Monday, April 25, 2011

u is for unreliable narrator

most of the time when we read a story we believe what we are told - or we suspend our belief (as in the case of fantasy/paranormal/scifi/horror). So when Philip Pullman tells us about Lyra and her dæmon, we believe him (and, oh, don’t we want a dæmon of our own). When Stephen King tells us about a town with an invisible dome over it, we believe him, too. And when David Wroblewski offers us a mute hero and his marvelous dogs, we believe him, too. But sometimes, the narrator is not to be trusted.

This is the unreliable narrator. Here are two examples:

Mark Twain/Huckleberry Finn: Well, one thing was dead sure; and that was, Tom Sawyer was in earnest and was actuly [sic] going to help steal that nigger out of slavery. That was the thing that was too many for me. Here was a boy that was respectable, and well brung up; and he had a character to lose; and folks at home that had characters; and he was bright and not leather-headed; and knowing and not ignorant; and not mean, but kind; and yet here he was, without any more pride, or rightness, or feeling, than to stoop to this business, and make himself a shame, and his family a shame, before everybody. I couldn’t understand it, no way at all.

Ken Kelsey/One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: They’re mopping when I come out of the dorm, all three of them sulky and hating everything, the time of day, the place they’re at here, the people they got to work around. When they hate like this, better if they don’t see me. I creep along the wall quiet as dust in my canvas shoes, but they got special sensitive equipment detects my fear and they all look up, all three at once, eyes glittering out of the black faces like the hard glitter of radio tubes out of the back of an old radio.

Can you think of a third example?


  1. I think most first person narrators are unreliable to an extent. I used first person in my latest WIP, and though the MC tries to be honest, the story is told through her biased POV. And, no, she isn't always as honest as she thinks she is.

  2. My favorite unreliable narrators would probably be Merricat Blackwood from We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson and Mary Gray from The Ivy Tree by Mary Stewart. They both had important secrets to keep from the readers.

  3. One of my favorite books with an unreliable narrator was Atonement by Ian McEwen. The book starts with Briony, the MC, as a young girl. And after what you find out in the end, you look at the entire book and think, "Woah! Okay, so what really happened?"

  4. Scarlett O'Hara, of course. She's totally convinced she's in love with Ashley, though every reader knows Rhett loves her and she belongs with him (not to mention is much, much hotter.)

  5. JD Salinger's Holden in Catcher in the Rye?

    I love unreliable narrators - they mess with my head! Take care

  6. wow those are great ones! The only one I read was Catcher in the Rye - saw the movies Atonement & Gone with the Wind.

    Thanks guys :)

  7. I am really thinking they will be calling me an unreliable narrator; although I tried my best to tell the story the way I saw.
    I also have to go with Scarlett one of ny all time favorite characters.

  8. I agree with LG Smith- most people are not able to see things accurately or without bias. That is the interesting part of the first person perspective. I like the comments. They show active readership- unlike other sites I have visited.


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