An unreliable narrator is a narrator whose credibility is compromised. They can be found in fiction and film, and range from children to mature characters. 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, and sometimes also in literature.
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. In some cases, the reader discovers that in the foregoing narrative, the narrator had concealed or greatly misrepresented vital pieces of information. Such a 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.
ClassificationAttempts have been made at a classification of unreliable narrators. William Riggan analysed in a 1981 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' comedy Miles Gloriosus. Examples in modern literature are Moll Flanders, Simplicius Simplicissimus or Felix Krull.
;The Madman: a narrator who is either only experiencing mental defense mechanisms, such as 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" narrator who unreliably describes his own emotions, Barbara Covett in Notes on a Scandal, Charles Kinbote in Pale Fire, 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. Examples of the type include Tristram Shandy and Bras Cubas.
;The Naïf: a narrator whose perception is immature or limited through their point of view. Examples of naïves include Huckleberry Finn, Holden Caulfield and Forrest Gump.
;The Liar: a mature narrator of sound cognition who deliberately misrepresents themselves, often to obscure their unseemly or discreditable past conduct. John Dowell in Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier exemplifies this kind of narrator.
It 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 can provide instances of unreliable narrative, even if not necessarily of an unreliable narrator. For example, in the three interweaving plays of Alan Ayckbourn's The Norman Conquests, each confines the action to one of three locations during the course of a weekend.
Definitions and theoretical approacheswas the earliest critic to formulate a reader-centered approach to unreliable narration and to distinguish 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, unreliable when he does not." Peter J. Rabinowitz criticized Booth's definition for relying too much on facts external to the narrative, such as norms and ethics, which must necessarily be tainted by personal opinion. He consequently modified the approach to unreliable narration.
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"
- "Authorial audience"
- "Narrative audience"
- "Ideal narrative audience"
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. 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.
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 narrationWhichever 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
- Reader's literary competence. This includes the reader's knowledge about literary types, knowledge about literary genres and its conventions or stylistic devices
Historical occurrencesOne 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, 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. 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 prologue to "The Wife of Bath", the Wife often makes inaccurate quotations and incorrectly remembers stories.
NovelsThe concept of the unreliable narrator is exploited and finessed in the Ryūnosuke Akutagawa short story "In a Grove" . A classic example of conflicting testimonies, Akutagawa deliberately leaves the reader wondering whose perspectives are honest, but misguided, whose are deliberately false to suit their own ends, and whose fall somewhere in between. As such, the unreliablity of narrators is presented as something which can be complex, a facet of human perception, rather than as a single feature of discourse.
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 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 1847–48 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 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. 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, 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 has 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 characters 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.
The technique is often employed by Vladimir Nabokov. Humbert Humbert, the main character and narrator of Nabokov's Lolita, often tells the story in such a way as to justify his hebephilia, in particular his sexual relationship with his 12-year-old stepdaughter. In Nabokov's Pale Fire, the reliability, sanity and intentions of the narrator, Charles Kinbote, is one of the central themes of the novel.
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.
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.
Stephen Fry's 1991 novel The Liar follows the upper-class Englishman Adrian Healey through his years at public school, at Cambridge University, and afterwards. He excels at lying and entire chapters are later revealed to have been fictions.
Pi Patel, the narrator of Yann Martel's 2001 novel Life of Pi, tells two conflicting versions of his story. After spending many days adrift at sea, he recounts a fanciful story in which he shared his lifeboat with a zebra, orangutan, hyena, and tiger. When they question his story, he provides a darker, but more plausible recounting of events, in which a sailor and Pi's mother are murdered by the ship's cook, whom Pi then kills and eats to survive. The rescuers notice that the animals in the first story could be allegories for the people in the second one. Pi points out that neither story is provable and both have the same outcome, and the rescuers choose to believe the story featuring the animals, because it is a "better" story.
In Alberto Manguel's 2008 novel Todos los hombres son mentirosos, tales about the life of a deceased author, Alejandro Bevilacqua, are told by four different acquaintances of his. Both smaller and larger aspects of their stories often contradict each other, and the frame narrative is actually that of a young journalist who tries to deduce the ultimate truth about the life of Bevilacqua, in order to write a book about him.
Iain Pears's historical mystery novel An Instance of the Fingerpost consists of four accounts narrated by diverse 17th Century English characters. One of them begins by boasting to the reader of his great success and his rich and luxurious life, which he describes in detail. In the end, however, it turns out that in fact all his schemes ended in utter and abject failure and that - unable to face that disaster - he had gone mad and was confined in Bedlam, where he lives in complete illusion, unable to comprehend his real situation.
Malcolm Bannister, the protagonist and narrator of John Grisham's novel The Racketeer tells the reader at length of his getting out of prison by providing the FBI with incriminating information about
drug dealer Quinn Rucker - which exposes him to Rucker's revenge and requires him to go into the Witness Protection Program. Only later in the book does it turn out that Bannister had cheated both the FBI and the reader, that in fact Quinn Rucker is Bannister's best friend and that the two of them carefully planned Bannister's "betrayal" of Rucker as part of an elaborate plan, culminating with both of them free and in possession of very much gold.
Jason, the first person narrator of Danny Wallace's novel Charlotte Street, starts off by telling the reader at great length about his being terribly broken up over his girlfriend Sarah having left him and become engaged to another man. When he tells of his work at the Lodnon Today weekly, he gives the clear impression that his contact with Zoe, the paper's editor, is strictly professional. Only more than halfway through the book does Jason revel to the reader that in fact Sarah left him over his having sex with Zoe.
Home by Toni Morrison is a recent example where there are two main perspectives, the narrator and the first person, who tend to contradict one another, while the first person also proves to fail to convey full truths as a product of his failure to remember, while the narrator too fails to do so as a result of not truly knowing all, where their omniscient perspective, is not truly, omniscient.
FilmsOne 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.
The 1945 film noir Detour is told from the perspective of an unreliable protagonist who may be trying to justify his actions.
In Possessed, 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, a Japanese crime drama film directed by Akira Kurosawa, adapted from "In a Grove", 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.
In the film Forrest Gump, the simple-minded title character narrates his life story, demonstrating misunderstandings that are clear to the audience, such as Apple Computer being a "fruit company", and that one would get paid for sustaining a "million-dollar wound". He states that the father of his beloved Jenny treated her well, not understanding that the man's ongoing kissing and touching of her and her sisters was indicative of sexual abuse.
The ending of the 1995 film The Usual Suspects reveals that the narrator had been deceiving another character – and hence the audience – by inventing the events and characters he is describing from whole cloth, and rather than being the weak, humble, and quiet criminal he presents as, is in fact Keyser Söze, the film's fabled crime boss.
In the 1999 film Fight Club, it is revealed that its protagonist the Narrator has 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 2001 film A Beautiful Mind, it is eventually revealed that the protagonist has paranoid schizophrenia, and many of the events he witnessed occurred only in his own 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 2010 film Shutter Island, the viewer is led to believe the protagonist and main character, U.S. Marshall Teddy Daniels, is on a mission to find the person who maliciously set a fire that killed Daniels' wife. At the end of the movie the viewer is left conflicted as they discover Teddy Daniels might be a patient in a mental institution, and the plot of the movie might have been a ploy to get Daniels over his past trauma.
In the 2013 film The Lone Ranger, the narrator Tonto is identified quickly as potentially unreliable by a child attending a 1930s carnival sideshow and questioning him about the origin of the Wild West legend of the Lone Ranger. Tonto's story vaguely follows an alternative version of the story as told in the popular radio dramas and television series, but with novel disclosures of graphic details. Along with the child, the audience is left to make their own judgments about his reliability.
In the 2019 DC Comics film Joker, Arthur Fleck is the central protagonist. Arthur depicts himself as a man who lived a sad life and had episodes in which he had delusions of grandeur. His delusional moments include being in the audience of his favourite late night comedy talk show, being in a relationship with his beautiful neighbour and his belief that he was the result of an affair between his mother and billionaire Thomas Wayne.
TelevisionAs 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 a 2008 interview that the narrator, "Future Ted", is unreliable. This is demonstrated in episodes such as "The Mermaid Theory", in which Future Ted struggles to remember the subject, among other details, of an argument between two characters. In some cases, the unreliability is not Ted's, as he is simply relaying details provided by others; an example appears in "I Heart NJ", when Robin supposedly flips over a car while riding a bike.
The 2012-2015 TNT series Perception featured a protagonist Daniel Pierce, a talented but eccentric neuropsychiatrist with schizophrenia who assists the FBI on some of their most complex cases. Much of the plot tension revolves around the viewer being unsure of whether events are actually happening or are just inside the mind of Daniel Pierce.
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.
The 2015 USA Network series Mr. Robot features an unreliable narrator as the main character and also a plot-device.
The 2015 anime series Gakkougurashi! features the main character Yuki as an unreliable narrator. Despite that a zombie apocalypse happened, she still sees the world as if nothing has happened. This is due to her PTSD and her dissociative disorder.
Critics have claimed that Yuri Katsuki, the title character in the Japanese anime series Yuri on Ice, is an unreliable narrator due to his anxiety.
The FX television series Legion focuses on the mutant David Haller, who suffers from schizophrenia. Haller's fractured psyche acts as a plot-device, warping Haller's view of the world. Creator Noah Hawley described Haller as an unreliable narrator.
The Netflix series You has the unreliable narrator Joe rationalize his relentless stalking of Beck throughout the first season and then of Love throughout the second.
ComicsIn Alan Moore and Brian Bolland's , 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.
Video gamesFinal Fantasy VII has been noted for its use of the unreliable narrator concept with its protagonist, Cloud Strife. Patrick Holleman and Jeremy Parish argue that the interactivity between the player and the protagonist sets Final Fantasy VII apart from films as well as other video games. According to Holleman, "no RPG has ever deliberately betrayed the connection between protagonist and player like FFVII does."
In The Stanley Parable, the unnamed Narrator is unreliable, especially when the player's actions contradict the narrative he presents.
The Beginner's Guide has an unreliable narrator in the form of Davey throughout the game.
features the main protagonist, Silas Green, who retells his stories in a bar but makes occasional mistakes, resulting in changes of environment and enemy type.
Short Stories"The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is an example of a story that is narrated unreliably. The story is told from the point of view of an unnamed woman who is suffering from postpartum depression. Her husband, who also serves as her in-home physician, states that her condition is nothing more than a "temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency." To overcome her depression, her husband prescribes her a regiment of inactivity: she is not to engage herself in anything that might overstimulate her mentally or physically. Unbeknown to her husband, the woman kept a secret journal where she chronicled her feelings of entrapment, her distaste with her situation, and her disgust of her surroundings, particularly emphasizing the yellow wallpaper that surrounds her. Eventually, she writes about her hallucinations of a woman that lurks behind the pattern of the wallpaper. In a fit of delusion, the narrator rips all of the wallpaper off the wall in order to free the woman imprisoned behind it. She then takes up the menial task of pacing around the room, just as the woman in the wallpaper did. Because the narrator's awareness is compromised due to her worsening mental state, her reliability is questionable.
An example of a short story that has an unreliable narrator is "The Tell-Tale Heart" by Edgar Allan Poe. The story is told by a mentally-unstable person who has killed someone. In the beginning of the story, we get the impression that the narrator is not mentally insane, but as the story goes the narrator true mind get revealed whenever he gets paranoid of someone finding out that he murdered someone.
A good example of an unreliable narrator is "Hearts and Hands" by O. Henry. In this story narrator is a con man. Mr. Easton is handcuffed to a man. A woman noticed this as she greets the two men. Mr. Easton tell her that he is marshal and the man next to him is a man who got in trouble for counterfeit. At the end of the story the audience finds out that Mr. Easton is the real prisoner. The entirety of the story comes in to question.
Notable works featuring unreliable narrators
- Martin Amis - Time's Arrow
- Machado de Assis - Dom Casmurro
- Emily Brontë - Wuthering Heights
- Peter Carey - Illywhacker
- Angela Carter - Wise Children
- Anton Chekhov - The Shooting Party
- Wilkie Collins - The Moonstone
- Bret Easton Ellis - most prominently American Psycho
- Fyodor Dostoevsky - Notes From Underground
- William Faulkner - The Sound and the Fury & As I Lay Dying
- Ford Madox Ford - The Good Soldier
- Charlotte Perkins Gilman - The Yellow Wallpaper
- Jeff Kinney - Diary of a Wimpy Kid
- 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, Lolita and Despair
- Marc Anthony Richardson - Year of the Rat
- Mordecai Richler - Barney's Version
- Salman Rushdie - Midnight's Children
- J. D. Salinger - The Catcher in the Rye
- Italo Svevo - Zeno's Conscience
- Donna Tartt – The Goldfinch
- 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
- The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, directed by Robert Wiene
- Citizen Kane, directed by Orson Welles
- Laura, directed by Otto Preminger
- Rashomon, directed by Akira Kurosawa
- Amarcord, directed by Federico Fellini
- Barry Lyndon, directed by Stanley Kubrick
- Forrest Gump, directed by Robert Zemeckis
- The Usual Suspects, directed by Bryan Singer
- Lost Highway, directed by David Lynch
- The Sixth Sense, directed by M. Night Shyamalan
- Fight Club, directed by David Fincher
- American Psycho, directed by Mary Harron
- Memento, directed by Christopher Nolan
- A Beautiful Mind, directed by Ron Howard
- Hero, directed by Zhang Yimou
- Big Fish, directed by Tim Burton
- Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, directed by Michel Gondry
- Shutter Island, directed by Martin Scorsese
- Gone Girl, directed by David Fincher
- Joker, directed by Todd Phillips
- The Beginner's Guide
- Tales from the Borderlands