), unreliable when he does not." Peter J. Rabinowitz criticized Booth's definition for relying too much on the extradiegetic facts such as norms and ethics, which must necessarily be tainted by personal opinion. He consequently modified the approach to unreliable narration.
There are unreliable narrators (c.f. Booth). An unreliable narrator however, is not simply a narrator who 'does not tell the truth' – what fictional narrator ever tells the literal truth? Rather an unreliable narrator is one who tells lies, conceals information, misjudges with respect to the narrative audience – that is, one whose statements are untrue not by the standards of the real world or of the authorial audience but by the standards of his own narrative audience. […] In other words, all fictional narrators are false in that they are imitations. But some are imitations who tell the truth, some of people who lie.
Rabinowitz' main focus is the status of fictional discourse in opposition to factuality. He debates the issues of truth in fiction, bringing forward four types of audience who serve as receptors of any given literary work:
- "Actual audience" (= the flesh-and-blood people who read the book)
- "Authorial audience" (= hypothetical audience to whom the author addresses his text)
- "Narrative audience" (= imitation audience which also possesses particular knowledge)
- "Ideal narrative audience" (= uncritical audience who accepts what the narrator is saying)
Rabinowitz suggests that "In the proper reading of a novel, then, events which are portrayed must be treated as both 'true' and 'untrue' at the same time. Although there are many ways to understand this duality, I propose to analyze the four audiences which it generates." Similarly, Tamar Yacobi has proposed a model of five criteria ('integrating mechanisms') which determine if a narrator is unreliable. Instead of relying on the device of the implied author and a text-centered analysis of unreliable narration, Ansgar Nünning gives evidence that narrative unreliability can be reconceptualized in the context of frame theory and of readers' cognitive strategies.
[…] to determine a narrator's unreliability one need not rely merely on intuitive judgments. It is neither the reader's intuitions nor the implied author's norms and values that provide the clue to a narrator's unreliability, but a broad range of definable signals. These include both textual data and the reader's preexisting conceptual knowledge of the world. In sum whether a narrator is called unreliable or not does not depend on the distance between the norms and values of the narrator and those of the implied author but between the distance that separates the narrator's view of the world from the reader's world-model and standards of normality.
Unreliable Narration in this view becomes purely a reader's strategy of making sense of a text, i.e. of reconciling discrepancies in the narrator's account (cf. signals of unreliable narration). Nünning thus effectively eliminates the reliance on value judgments and moral codes which are always tainted by personal outlook and taste. Greta Olson recently debated both Nünning's and Booth's models, revealing discrepancies in their respective views.
[…] Booth's text-immanent model of narrator unreliability has been criticized by Ansgar Nünning for disregarding the reader's role in the perception of reliability and for relying on the insufficiently defined concept of the implied author. Nünning updates Booth's work with a cognitive theory of unreliability that rests on the reader's values and her sense that a discrepancy exists between the narrator's statements and perceptions and other information given by the text.
and offers "[…] an update of Booth's model by making his implicit differentiation between fallible and untrustworthy narrators explicit." Olson then argues "[…] that these two types of narrators elicit different responses in readers and are best described using scales for fallibility and untrustworthiness." She proffers that all fictional texts that employ the device of unreliability can best be considered along a spectrum of fallibility that begins with trustworthiness and ends with unreliability. This model allows for all shades of grey in between the poles of trustworthiness and unreliability. It is consequently up to each individual reader to determine the credibility of a narrator in a fictional text.
Signals of unreliable narration
Whichever definition of unreliability one follows, there are a number of signs that constitute or at least hint at a narrator's unreliability. Nünning has suggested to divide these signals into three broad categories.
- Intratextual signs such as the narrator contradicting himself, having gaps in memory, or lying to other characters
- Extratextual signs such as contradicting the reader's general world knowledge or impossibilities (within the parameters of logic)
- Reader's literary competence. This includes the reader's knowledge about literary types (e.g. stock characters that reappear over centuries), knowledge about literary genres and its conventions or stylistic devices
One of the earliest uses of unreliability in literature is in The Frogs by Aristophanes. After the god Dionysus claims to have sunk 12 or 13 enemy ships with Cleisthenes, his slave Xanthias says "Then I woke up." A more well-known version is in Plautus' comedy Miles Gloriosus (3rd–2nd centuries BC), which features a soldier who constantly embellishes his accomplishments while his slave Artotrogus, in asides, claims the stories are untrue and he is only backing them up to get fed. The literary device of the "unreliable narrator" was used in several medieval fictional Arabic tales of the One Thousand and One Nights, also known as the Arabian Nights. In one tale, "The Seven Viziers", a courtesan accuses a king's son of having assaulted her, when in reality she had failed to seduce him (inspired by the Biblical/Qur'anic story of Joseph/Yusuf. Seven viziers attempt to save his life by narrating seven stories to prove the unreliability of the courtesan, and the courtesan responds by narrating a story to prove the unreliability of the viziers. The unreliable narrator device is also used to generate suspense in another Arabian Nights tale, "The Three Apples", an early murder mystery. At one point of the story, two men claim to be the murderer, one of whom is revealed to be lying. At another point in the story, in a flashback showing the reasons for the murder, it is revealed that an unreliable narrator convinced the man of his wife's infidelity, thus leading to her murder.
Another early example of unreliable narration is Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. In "The Merchant's Tale" for example, the narrator, being unhappy in his marriage, allows his bias to slant much of his tale. In The Wife of Bath, the Wife often makes inaccurate quotations and incorrectly remembers stories.
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. Christie used the concept again in her 1967 novel Endless Night. The same technique was employed (baldly) in William Makepeace Thackeray's 1847–8 serial and novel Vanity Fair—one of the few examples of an unreliable authorial narrator in the English novel—where he admits passing over the worst of Becky's misdeeds in silence while providing enough allusions and clues (including in the content and captions of the illustrations, also done by Thackeray) to show the way to those interested in them; even their accuracy, however, is made dubious by his admission that he learned the story second-hand from the diplomat Tapeworm. The Norwegian crime writer Sven Elvestad's 1909 The Iron Wagon is another early example of the trope.
Similar unreliable narrators often appear in detective novels and thrillers, where even a first-person narrator might hide essential information and deliberately mislead the reader in order to preserve the surprise ending. In some cases, the narrator describes himself or herself as doing things which seem questionable or discreditable, only to reveal in the end that such actions were not what they seemed (e.g. Alistair MacLean's "The Golden Rendezvous" and John Grisham's "The Racketeer"). Crime novelist Jim Thompson used the device of a narrator who is belatedly revealed to be psychotic and possibly delusional repeatedly in his books, most notably The Killer Inside Me, Savage Night, A Hell of a Woman, and Pop. 1280.
Many novels are narrated by children, whose inexperience can impair their judgment and make them unreliable. In Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), Huck's innocence leads him to make overly charitable judgments about the characters in the novel.
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 main character Leland and Hank Stamper. Many of Susan Howatch's novels similarly use 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 him or her to perceive shared experiences differently.
Humbert Humbert, the main character and narrator of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, often tells the story in such a way as to justify his hebephilic fixation on young girls, in particular his sexual relationship with his 12-year-old stepdaughter. Similarly, the narrator of A. M. Homes' The End of Alice deliberately withholds the full story of the crime that put him in prison—the rape and subsequent murder of a young girl—until the end of the novel.
In some instances, unreliable narration can bring about the fantastic in works of fiction. In Kingsley Amis' 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. An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears also employs several points of view from narrators whose accounts are found to be unreliable and in conflict with each other.
Zeno Cosini, the narrator of Italo Svevo's Zeno's Conscience, is a typical example of unreliable narrator: in fact the novel is presented as a diary of Zeno himself, who unintentionally distorts the facts to justify his faults. His psychiatrist, who publishes the diary, claims in the introduction that it's a mix of truths and lies.
Pi Patel, the narrator of Yann Martel's Life of Pi, published in 2001, is another example of an unreliable narrator. After spending many days adrift at sea, he describes several fanciful events and tells his rescuers that his lifeboat was shared by a zebra, an orangutan, a hyena (which killed the zebra and orangutan) and a Bengal tiger (which killed the hyena). When they question his story, he provides an alternate, darker, but more believable recounting of events, in which a sailor and his mother are murdered by a cannibalistic ship's cook, who Pi then kills and eats to survive. The rescuers notice the parallels between the people and the animals, with the zebra representing the sailor, the orangutan representing Pi's mother, the hyena representing the cook, and the tiger representing Pi himself. When Pi points out that neither story is provable and that neither story changes the outcome (the ship has sunk, and his family has died), the rescuers choose to believe the story featuring the animals, because it is a better story.
One of the earliest examples of the use of an unreliable narrator in film is the German expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, from 1920. In this film, an epilogue to the main story is a twist ending revealing that Francis, through whose eyes we see the action, is a patient in an insane asylum, and the flashback which forms the majority of the film is simply his mental delusion.
In Possessed (1947), Joan Crawford plays a woman who is taken to a psychiatric hospital in a state of shock. She gradually tells the story of how she came to be there to her doctors, which is related to the audience in flashbacks, some of which are later revealed to be hallucinations or distorted by paranoia.
In Rashômon (1950), a Japanese crime drama film directed by Akira Kurosawa, adapted from "In a Grove" (1921), 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 died by accident, suicide, or murder. The term "Rashômon effect" is used to describe how different witnesses are able to produce contradictory accounts of the same event, though each version is presented with equal sincerity and each is plausible when considered independently of the others. The film does not select the "authentic" narrator from the differing accounts: at its conclusion, all versions remain equally plausible and equally suspect.
The 1950 Alfred Hitchcock film Stage Fright (1950) uses the device of unreliable narration by presenting the aftermath of a murder in a flashback, as told by the murderer. The details of the flashback provide an explanation which helps convince the innocent main protagonist of the film to help the murderer, believing him innocent.
In the film Forrest Gump (1994), the title character narrates his life story, and in the process naïvely refers to Apple Computer as a "fruit company" while also assuming that sustaining a "million-dollar wound" meant that one would get paid for it. He also states that Jenny's dad treated her well because "he was always kissing and touching her and her sisters."
The 1995 film The Usual Suspects reveals that the narrator had been deceiving another character, and hence the audience, by inventing stories and characters from whole cloth. The character is seen as a weak, humble, and quiet criminal but it is later found by the audience that he is the fabled crime boss Keyser Söze.
In the 1999 film Fight Club, it is revealed that its protagonist the Narrator suffers from dissociative identity disorder and that some events were fabricated, which means only one of the two main protagonists actually exists, as the other is in the Narrator's mind.
In the 2002 film Hero, the protagonist is identified as an unreliable narrator by the antagonist, who responds by constructing his own alternate version of the false story. In the last part of the film, the protagonist tells the real story, which explains his presence in the current situation.
In the 2013 film The Lone Ranger the narrator, Tonto (Johnny Depp), is identified quickly as potentially unreliable by a child attending a 1930s carnival sideshow during extensive questioning about the events leading to the origin of the Wild West character the child emulates. The child is wearing the costume identified with the fictional Western hero of radio, comics, films, and television. The events related by the narrator vaguely follow an alternative version of character development that occurred during its radio dramas and the beginning of its television series, but with novel disclosures of graphic details that occur as a series of flashbacks portraying the elderly Tonto's memories of the events. Along with the child, the audience is left to make their own judgments about the memories of Tonto.
As a framing device on the sitcom How I Met Your Mother, the main character Ted Mosby, in the year 2030, recounts to his son and daughter the events that led him to meeting their mother. Show creator Craig Thomas explicitly said in an 2008 interview that the narrator, "Future Ted" (voiced by Bob Saget), is unreliable.
In the 2014 Showtime series, The Affair, the storyline is set to two independent and overlapping re-tellings of the events surrounding the affair, neither of which are shown to be completely accurate.
In Alan Moore and Brian Bolland's Batman: The Killing Joke, the Joker, who is the villain of the story, reflects on the pitiful life that transformed him into a psychotic murderer. Although the Joker's version of the story is not implausible given overall Joker storylines in the Batman comics, the Joker admits at the end of The Killing Joke that he is uncertain if it is true.
Notable works featuring unreliable narrators
- Martin Amis – Time's Arrow
- Augusto Roa Bastos – I, the Supreme
- Emily Brontë – Wuthering Heights
- Peter Carey – Illywhacker
- Angela Carter – Wise Children
- Geoffrey Chaucer – The Canterbury Tales
- Anton Chekhov - The Shooting Party
- Wilkie Collins – The Moonstone
- Bret Easton Ellis – most prominently American Psycho
- William Faulkner – The Sound and the Fury
- Gillian Flynn – Gone Girl
- F. Scott Fitzgerald – The Great Gatsby
- Ford Madox Ford – The Good Soldier
- Charlotte Perkins Gilman – The Yellow Wallpaper
- Günter Grass – The Tin Drum
- Kazuo Ishiguro – When We Were Orphans
- Henry James – The Turn of the Screw
- James Lasdun – The Horned Man
- Anita Loos – Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
- Vladimir Nabokov – Pale Fire and Lolita
- Chuck Palahniuk – most notably Fight Club
- Mordecai Richler – Barney's Version
- Patrick Rothfuss – The Kingkiller Chronicle
- Salman Rushdie – Midnight's Children
- J. D. Salinger – The Catcher in the Rye
- William Makepeace Thackeray – Vanity Fair & The Luck of Barry Lyndon
- Gene Wolfe – most prominently The Book of the New Sun and The Fifth Head of Cerberus
- Amarcord (1973), directed by Federico Fellini
- Big Fish (2003), directed by Tim Burton
- The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), directed by Robert Wiene
- Fight Club (1999), directed by David Fincher
- Forrest Gump (1994), directed by Robert Zemeckis
- Hero (2002), directed by Zhang Yimou
- Rashomon (1950), directed by Akira Kurosawa
- Laura (1944), directed by Otto Preminger
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- Booth, Wayne C. (1961). The Rhetoric of Fiction. Univ. of Chicago Press. pp. 158–159.
- Riggan, William (1981). Pícaros, Madmen, Naīfs, and Clowns: The Unreliable First-person Narrator. Univ. of Oklahoma Press: Norman. ISBN 0806117141.
- Nünning, Ansgar: "But Why Will You say That I Am mad?" On the Theory, History and Signals of Unreliable Narration in British Fiction, in Arbeiten aus Anglistik und Amerikanistik 22/1 (1997), pp 1 -105.
- Rabinowitz, Peter J.: Truth in Fiction: A Reexamination of Audiences. In: Critical Inquiry. Nr. 1, 1977, S. 121–141.
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- Olson, Greta: Reconsidering Unreliability: Fallible and Untrustworthy Narrators. In: Narrative. Nr. 11, 2003, S. 93–109.
- Nünning, Ansgar (ed.): Unreliable Narration: Studien zur Theorie und Praxis unglaubwürdigen Erzählens in der englischsprachigen Erzählliteratur, Wissenschaftlicher Verlag: Trier (1998).
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- 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 MYSTERY READER reviews: An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears". Themysteryreader.com. Retrieved 13 November 2011.
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- Lehman, David (2000). The Perfect Murder: A Study in Detection (2nd ed.). University of Michigan Press. pp. 221–222. ISBN 978-0-472-08585-9.
[H]e has improvised, spontaneously and with reckless abandon, a coherent, convincing, but false-bottomed narrative to beguile us and deceive his interrogator.
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- Hansen, Per Krogh. "Unreliable Narration in Cinema". University of Southern Denmark.
...[In] the second part of the film a large part of what we hitherto have considered part of the objective perspective (persons, actions, places) are exposed as being mental constructions and projections made by the protagonist...We have not only seen the events from his perspective, but we have seen what he thinks happens.
- Lovece, Frank (2 July 2013). "Film Review: The Lone Ranger". Film Journal International. Retrieved 3 July 2013.
- Ghosh, Korbi. "'How I Met Your Mother's' Craig Thomas on Ted & Barney's Breakup, Eriksen Babies and The Future of Robarn". Zap2It.com. Tribune Media Services, LLC. Retrieved 27 April 2014.
- "'The Affair' is this fall's most compelling puzzle".
- "Hello, Friend". Slate.
But Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek), the brilliant, socially maladjusted, mentally unstable, vigilante hacker at the center of the technologically complex and psychologically searing Mr. Robot, which airs, of all places, on the perpetually milquetoast USA Network, is an unreliable narrator in extremis.
- Leverenz, David (1995). "The Last Real Man in America: From Natty Bumppo to Batman". In Hutner, Gordon. The American Literary History Reader. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 276. ISBN 0-19-509504-9. Retrieved 21 April 2013.
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- Webster, Sarah (2006). "When Writer Becomes Celebrity". Oxonian Review of Books. 5 (2). Retrieved 21 April 2013.
- Ford, Ford Madox (2003). Womack, Kenneth; Baker, William, eds. The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview Press. ISBN 9781551113814. Retrieved 21 April 2013.
- "The Yellow Wallpaper : Gilman's Techniques for Portraying Oppression of Women". articlemyriad.com. Retrieved 15 February 2015.
- Mudge, Alden (September 2000). "Ishiguro takes a literary approach to the detective novel". http://bookpage.com. Retrieved 20 April 2013. External link in
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- "DarkEcho Review: The Horned Man by James Lasdun". Darkecho.com. 3 May 2003. Retrieved 13 November 2011.
- Landay, Lori (1998). Madcaps, Screwballs, and Con Women The Female Trickster in American Culture. University of Pennsylvania Press. p. 200. ISBN 978-0-8122-1651-6. Retrieved 20 April 2013.
- "Dowling on Pale Fire". Rci.rutgers.edu. Retrieved 13 November 2011.
- Shapiro, James (21 December 1997). "The Way He Was – or Was He?". nytimes.com. New York Times. Retrieved 21 April 2013.
- Newsday: "'Barney's Version' of a Colorful Life"
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- "Interview with Gene Wolfe Conducted by Lawrence Person". Home.roadrunner.com. Retrieved 13 November 2011.
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- Church, David, "Remaining Men Together: Fight Club and the (Un)pleasures of Unreliable Narration", Offscreen, Vol. 10, No. 5 (31 May 2006). Retrieved 14 April 2009.
- Healy, Sue. "I, Me, Mine". WordPress.com. Retrieved 10 February 2014.
- "HERO". Montrealfilmjournal.com. Montreal Film Journal. 26 March 2003. Retrieved 13 November 2011.
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