Unreliable Narrator

6 01 2013

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.  This narrative mode is one that can be developed by an author for a number of reasons, usually to deceive the reader or audience. Most often unreliable narrators are first-person narrators, but sometimes 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 or her 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.

An exception is an event that did not or could not happen, told within the fictionalized historical novelsspeculative fiction, or clearly delineated dream sequences. Narrators describing them are not being considered unreliable.

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. Examples in modern literature are Moll FlandersSimplicius Simplicissimus or Felix Krull.
  • The Madman: A narrator who has severe mental illness such as schizophrenia or paranoia. Examples include Poe’s Montresor in The Cask of Amontillado, Barbara Covett in Notes on a Scandal, or 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. Examples of the type include Tristram Shandy.
  • The Naíf: A narrator whose perception is immature or limited through their point of view. Examples include Huckleberry Finn or Holden Caulfield
  • The Liar: A mature narrator of sound cognition who deliberately misrepresents himself, often to obscure his unseemly or discreditable past conduct. John Dowell in Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier exemplifies this kind of narrator, as does Stevens in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day.

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. A so-called “tough” (cynical) narrator and his self-talk – in which he is unreliably describing his own emotions – is characteristic of Noir fiction and Hardboiled fiction.

It also still remains a matter of debate whether and how a non first-person narrator can be unreliable.

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. “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.[6]

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:

  1. “Actual audience” (= the flesh-and-blood people who read the book)
  2. “Authorial audience” (= hypothetical audience to whom the author addresses their text)
  3. “Narrative audience” (= imitation audience which also possesses particular knowledge)
  4. “Ideal narrative audience” (= uncritical audience who accepts what the author 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.”[7] Similarly, Tamar Yacobi has proposed a model of five criteria (‘integrating mechanisms’) which determine if a narrator is unreliable.[8] 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.

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 Plautus‘ comedy Miles Gloriosus (2–3 century BC), which features a soldier who constantly embellishes his accomplishments. 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 courtesanaccuses 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 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.

Wilkie Collins‘ early detective story The Moonstone (1868) is an early example of the unreliable narrator in crime fiction. The plot of the novel unfolds through several narratives by different characters, which contradict each other and reveal the biases of the narrators. 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.

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 WitchcraftAn 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.

Mike Engleby, the narrator of Sebastian Faulks‘ Engleby, leads the reader to believe a version of events of his life that is shown to be increasingly at odds with reality.

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.

In Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s Batman: The Killing Jokethe Joker, who is the anti-hero 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 storyline in the Batman comics, the Joker admits at the end of The Killing Joke that he himself is uncertain if it is true.

Between his first appearance in 2008 and 2010, the human identity of Red Hulk, a tactically intelligent version of the Hulk, was a source of mystery. In the 2010 book Fall of the Hulks: Gamma, Red Hulk is depicted in flashback to have killed General Thunderbolt Ross at the behest of Bruce Banner (the Hulk’s human identity), with whom he has formed an alliance. However, in the 2010 “World War Hulks” storyline that flashback is revealed to have been false when, during a battle with Red She-Hulk, the Red Hulk reverts to human form, and is revealed to be General Thunderbolt Ross himself.

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