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Unreliable narrator


An unreliable narrator is a narrator, whether in literature, film, or theatre, whose credibility has been seriously compromised. 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.

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. This 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 his 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:

This typology is surely not exhaustive and cannot claim to cover the whole spectrum of unreliable narration in its entirety or even only the first-person narrator. Further research in this area has been called for.

It also still 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—for example in the three interweaving plays in Alan Ayckbourn's The Norman Conquests, each of which shows the action taking place only in one of three locations during the course of a weekend—can provide instances of unreliable narrative, even if not necessarily of an unreliable narrator.



Examples in modern literature are Moll Flanders, Simplicius Simplicissimus or Felix Krull.
Examples include Franz Kafka's self-alienating narrators, Noir fiction and Hardboiled fiction's "tough" (cynical) narrator who unreliably describes his own emotions, Barbara Covett in Notes on a Scandal, and Patrick Bateman in American Psycho.
Examples of the type include Tristram Shandy and Bras Cubas.
Examples of naïves include Huckleberry Finn, Holden Caulfield, and Forrest Gump
John Dowell in Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier exemplifies this kind of narrator.
  • The Pícaro: a narrator who is characterized by exaggeration and bragging, the first example probably being the soldier in Plautus's comedy Miles Gloriosus.
  • The Clown: A narrator who does not take narrations seriously and consciously plays with conventions, truth, and the reader's expectations.
  • The Naïf: A narrator whose perception is immature or limited through their point of view.
  • The Liar: A mature narrator of sound cognition who deliberately misrepresents themselves, often to obscure their unseemly or discreditable past conduct.
  • 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
  • Shan, Den: "Unreliability", in Peter Hühn (ed.): The Living Handbook of Narratology, Hamburg: Hamburg University Press. (Online at the Wayback Machine (archived 16 January 2013). Retrieved 11 May 2012)
  • Smith, M. W. (1991). Understanding Unreliable Narrators. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.
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