unreliable narrator (fiction and nonfiction)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Mary Clearman Blew on the nonfiction writer, in the author's commentary on "Remember" (The Art of Friction: Where [Non]Fictions Come Together, ed. by Charles Blackstone and Jill Lynn Talbot, 2008).

Definition

An unreliable narrator is a narrator whose perception or interpretation of events in a narrative doesn't correspond with the perceptions or interpretations of the author. Also called a fallible narrator.

In A Handbook to Literature (2006), Harmon and Holman define the term as a "narrator who may be in error in his or understanding or report of things and who thus leaves readers without the guides needed for making judgments."

The term unreliable narrator was introduced by American rhetorician and literary critic Wayne C. Booth in his book The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961).

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Examples and Observations

  • "The point of using an unreliable narrator is . . . to reveal in an interesting way the gap between appearance and reality, and to show how human beings distort or conceal the latter."
    (David Lodge, The Art of Fiction. Viking, 1992)
     
  • Wayne C. Booth on Reliable and Unreliable Narrators
    "For lack of better terms, I have called the 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. It is true that most of the great reliable narrators indulge in large amounts of incidental irony, and they are thus 'unreliable' in the sense of being potentially deceptive. Nor is unreliability ordinarily a matter of lying, although deliberately deceptive narrators have been a major resource of some modern novelists (Camus' The Fall, Calder Willingham's Natural Child, etc.). It is most often a matter of what [Henry] James calls inconscience; the narrator is mistaken, or he believes himself to have qualities which the author denies him. Or, as in Huckleberry Finn, the narrator claims to be naturally wicked while the author silently praises his virtues behind his back.

    "Unreliable narrators thus differ markedly depending on how far and in what direction they depart from their author's norms; the older term 'tone,' like the currently fashionable terms 'irony' and 'distance,' covers many effects that we should distinguish."
    (Wayne Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction, 2nd ed. University of Chicago Press, 1983)
  • Unreliable Narrators in Creative Nonfiction
    "Sometimes the 'I' is really out there on the page, self-dramatizing, very present indeed. Sometimes it is the 'I' of personal participation in great events or dire social conditions. . . .

    "In fiction, another variation is possible, the 'unreliable narrator.' We are meant to understand such narrators in a different way than they understand themselves. This would be a hard act to pull off in nonfiction. But one writer has come close: the late Hunter Thompson, who presents himself as a drug-and-alcohol crazed, hallucinating madman, driving a red rental car across the desert, on the first page of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas [1971]:
    We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like 'I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive....' And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: 'Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?'

    Then it was quiet again. My attorney had taken his shirt off and was pouring beer on his chest, to facilitate the tanning process. 'What the hell are you yelling about?' he muttered, staring up at the sun with his eyes closed and covered with wraparound Spanish sunglasses. 'Never mind,' I said. 'It's your turn to drive.' I hit the brakes and aimed the Great Red Shark toward the shoulder of the highway. No point mentioning those bats, I thought. The poor bastard will see them soon enough.
    In Thompson, hyperbole and fantasy don't masquerade as objective truth but describe the inner life of a hallucinating 'I.' Thomson stretches the boundaries of nonfiction, maybe to a point where they ought to be stretched now and then."
    (Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd, Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction. Random House, 2013)
  • Unreliable Narrators in Memoirs
    - ""Though we often apply the term 'unreliable' to voices we regard as wrong-headed in nonfictional works (historical, journalistic, biographical, or autobiographical), the narrator of such works is the author, the author is the narrator so that we can not attribute to them a significance that differs from the one they explicitly proclaim."
    (Dorrit Cohn, "Discordant Narration." Style, 2000)

    - "[Frank] McCourt [in his memoir Angela's Ashes] has built his narrative on the foundation of unreliability and the virtual absence of reflection in his authorial voice. . . .

    "Rather than speaking in his own voice at the time of the telling, McCourt uses the historical present tense and speaks in the voice of his former self, whom I'll call Frankie, at the time of the action."
    (James Phelan, Living To Tell About It: A Rhetoric And Ethics Of Character Narration. Cornell University Press, 2005)
  • The Lighter Side of Unreliable Narrators: Alan Partridge
    "1974 was a crazy, hazy time for Alan Partridge. The Sixties had come to East Anglia and it was a time of free thinking, free love and in my case free university accommodation.

    "I was quite the man about Norwich, striding confidently through the dreaming spires and hallowed halls of East Anglia Polytechnic--whose alumni included news woman Selina Scott and meteorology whizz Penny Tranter--and soaking up all the knowledge that this seat of learning had to offer.

    "The free accommodation? Well, enigmatically, I had decided to stay not in the woodworm-infested squalor of university halls, but to commute in from my home (my parents' home). Although misinterpreted by some of my peers as reluctance to cut the apron strings and live independently, the decision to reside at home was a canny marshalling of my resources. It enabled me to avoid the scruffiness of my shaggy-haired, sandal-wearing colleagues. By using my 'rent money' wisely, I was never less than beautifully shod.

    "Of course, it also meant that I was something of a 'mystery man' on campus. While my fellow students lived in each other's pockets and played out their debauched lifestyles for all to see, I was far less known. I'd be glimpsed at the back of lecture halls, ghosting through the student union with a glass of cider or shushing idiots in the library. And then I'd be gone.This all added to my aura. As did my idiosyncratic dress sense. Thick-knit zip-up cardigans, flared brown corduroys and shiny black pepperpot brogues set me apart from the long-haired layabouts who bore an uncanny resemblance to the Guilford Four and some of the Birmingham Six--Irish long-haired layabouts 'wrongly' convicted of bombing England."
    (Alan Partridge, with Rob Gibbons, Neil Gibbons, Steve Coogan and Armanda Iannucci, I, Partridge: We Need To Talk About Alan. HarperCollins, 2011)