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An unreliable narrator is a
narrator Narration is the use of a written or spoken commentary to convey a story Story or stories may refer to: Common uses * Story, a narrative (an account of imaginary or real people and events) ** Short story, a piece of prose fiction that typically ...

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, and 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 A plot twist is a literary technique A narrative technique (known for literary fictional narratives as a literary technique, literary device, or fictional device) is any of several specific methods the creator of a narrative uses to convey what the ...
forces readers to reconsider their
point of view Point of view or Points of View may refer to: Concept and technique * Point of view (philosophy), an attitude how one sees or thinks of something * Point of view (literature) or narrative mode, the perspective of the narrative voice; the pronoun ...
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.


Overview


Classification

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: ;The Pícaro: a narrator who is characterized by exaggeration and bragging, the first example probably being the soldier in
Plautus Titus Maccius Plautus (; c. 254 – 184 BC), commonly known as Plautus, was a Roman Roman or Romans most often refers to: *, the capital city of Italy *, Roman civilization from 8th century BC to 5th century AD *, the people of ancient Rome ...

Plautus
' comedy ''
Miles Gloriosus ''Alazṓn'' ( grc, ἀλαζών) is one of three stock characters Stock (also capital stock) is all of the shares into which ownership of a corporation A corporation is an organization—usually a group of people or a company—au ...
''. Examples in modern literature are ''
Moll Flanders ''Moll Flanders'' is a novel by Daniel Defoe, first published in 1722. It purports to be the true account of the life of the eponymous Moll, detailing her exploits from birth until old age. By 1721, Defoe had become a recognised novelist, with ...

Moll Flanders
'', ''
Simplicius Simplicissimus ''Simplicius Simplicissimus'' (german: link=no, Der abenteuerliche Simplicissimus Teutsch) is a picaresque novel of the lower Baroque style, written in 1668 by Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen and probably published the same year (althoug ...
'' or '' Felix Krull''. ;The Madman: a narrator who is either only experiencing mental
defense mechanism In psychoanalytic theory, a defence mechanism (American English: defense mechanism), is an Unconscious mind, unconscious psychological operation that functions to protect a person from anxiety-producing thoughts and feelings related to interna ...
s, such as (post-traumatic) dissociation and self-alienation, or severe mental illness, such as
schizophrenia Schizophrenia is a mental disorder A mental disorder, also called a mental illness or psychiatric disorder, is a behavioral or mental pattern that causes significant distress or impairment of personal functioning. Such features may b ...

schizophrenia
or
paranoia Paranoia is an instinct or thought process that is believed to be heavily influenced by anxiety Anxiety is an emotion Emotions are mental state, psychological states brought on by neurophysiology, neurophysiological changes, variously a ...

paranoia
. Examples include
Franz Kafka Franz Kafka (3 July 1883 – 3 June 1924) was a German-speaking The German language (, ) is a West Germanic language mainly spoken in Central Europe Central Europe is the central region of Europe. Central Europe includes contigu ...
's self-alienating narrators,
noir fiction Noir fiction (or roman noir) is a subgenre of crime fiction. In this subgenre, right and wrong are not clearly defined, while the protagonists are seriously and often tragically flawed. Definition In its modern form, noir has come to denote a ...
and
hardboiled Hardboiled (or hard-boiled) fiction is a literary genre A literary genre is a category of literary composition. Genres may be determined by literary technique, setting tone, tone, Content (media), content, or even (as in the case of fiction) l ...
fiction's "tough" (cynical) narrator who unreliably describes his own emotions, Barbara Covett in '' Notes on a Scandal'', Charles Kinbote in ''
Pale Fire ''Pale Fire'' is a 1962 novel by Vladimir Nabokov Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov (russian: link=no, Владимир Владимирович Набоков ; 2 July 1977), also known by the pen name A pen name, also called a ''nom de plume'' ...
'', the unnamed protagonist of
Edgar Allan Poe Edgar Allan Poe (; born Edgar Poe; January 19, 1809 – October 7, 1849) was an American writer, poet, editor, and literary criticism, literary critic. Poe is best known for his poetry and short stories, particularly his tales of mystery and ...

Edgar Allan Poe
's ''
The Tell-Tale Heart "The Tell-Tale Heart" is a short story by American writer Edgar Allan Poe, first published in 1843. It is related by an unnamed narrator who endeavors to convince the reader of the narrator's sanity while simultaneously describing a murder the na ...
'', and Patrick Bateman in ''
American Psycho ''American Psycho'' is a novel by Bret Easton Ellis, published in 1991. The story is told in the first person by Patrick Bateman, a serial killer A serial killer is typically a person who murders three or more people,A serial killer is most ...
''. ;The Clown: a narrator who does not take narrations seriously and consciously plays with conventions, truth, and the reader's expectations. Examples of the type include
Tristram ShandyTristram may refer to: Literature * the title character of ''The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman'', a novel by Laurence Sterne * the title character of ''Tristram of Lyonesse'', an epic poem by Algernon Charles Swinburne *"Tristram ...
and Bras Cubas. ;The Naïf: a narrator whose perception is immature or limited through their point of view. Examples of naïves include
Huckleberry Finn Huckleberry "Huck" Finn is a fictional character created by Mark Twain Samuel Langhorne Clemens (November 30, 1835 – April 21, 1910), known by his pen name A pen name, also called a ''nom de plume'' () or a literary double, is a ...

Huckleberry Finn
,
Holden Caulfield Holden Morrisey Caulfield is a fictional character in author J. D. Salinger's 1951 novel ''The Catcher in the Rye''. Since the book's publication, Holden has become an icon for teenage rebellion and angst, and is considered among the most import ...
and
Forrest Gump ''Forrest Gump'' is a 1994 American comedy-drama film Comedy-drama, or dramedy, is a genre of dramatic works that combines elements of comedy and Drama (film and television), drama. History The advent of radio drama, film, cinema and in part ...
. ;The Liar: a mature narrator of sound cognition who deliberately misrepresents themselves, often to obscure their unseemly or discreditable past conduct. John Dowell in
Ford Madox Ford Ford Madox Ford (né Joseph Leopold Ford Hermann Madox Hueffer ( ); 17 December 1873 – 26 June 1939) was an English novelist, poet, critic and editor whose journals ''The English Review'' and ''The Transatlantic Review (1924), The Transatlant ...

Ford Madox Ford
's ''
The Good Soldier ''The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion'' is a 1915 novel by the British writer Ford Madox Ford Ford Madox Ford (né Joseph Leopold Ford Hermann Madox Hueffer ( ); 17 December 1873 – 26 June 1939) was an English novelist, poet, critic and ed ...
'' exemplifies this kind of narrator. 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 Sir Alan Ayckbourn (born 12 April 1939) is a prolific British playwright and director. He has written and produced more than seventy full-length plays in Scarborough and London and was, between 1972 and 2009, the artistic director of the Steph ...
's ''
The Norman Conquests ''The Norman Conquests'' is a trilogy of plays written in 1973 by Alan Ayckbourn Sir Alan Ayckbourn (born 12 April 1939) is a prolific British playwright and director. He has written and produced more than seventy full-length plays in Scarbo ...
'', each confines the action to one of three locations during the course of a weekend.


Definitions and theoretical approaches

Wayne C. Booth was among the first critics 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 The implied author is a concept of literary criticism developed in the 20th century. Distinct from the author and the narrator, the term refers to the "authorial character" that a reader infers from a text based on the way a literary work is writte ...
'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. 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: # "Actual audience" (= the flesh-and-blood people who read the book) # "Authorial audience" (= hypothetical audience to whom the author addresses his text) # "Narrative audience" (= imitation audience which also possesses particular knowledge) # "Ideal narrative audience" (= uncritical audience who accepts what the narrator is saying) 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. 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. 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.


Signals of unreliable narration

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.Nünning, Ansgar (ed.): ''Unreliable Narration'': Studien zur Theorie und Praxis unglaubwürdigen Erzählens in der englischsprachigen Erzählliteratur, Wissenschaftlicher Verlag: Trier (1998). * Intratextual signs such as the narrator contradicting himself, having gaps in memory, or lying to other characters * Extratextual signs such as contradicting the reader's general world knowledge or impossibilities (within the parameters of logic) * Reader's literary competence. This includes the reader's knowledge about literary types (e.g. stock characters that reappear over centuries), knowledge about literary genres and its conventions or stylistic devices


See also

*
Frame story A frame story (also known as a frame tale, frame narrative, sandwich narrative, or intercalation) is a literary technique A narrative technique (known for literary fictional narrative A narrative, story or tale is any account of a series of relat ...
*
Play within a play Play most commonly refers to: * Play (activity) Play is a range of intrinsically motivated activities done for recreational pleasure and enjoyment. Play is commonly associated with children and juvenile-level activities, but play occurs at any ...
*
Rashomon effect The Rashomon effect is a term related to the notorious unreliability of eyewitnesses. It describes a situation in which an event is given contradictory interpretations or descriptions by the individuals involved. Effect The effect is named after ...
*
Tall tale A tall tale is a story with unbelievable elements, related as if it were true and factual. Some tall tales are exaggerations of actual events, for example wikt:fish story, fish stories ("the fish that got away") such as, "That fish was so big, why I ...


References




Further reading

* * Shan, Den:
Unreliability
, in Peter Hühn (ed.): The Living Handbook of Narratology, Hamburg: Hamburg University Press. (retrieved 8. March 2021) * Smith, M. W. (1991). ''Understanding Unreliable Narrators''. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.


External links


Henry Sutton's top 10 unreliable narrators
{{Narrative modes, state=collapsed Film theory Style (fiction) Point of view Narrative techniques 1960s neologisms