Unreliable narrators are types of first-person-driven narratives that give the audience the opportunity to make their own interpretations of a story. Read on to discover a more detailed definition and examples of unreliable narrators in literature and movies.
I’m sitting in my home office, and I hear screams trickle down the stairs. The kids are at it again.
My daughter is first to reach me, crying about how her brother punched her in the back for no reason. She swears she did nothing to instigate the attack. I look at her with doubtful eyes. I know that there is another side to this story, and that my daughter is an unreliable narrator of the events of this latest skirmish.First-person narrators are characters within the story telling the events of the plot from their perspective.
Sometimes, these characters deviate from the truth or have mental conditions that limit their abilities to tell the story accurately. We call these characters unreliable narrators.An unreliable narrator is a character whose telling of the story is not completely accurate or credible due to problems with the character’s mental state or maturity.
Some literary critics argue that there is no such thing as a reliable first-person narrator since every character is affected by his or her past experiences in the telling of a story, but most first-person narrators attempt to give the most accurate version of the events. An unreliable narrator, however, holds a distorted view of the events, which leads to an inaccurate telling of the story. This can give readers or viewers a chance to offer their own interpretations.
The term ‘unreliable narrator’ was first used by Wayne C. Booth in 1961 in The Rhetoric of Fiction. Since then, many authors and filmmakers use the technique to create interest and suspense in their narration. Some indicators that a narrator is unreliable include contradicting stories, incomplete explanations of events, illogical information, and even questions of the narrator’s sanity.
Examples of Unreliable Narrators
Edgar Allan Poe, known for his dark story lines, uses an unreliable narrator in several of his short stories.
In ‘The Cask of Amontillado’, the narrator, Montresor, expresses his anger at being wronged and insulted by Fortunado. Montresor’s obsession with revenge and failure to explain exactly how Fortunado harmed him makes him an unreliable narrator because his mental state has affected his decision-making. Montresor lures Fortunado down to his family’s catacombs, where he proceeds to bury Fortunado alive.
In J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, the narrator, Holden Caulfield, admits to being the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life. In addition to his tendency to fib to characters that populate the novel, Caulfield’s immaturity and overly negative worldview prohibits him from giving an accurate version of events.
His unreliability is also made clear in the fact that he is receiving treatment in a mental facility.
Modern Novel Examples
Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl actually uses two unreliable narrators. The book is told through alternating accounts of Nick Dunne and the diary entries of his wife, Amy Dunne.
Since their version of events in their struggling marriage conflict, the reader is unsure of which character to trust. It is later revealed that both characters lie, which makes both of them unreliable.Another popular modern example of a novel with an unreliable narrator is Bret Easton Ellis’ controversial work, American Psycho. The story follows late-’80s Wall Street yuppie Patrick Bateman as he murders his way through various women, men, and even children. It culminates with the question of if he even really committed these crimes, and he never fully elaborates on the truth of the situation.
This is because, like with all unreliable narrators, the story is told from his perspective. The film adaptation of American Psycho explores Bateman’s unreliability as well.
In Forrest Gump, the main character, Forrest, tells of his many adventures through several decades. We find out through his mother’s experiences with the principal at a local school that Forrest is slower than average. His mental disabilities, along with his seemingly impossible stories, suggest that Forrest is an unreliable narrator. Although Forrest has no ill will toward his audience, his naïve nature and mental slowness limits his ability to tell the story accurately.Perhaps one of the most famous films regarding the theme of unreliable narrators is Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, which explores the murder of a samurai and the conflicting testimonies given by the man’s widow, the bandit who accosted them, and even the slain samurai’s ghost.
In the end, the testimony given by the woodcutter telling the story turns out to be the correct one, since he had no self-interest in the story motivating him to lie.
The use of unreliable narrators is a powerful way in which writers and filmmakers tell a story from the perspective of a character whose credibility is put into question, whether by their mental state or emotional maturity. It also gives audiences a chance to offer their own interpretations of the events.
Indicators of unreliable narrators in stories include contradicting stories, incomplete explanations of events, illogical information, and even questions of the narrator’s sanity. Several examples exist throughout older and modern literature and film, ranging from Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Cask of Amontillado’ to Forrest Gump.
The process of watching this video lesson could prepare you to:
- Explain what makes a narrator an unreliable narrator
- Give some examples of unreliable narrators in literature and film