John Hewitt's Blog

Explaining the unreliable narrator

An unreliable narrator is a first-person narrator that for some reason has a compromised point-of-view. In all stories with a first-person narrator, the narrator serves as a filter for the events. What the narrator does not know or observe cannot be explained to the reader. Usually, however, the reader trusts that the narrator is knowledgeable and truthful enough to give them an accurate representation of the story. In the case of an unreliable narrator (sometimes called a fallible narrator), the reader has reason not to trust what the narrator is saying.

The narrator may be unreliable for many reasons. Some of the typical scenarios are:

  • The narrator may be of a dramatically different age than the people in the story, such as a child attempting to explain adult actions
  • The narrator may have prejudices about race, class or gender
  • The narrator may have low intelligence
  • The narrator may suffer from hallucinations or dementia
  • The narrator may have a personality flaw such as pathological lying or narcissism
  • The narrator may be trying to make a point that is contrary to the actions of the story or be attempting to libel one of the characters due to a grudge

Whatever flaw the narrator has, at some point the reader will realize that the narrator’s interpretation of the events cannot be fully trusted and will begin to form their own opinions about the events and motivations within the story. Some readers will be put off by this approach. Stories depend on the willing suspension of disbelief, and readers can be pulled out of the story when they realize the narrator cannot be trusted. This is why telling a tale from this viewpoint can be problematic. There is a fine line between distrusting the narrator and distrusting the writer.

When done badly, a story written from this point-of-view can be viewed as manipulative, misleading, confusing and pretentious. When successful, however, the results can be powerful and fascinating. Some of the greatest works of the twentieth century used unreliable narrators. Some examples of books with unreliable narrators include:

  • Anna

    this might be a really stupid question, but is the narrator in Slaughterhouse Five reliable or unreliable?? Im really stuck on this paper where I’m supposed to analyze the extent to which the reliability of the narrator can affect the reader’s understanding of events in the text…

  • Anna

    this might be a really stupid question, but is the narrator in Slaughterhouse Five reliable or unreliable?? Im really stuck on this paper where I’m supposed to analyze the extent to which the reliability of the narrator can affect the reader’s understanding of events in the text…

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