Unreliable Narrator

Fight Club

An unreliable narrator is a narrator, whether in literature, film, or theater, whose credibility has been seriously compromised. The term was coined in 1961 by Wayne C. Booth in ‘The Rhetoric of Fiction.’ This narrative mode is one that can be developed by an author for a number of reasons, usually 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 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 some 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’ 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.

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.’

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 them 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 pedophilic 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 of a young girl, and subsequent murder of a man – until the end of the novel.

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.

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. A much more recent film (and play) to use a similar plot device is ‘Amadeus.’ This tale 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.

In ‘Citizen Kane’ (1941), the story of Charles Foster Kane is told by five different acquaintances of his, each with varying opinions of the character. 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.

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. In the 1999 film ‘Fight Club,’ it is revealed that the narrator suffers from multiple personality 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 final episode of ‘M*A*S*H,’ unreliable narration is used to create dramatic effect; Hawkeye Pierce, now a patient of Sidney Freedman in an army mental hospital ward, recounts a traumatic memory of a recent event. In the recounting a key component is substituted with something more innocuous, leaving the viewer wondering why that incident resulted in his mental illness. Later, psychoanalysis with free-association reveals the true memory, which is much more disturbing and can be clearly seen as the cause.


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