Literature offers writers and readers alike the opportunity to experiment with things that in real life usually lead to a series of unpleasant consequences.
No, I’m not speaking of explosives wired to fast-ticking timers, of psychopaths on a killing spree, or of alien hordes devastating our already half devastated world–not necessarily at least. What I’m speaking of here has to do with the well known literary trope of the narrator, or rather, the unreliable narrator.
This might look like a literary device of secondary importance, especially considering the gazillion super explosive things that authors can cook up in a book.
However, the unreliable narrator is one of those essential tools that any writer must learn to master. Indeed, to realize this is enough to remember that many of the most acclaimed works of literature worldwide exploit this literary device.
Definition of narrator in literature
In general, a narrator is a person who tells a story. In particular, in literature it is the character who tells the story. It is important to notice that such a character may or may not be directly involved in the events being narrated.
Sometimes readers tend to assume that the voice of the narrator is also the voice of the author. A notorious example of this spontaneous inference was when Lolita was first published.
Nabokov, the author, ended up even writing a afterword to the book to explain to readers the essential distinction between the narrator, Humbert Humbert, and himself.
As a matter of fact, in literature the voice of the narrator most often has a personality completely different from the one pertaining to the author.
Definition of unreliable narrator
An unreliable narrator is a narrator who, for whatever reason, doesn’t tell the readers all the truth. Now, this happens every day in real life. In fact, people can be unreliable for many different reasons.
However life is so messy that rarely offers the opportunity to weave a long and coherent if flawed narrative, even to the most creative and inveterate liars.
Instead in literature writers can explore this unreliability as they please and refine it to come up with powerful works of art.
Types of unreliable narrators in literature
The number of the different types of unreliable narrators isn’t exactly set in stone.
Besides, someone might be unreliable for more than one reason. For example, a man could be envious of somebody else’s success, and an alcoholic. So he might lie for different reasons at different times.
However, in general there are four broad categories of unreliable narrators.
Children are a classic example of naive narrators. They don’t necessarily lie, but their limited experience of the world can lead them to interpret events in a light that isn’t completely sound.
Children can also offer unexpected insights about things adults take for granted. But such insights could be misleading all the same. Also people with some kind of cognitive impairment can pertain to this category. We can see a great example of this in the 1986 novel, Forrest Gump.
A lot of people are crazy. This is no mystery. We don’t need memes and songs to be reminded of that. O course, here I use the word crazy in a loose sense, also referring to those people whose mental faculties are only temporarily, or artificially impaired.
I mean, people who are depressed, addicted, sick, and whatnot. People who can find it difficult to tell the difference between what they are experiencing inside their head and what is instead really out here in the realm of our more or less shared reality.
Some people have no apparent mental health problems, and their days as kids are long gone. Yet for them it was never a choice whether to stick to the truth or adjust it to their desires.
In real life pathological liars tend to show above average verbal skills, they could therefore represent the best choice for unreliable narrators.
Yet, in fiction, pathological liars are the most difficult to deploy successfully.
Because when their sweeping lies are discovered, the fictional world of the whole book can crumble down and leave readers with the distasteful feeling of having just wasted their time reading about a place and a story that was never there in the first place.
These narrators aren’t naive, like children usually are. They are unreliable because they don’t know, or overlook, some important aspects of the story they are telling.
For example, an unreliable narrator could tell a story about what he believes to be the miraculous healing of his daughter from a terrible illness.
He could go on speaking of God, of good deeds, and the eternal battle between the forces of light and darkness. He could also describe, and not without some contempt, the medicines his daughter was given, and yet fail to notice an otherwise apparent—to us readers—cause and effect relationship between them and the recovery of his daughter.
In short, the narrator believes he’s telling us a story about the importance of faith and purity and God. Yet what the author is writing about can be something else altogether.
Why to use unreliable narrators
For some critics the distinction between reliable and unreliable narrators doesn’t exist. This is so because in their opinion all narrators are flawed in some systematic way. After all, they argue, absolute truth doesn’t exist.
Now, while this is certainly true–no pun intended–it is also true that reliability is a matter of degree and not of cold binary logic.
Some narrators are perceived as reliable because they strive to be so, and because nothing in their behavior and words seems against what we know of the world. Instead the other narrators are almost automatically considered unreliable.
In any case, unreliable narrators offer writers some interesting opportunities.
Writers can decide to let their readers immediately know about a narrator’s unreliability. This might seem like a spoiler. Something that will prevent any jaw-dropping twist at the end of the book.
In reality this trick can be an incredibly fruitful one. In fact, if we readers know a narrator is highly unreliable we’re going to pay special attention to everything he or she says. And this heightened attention can help us to better focus on the tension between what is narrated and what is to be inferred.
Just think about the scene in Forrest Gump when he says that Jenny’s father was good because “he was always kissing and touching her and her sisters.”
Sometimes unreliable narrators are incredibly persuasive and look so normal that readers can’t but to believe everything they are told.
This can work wonders in endings. But the final twist should give readers a deeper understanding of the story as a whole. It shouldn’t destroy the story in its entirety.
Have you ever noticed? Although all readers know perfectly well they’re reading fiction, by definition something that has been made up, there’s nothing that pisses them off like discovering at the very end that all they read never really was.
I’m saying this not to make fun of readers. On the contrary. It is to underscore how fiction isn’t only “made-up stuff”, it’s also and above all a sort of augmented reality where writers and readers alike can experiment with new ideas and situations.
A place you keep good care of, and avoid dirtying with idiotic and awkward last lines– “It was all a dream” or “After the trip I found myself staring at my feet and grinning. I must really cut on that shit.”
Unreliable narrators are also incredibly useful in all those stories entailing mysteries, supernatural forces, and distorted perceptions.
In fact such stories aren’t necessarily the accurate description of some objective truth. They merely describe the truth as it is perceived by the narrator.
This means writers can have ghosts, doppelgangers, and strange voices. They can have haunted houses and on and on without having to explain too much about the mechanics of such occurrences. They can focus on the symbolism and the relationships between these occurrences and the characters in the story.
Novels with interesting unreliable narrators
1) Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
2) The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
3) The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger
4) American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
5) The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
6) Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
A last word
Unreliable doesn’t mean that anything goes. People tend to create narratives to justify their actions. Liars too do that. Unreliable narrators do like everybody else. They strive to come up with coherent and cogent stories, at least from their point of view. They strive to make sure all loose ends are well accounted for.
In any case, unreliable narrators are always a sort of minefield. After all, all it takes to create a paradox is a handful of words. Something like: don’t believe me, I’m a pathological liar.
Paradoxes. They’re nice, aren’t they?