Unreliable narrator is one of those terms much loved by literary types. I’ve often wondered what it means. You probably think it’s obvious: a narrator who lies to mislead the reader. In some cases, yes, but in other cases no. Rather than lying, the narrator might not have all the facts. Or they might be telling it the way they see it or, the truth might be too painful and their unreliability is a coping mechanism. Here Are 10 Of The Best:
1. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
In Lolita, Humbert Humbert’s first person narration is seriously creepy but we can’t look away. He justifies his actions at every turn, though now and then he shows a flicker of remorse. Then he turns it around and portrays himself as the victim.
2. Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe
Daniel Defoe’s eponymous heroine is one of the most entertaining types of unreliable narrator – the cheeky, resourceful braggart. Moll is a woman in a man’s world and making the best of it.
3. The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe
Poe’s unreliable narrator in The Tell-Tale Heart doesn’t tell us his name but he does tell us he isn’t mad. Which is a sure sign he is. Plus he’s committed a murder and the ‘heart’ of the title may well be hidden under the floorboards.
4. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
The second Mrs. de Winter, in Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, doesn’t have all the facts. Neither mad nor bad, inexperience leads her, and us, to jump to the wrong conclusions. And she’s helped, or not, by Mrs. Danvers.
5. Atonement by Ian McEwan
Like poor Mrs. de Winter, Briony, Ian McEwan’s unreliable narrator in Atonement, also misreads the situation, but then she is only twelve. Unfortunately, she sets off a chain of events both catastrophic and heartbreaking.
6. Notes On A Scandal by Zoë Heller
In Notes On A Scandal, Zoë Heller has her narrator recount the downfall of a fellow-teacher. As the story unfolds we discover Barbara was not an innocent bystander – her action, in trying to take advantage of her colleague, is the core of the drama.
7. The Good Soldier by Ford Maddox Ford
John Dowell, Ford Maddox Ford’s narrator in The Good Soldier, says, “this is the saddest story I have ever heard.” He describes the dissolution of his marriage, the death of three friends, and the descent into madness of a fourth. We are never sure what is true and what is false because John is a liar, and quite possibly a fool.
8. The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger
We can put Holden Caulfield’s unreliability down to a case of severe teenage alienation. The events in The Catcher in The Rye are true to Holden as he experiences them. He falls into the category of contemptuous young male unreliable narrator.
9. The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins
When the narrator is drunk for most of the book it is hard to believe what she is telling us. In Paula Hawkins’ novel, Rachel struggles to figure out what’s going on through an alcohol-induced haze.
10. The Life Of Pi by Yann Martel
The Life of Pi is unreliable narration as an act of self-preservation. ‘Pi’ Patel’s survival story about a lifeboat and a tiger may be a re-imagining of a different tragedy, one he finds too heart-breaking to tell.
Readers empathize with believable characters and, if truth is a matter of perspective then, at some point at least, all well-written narrators must be unreliable.
YouTube Channel: New College of the Humanities
Featured image via Lit Reactor
h/t The Guardian