From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
In literature and film, an unreliable narrator (a term coined by Wayne C. Booth in his 1961 book The Rhetoric of Fiction) is a literary device in which the credibility of the narrator is seriously compromised. 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, in which the narrator is credible, but the narrator's words cannot be taken literally. 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.
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 Qur'anic/Biblical story of Yusuf/Joseph). 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 misogynistic bias to slant much of his tale. In "The Wife of Bath", the Wife often makes inaccurate quotations and incorrectly remembers stories.
One of the earliest known examples of unreliable narration is Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. In the Merchant's Tale, the narrator, being unhappy in his marriage, allows his misogynistic bias to slant much of his tale.
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.
Another class of unreliable narrator is one who intentionally attempts to deceive the audience or other characters in the story. One of the earliest examples is Agatha Christie's detective novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, in which the narrator is scrupulously honest in facts revealed but neglects to mention certain key events.
In some cases, as with Vladimir Nabokov's 1962 Pale Fire, the reader is unable to discern among several possible narrators, each with his or her own intrinsically unreliable agenda and bias. This serves to effectively include the reader in the experience of the novel, rather than simply providing a narrative, encouraging independent theories and ultimately furthering a point.
Gene Wolfe could be said to have made the unreliable narrator one of his stylistic signatures. The most famous example is the complicated and self-contradictory autobiography of the Autarch Severian, who claims to possess eidetic memory, in The Book of the New Sun.
Daniel Keyes's Flowers for Algernon has a narrator, Charley, who could also be considered unreliable. Charley is mentally retarded, and his descriptions of events in his life reveal a very limited understanding of events around him. His vocabulary and understanding improve when an experimental treatment radically increase his intelligence, only to decline again in the final section of the novel.
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 film Rashomon (1950), 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 Rashomon effect is used to describe how different witnesses are able to produce differing, yet plausible, accounts of the same event, with equal sincerity.
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 entire story in the film Fight Club (1999) is told by an anonymous narrator who suffers from dissociative identity disorder; the story's events are caused by, and thus filtered through, his mental instability.
At the end of the film The Usual Suspects (1996) the viewer learns that protagonist Verbal Kint's entire convoluted tale, told during a police interrogation and involving many characters and events, is composed from the visual detritus of the office of the very police detective in charge of the interrogation.
The play and film Amadeus is narrated by an elderly Antonio Salieri from an insane asylum, where he claims to have murdered his rival, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. It is left unclear whether the story actually happened, or whether it is the product of Salieri's delusions; this is especially ambiguous, as there is no concrete historical evidence that Salieri killed Mozart.
Works featuring unreliable narrators
- Martin Amis's Time's Arrow
- Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights
- Angela Carter's Wise Children
- Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales
- Ian McEwan's Atonement
- Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone
- Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground
- Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho
- William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury
- F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby
- Ford Madox Ford's "The Good Soldier"
- Kazuo Ishiguro's When We Were Orphans
- James Lasdun's The Horned Man
- Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire
- J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye
- Laurence Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
- Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
- Machado de Assis's Dom Casmurro
- Gene Wolfe's The Fifth Head of Cerberus
- Henry James's "The Turn Of The Screw"
Films with an unreliable point-of-view (or points-of-view):