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Unreliable narrator

Related: fiction - bias - character - narrative - narrator - narratology - point of view

Contrast: truth - trust

Film titles: Rashomon (1950) - Last Year at Marienbad (1961) - The Machinist (2004)

Key texts (theory): The Rhetoric of Fiction (1983) - Wayne Booth

Both Hitchcock and Nabokov made substantial use of the narrative devices of the doppelgänger and the "unreliable narrator," established in the 19th century romantic literature that heavily influenced both men. --James A. Davidson via Imagesjournal.com

The concept of the unreliable narrator (as opposed to Author) became more important with the rise of the novel in the 19th Century. Until the late 1800s, literary criticism as an academic exercise dealt solely with poetry (including epic poems like The Iliad and Paradise Lost, and poetic drama like Shakespeare). Most poems did not have a narrator distinct from the author. But novels, with their immersive fictional worlds, created a problem, especially when the narrator's views differed significantly from that of the author. [Apr 2006]


In literature and film, an unreliable narrator (a term coined by Wayne Booth in his 1961 book The Rhetoric of Fiction [1]) is a first-person narrator, the credibility of whose point of view is seriously compromised, possibly by psychological instability, or a powerful bias, or else simply by a lack of knowledge. One of the earliest known examples of unreliable narration is Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. In the Merchant's Tale, for instance, the narrator, being unhappy in his marriage, applies a misogynistic slant to much of his tale.

Many novels are narrated by children, whose inexperience makes them inherently unreliable. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for example, Huck's inexperience leads him to make overly charitable judgments about the characters in the novel; in contrast, Holden Caulfield, in The Catcher in the Rye, tends to assume the worst.

Many have suggested that all first-person narration, and indeed narration generally, is inescapably unreliable. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unreliable_narrator [Apr 2006]

An unreliable narrator is a character who may be giving an imperfect or incorrect account, either consciously or unconsciously. This can be due to that character's biases, ulterior motives, psychological instability, youth, or a limited or second-hand knowledge of the events. The author in these cases must give reader information the narrator does not intend she may deduce the truth. This process creates a tension that is a central force behind the power of first person narratives, and provide the only unbiased clues about the character of the narrator. To some extent ALL narrators are unreliable, varying in degree from trust-worthy Ishmael in Moby Dick to the severely retarded Benjy in The Sound and the Fury and the criminal Humbert Humbert in Lolita. Other notable examples of unreliable narrators include Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, and Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye.

Unreliable narrators aren't limited to fiction. Memoirs, autobiographies and autobiographical fiction have the author as narrator and character. Sometimes the author purposely makes his narrator persona unreliable such as Jim Carroll in The Basketball Diaries. Other times the author himself is unreliable. This is generally the case in political memoirs where biases and ulterior motives dominate. This is especially true in campaign books such as George W. Bush's A Charge to Keep or John Edwards' Four Trials.

A writer's choice of narrator is crucial for the way a work of fiction is perceived by the reader. Generally, a First-Person narrator brings greater focus on the feelings, opinions, and perceptions of a particular character in a story, and on how that character views the world and the views of other characters. If the writer's intention is to get inside the world of a character, then it is a good choice, although a third-person limited narrator is an alternative that doesn't require the writer to reveal all that a first-person character would know. By contrast, a third-person omniscient narrator gives a panoramic view of the world of the story, looking into many characters and into the broader background of a story. For stories in which the context and the views of many characters are important, a third-person narrator is a better choice. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Narrator#Types_of_narrator [Oct 2005]

Unreliable narrators in cinema

Unreliable (male) narrators in fin de millenium films (The Machinist, The Sixth Sense, The Others, The Usual Suspects, Spider, Fight Club, Cypher, Memento, Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive):

There are parallels to be drawn between these unreliable male narrators on film and their female counterparts in fin de siècle literature. One excellent example is Charlotte Perkins Gilman's novella The Yellow Wallpaper, the first person account of a woman rendered so powerless in the face of patriarchal society that her only option is to retreat into madness. But perhaps the ultimate in unreliable narrators of this era is Henry James's governess in The Turn of the Screw. The first person account never allows us to be certain if this is a chilling ghost story or, as we suspect, hysteria brought on by repressed desire. It is interesting to note that the only recent film to feature a female unreliable narrator, Alejandro Amenábar's The Others (2001), does so as part of this fin de siècle tradition and, indeed, has distinctly Jamesian overtones. If lack of female empowerment was a recurring theme in Gothic fiction, it speaks volumes that their fin-de-millénium male counterparts in film are displaying similar characteristics now. --Anna Thomson via http://www.bfi.org.uk/education/coursesevents/talkscourses/filmjournalism/articles/rabbit-hole.html [Apr 2006]

See also: American cinema - 2004 - unreliable narrator - Dostoevsky

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