In Julian Barnes's The Sense of an Ending, Tony Webster admits that he may not be a reliable narrator. He acknowledges that it's probably impossible to tell, objectively, the story of your own life, and that it's therefore up to the reader to question or validate his authority.
The idea of the unreliable narrator has long been an issue in fiction, dating back to medieval times. The term, as a formal literary device, comes from critic Wayne C. Booth's The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961).
There are many reasons why a narrator might be deemed unreliable. The most obvious one is insanity, as in Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, or Stephan Benatar's Wish Her Safe At Home. In the case of the latter, the narrator's illness inclines along with the narrative: as the novel and Rachel's mental illness progress, everything is called into question.
Another reason is that the narrator might be a child - too innocent or naïve to provide a reliable perspective for readers. Books such as Room and In the Country of Men are two shining examples of books written for adults but written from a child's perspective. (For a more comprehensive list of these books, visit BookBrowse's specially themed category.)*
A narrator may also be unreliable in a conscious way. That is, they may be withholding or skewing information in order to manipulate their audience: the reader.
Arguably, there is a type of moral unreliability, as well. Humbert Humbert, the pedophiliac narrator of Nabokov's Lolita, portrays himself in such as way as to solicit sympathy and even empathy from the reader. Likewise, the author may use ambiguity or opacity in rendering a character, so as to force the reader to make their own decisions about a narrator's reliability, as in Kafka's refusal to name the crime that Josef K. is arrested for in The Trial.
Perhaps the king of the contemporary unreliable narrator is Bret Easton Ellis. His characters veer so seamlessly between dream, delusion, lucidity, wishful thinking, drug trips... that at times the very existence of the narrator himself becomes questionable.
The onus, then, is always on the reader, just one of the many reasons why the experience of reading fiction is so utterly subjective.
*Please note that while all these books have child narrators, not all are necessarily unreliable.
This article was originally published in January 2012, and has been updated for the
March 2012 paperback release.
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