Some narrators are seen as ‘unreliable’, that is, as someone (or something) whose rendering of the story the reader has reasons to suspect. We ordinarily accept what a narrator tells us as authoritative. The fallible or unreliable narrator is one whose perception, interpretation and evaluation of the matters he or she narrates do not coincide with the opinions and norms implied by the author, which the author expects the alert reader to share (Abrams, 1999, 235).
With the growth of social media and an increasing awareness of the deliberate misinformation campaigns that have been conducted during the mass media era through the advent of the newspaper, radio, cinema and television, for example by the tobacco industry around health issues and the fossil fuel industries around climate issues, the notion of the unreliable narrator can be seen to have a different sense in addition to that which prevailed in postmodernist literature. These media- and internet-based issues are often discussed under the headings of ‘fake news’ and ‘post-truth’ politics. The design of narrative environments, therefore, needs to be aware of both the more literary and the more political uses of unreliability in narration.
Seymour Chatman notes that imaginative participation in the point of view of fictional characters, for example, by donning the perceptual and conceptual clothing of objectionable fictional characters or unreliable narrators such as the Raskolnikovs or Verlocs or Jason Compsons or one of Celine’s ‘hero’ narrators, does not imply moral endorsement. It is simply the way we make sense, or rather the way implied authors enable us to become implied readers who make sense, out of unusual or even downright alien viewpoints. We do not compromise our right thinking by engaging in that kind of participation, nor do we condone the character’s outlook.
In the context of psychoanalysis, the analyst attends to signs that indicate that the analysand may be an unreliable narrator, for example, by highlighting the persecutory actions of others and minimizing the analysand’s seduction of the persecutor to persecute, slanting the story in order to block out significant periods in his/her life history or to elicit pity or admiration or glossing over, by silence and euphemism, what the analysand fears will cast him/her in an unfavorable light, or sometimes in too favourable a light. In short, the analyst takes the telling as performance as well as content. The analyst has only tellings and showings to interpret, that is, to retell along psychoanalytc lines (Schafer, 1980)
The device of the unreliable narrator, in other words, may be used to heighten the implied reader’s awareness of the ‘reality’ of the situation in question, to engage them in considering how the tale is told as well as with the ‘content’ of the tale. One ‘reads’ and ‘interprets’ as an analyst, rather than takes as given, that is, re-tells the ‘truth’ or the ‘reality’ of what is at stake.
A number of modernist and postmodern writers deliberately construct stories which are not coherent, where an unreliable narrator, an unclear division between reality and imagination or a breakdown of reality and perception leaves us with an inconsistent story. Examples include Coover’s “The Babysitter”, Cortazar’s “Hopscotch” or Borges’ “Garden of Forking Paths”. Such work interrogates our everyday notions of time, reality and order, in much the same way as Cubism did in painting and Dada in theatre (Bernstein, 2009, 7).
Schafer points out that the question of the unreliable narrator bears on the question of the validity of interpretation: to speak of the unreliable narrator, one must have some conception of a reliable narrator, that is, of the validity of the account. Yet there is no single definitive account to be achieved. Validity can only be achieved within a system that is viewed as such and that appears, after careful consideration, to have the virtues of coherence, consistency, comprehensiveness and common sense.
Abrams, M. H. (1999) A Glossary of Literary Terms. 7th edn. Boston, MA: Heinle & Heinle.
Bernstein, M. (2009) ‘On hypertext narrative’, Proceedings of the 20th ACM conference on Hypertext and hypermedia - HT ’09. New York, NY: ACM Press, p. 5-14. doi: 10.1145/1557914.1557920
Chatman, S. (2016) ‘What novels can do that films can’t (and vice versa )’, Critical Inquiry, 7(1), pp. 121–140.
Kurtzleben, (2017). President Trump, unreliable narrator. NPR. Available at https://www.npr.org/2017/06/19/532601222/president-donald-trump-unreliable-narrator?t=1622561971951 [Accessed 1 June 2021]
Schafer, R. (1980) ‘Narration in the psychoanalytic dialogue’, Critical Inquiry, 99(5), pp. 383–389.
Lee, S. (2021) Unreliable narrator. BBC Sounds. Available at https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m000wynk [Accessed 17 June 2021]
Sweet, M. (2020) The Unreliable narrator. -BBC Sounds_. Available at https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m000gmv5 [Accessed 17 June 2021]