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, although 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.
Attempts 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:
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.
Wayne C. Booth was 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 (which is to say the implied author's norms), 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.
There are unreliable narrators (cf. Booth). An unreliable narrator however, is not simply a narrator who 'does not tell the truth' - what fictional narrator ever tells the literal truth? Rather an unreliable narrator is one who tells lies, conceals information, misjudges with respect to the narrative audience - that is, one whose statements are untrue not by the standards of the real world or of the authorial audience but by the standards of his own narrative audience. ... In other words, all fictional narrators are false in that they are imitations. But some are imitations who tell the truth, some of people who lie.
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:
Rabinowitz suggests that "In the proper reading of a novel, then, events which are portrayed must be treated as both 'true' and 'untrue' at the same time. Although there are many ways to understand this duality, I propose to analyze the four audiences which it generates." Similarly, Tamar Yacobi has proposed a model of five criteria ('integrating mechanisms') which determine if a narrator is unreliable. Instead of relying on the device of the implied author and a text-centered analysis of unreliable narration, Ansgar Nünning gives evidence that narrative unreliability can be reconceptualized in the context of frame theory and of readers' cognitive strategies.
... to determine a narrator's unreliability one need not rely merely on intuitive judgments. It is neither the reader's intuitions nor the implied author's norms and values that provide the clue to a narrator's unreliability, but a broad range of definable signals. These include both textual data and the reader's preexisting conceptual knowledge of the world. In sum whether a narrator is called unreliable or not does not depend on the distance between the norms and values of the narrator and those of the implied author but between the distance that separates the narrator's view of the world from the reader's world-model and standards of normality.
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 (cf. signals of unreliable narration). 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.
Booth's text-immanent model of narrator unreliability has been criticized by Ansgar Nünning for disregarding the reader's role in the perception of reliability and for relying on the insufficiently defined concept of the implied author. Nünning updates Booth's work with a cognitive theory of unreliability that rests on the reader's values and her sense that a discrepancy exists between the narrator's statements and perceptions and other information given by the text.
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.
Whichever 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.
One 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 (3rd-2nd centuries BC), 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 (inspired by the Biblical/Qur'anic story of Joseph). 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.
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 (mainly through evasion, omission, and obfuscation) 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 (including in the content and captions of the illustrations, also done by Thackeray) 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 (e.g. Alistair MacLean's The Golden Rendezvous and John Grisham's The Racketeer). 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 (1884), 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 (fixation on pubescent girls), 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.
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.
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 (for which the reader could have been warned by the book's title).
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 (which killed the zebra and orangutan), and tiger (which killed the hyena). 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 (All Men Are Liars), 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 (2012) 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.
One 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.
In Possessed (1947), 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 (1950), a Japanese crime drama film directed by Akira Kurosawa, adapted from "In a Grove" (1921), 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 (1994), 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 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.
As 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" (voiced by Bob Saget), 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 (played by Eric McCormack), 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 anime series Gakkougurashi! (School-Live!) 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.
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.
In Alan Moore and Brian Bolland's Batman: The Killing Joke, 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.
Final Fantasy VII (1997) 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.
Call of Juarez: Gunslinger 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.
Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman an example of unreliable narrator. The story is told from the point of view of a woman who suffered from depression. She goes to the doctor to see if there is something wrong with her. The doctor tells her that she is completely fine, but she cannot do anything active like painting and gardening. Since no one wanted to her help with her depression she went to write in a journal about feeling. She has a nervous breakdown and her husband what to send her to physician. The author wants the audience to question if she is really insane and should her word be trusted.
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 person that is mentally unstable 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.
[H]e has improvised, spontaneously and with reckless abandon, a coherent, convincing, but false-bottomed narrative to beguile us and deceive his interrogator.
...[In] the second part of the film a large part of what we hitherto have considered part of the objective perspective (persons, actions, places) are exposed as being mental constructions and projections made by the protagonist...We have not only seen the events from his perspective, but we have seen what he thinks happens.Cite journal requires
But Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek), the brilliant, socially maladjusted, mentally unstable, vigilante hacker at the center of the technologically complex and psychologically searing Mr. Robot, which airs, of all places, on the perpetually milquetoast USA Network, is an unreliable narrator in extremis.
The dictionary definition of unreliable narrator at Wiktionary