Table of Contents
- What is an Unreliable Narrator?
- Unreliable Narrator Examples
- Reliable Narrator vs. Unreliable Narrator
- Lesson Summary
The narrator is the person telling us the story. They may or may not be a character in the story, but they are not the same as the author. Authors use different types of narrators to tell their stories because different people have different points-of-view. An author may want to have a character in the story tell it (1st person), make you a character in the story (2nd person), or tell the story from an outside perspective (3rd person). Within these, there are specific types. One is the unreliable narrator.
The term "unreliable narrator" was first coined by Wayne C. Booth in 1961, though the technique has been used for centuries. The unreliable narrator is a type of 1st person narration. Therefore, the narrator is a character in the story and shares what he/she sees, thinks, hears, and experiences. In the case of the unreliable narrator, however, readers know that they can't fully trust that what the narrator is telling them is true or accurate. The narrator is unreliable.
The reasons that a narrator might be unreliable are varied. They may show themselves to be mean, hurtful, and willing to lie to anyone to get what they want. They may instead be suffering from dementia as they tell the reader a story from their past. Or perhaps they're too young to really understand what's happening, or they are shown to have extreme biases against others. Regardless of how, or how quickly, the reader at some point comes to understand that not everything they are going to be told in the story is the objective truth. They read the remainder of the story with this knowledge.
An unreliable narrator can be an extremely powerful tool for a writer. It creates intrigue for the reader when they have to invest in trying to figure out what parts of the information they've been given is true. That is one reason that unreliable narrators often show up in mystery stories. Unreliable narrators can also make characters more complex and interesting. An author may show the unreliable nature of the narrator slowly, with the reader only coming to understand with a deep knowledge of the character. There are three primary reasons an author will turn to an unreliable narrator:
There are three main types of unreliable narrators. The distinctions between the three are based on their own awareness of their dishonesty and their motivation for their dishonesty. The three main types are:
1.Deliberately Unreliable Narrators: These are narrators who deliberately lie to their audiences. They intentionally make misleading statements or misrepresent the truth, taking advantage of the fact that they are the only perspective that is known.
2. Evasively Unreliable Narrators: These narrators alter the truth as they tell the story, but don't do it intentionally. They may be trying to justify their actions or beliefs through their description, and may or may not be aware they are doing so.
3. Naively Unreliable Narrators: These are narrators who do not intentionally mislead the reader, however the reader understands that the narrator's interpretation of the events can't be trusted for some reason - age, mental health, ignorance, etc.
Examples of works including unreliable narrators include:
Point-of-view, the perspective from which the author chooses to tell the narrative, is a key component of a story. Whether or not the reader can trust the person telling the story is an important aspect of that.
With a reliable narrator, the reader can believe that they are being told all of the information and that it is accurate. They will generally relate to and root for the narrator.
With an unreliable narrator, the reader has to pay attention both to the events of the story and to the way they're being told to try to figure out which are true and which may not be. It requires greater focus and can make it difficult for the reader to root for the narrator (who is misleading them).
Consider the following examples and how the narrator for each would impact how the story was told:
When the reader can't or doesn't trust the person telling the story (the narrator), then the person telling the story becomes an unreliable narrator. Unreliable narrators have been used in drama and literature for centuries, although the term was not coined until 1961 by Wayne C. Booth. Writers use unreliable narrators to expand on a theme, develop tension in their story, or provide a major twist. The unreliable narrator may be intentionally misleading the reader (deliberately unreliable), doing it by altering specific details to make themselves appear a particular way (evasively unreliable), or doing it without meaning to (naively unreliable).
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An unreliable narrator is one who, because of motivation, character, or another characteristic (age, experience, etc.) either deliberately or not, is not completely truthful and/or forthcoming in their telling of the story.
Examples of texts with unreliable narrators include: Gone Girl, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Life of Pie, The Raven, and The Cask of Amontillado.
Authors will build in clues that you should begin to distrust the narrator. This could be them telling the reader something they know to be untrue, being deceitful with another character, or having a perspective that is, by position, limited.
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