Why do we take so much pleasure in unreliable narrators in the thrillers and mysteries we read? For we are enormously entertained by them. It’s no accident that recent blockbusters Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, and The Woman in the Window all feature unreliable narrators. (Strong female narrators I might add.)
Let’s back up and take a tour of the backstory. A work of fiction has an unreliable narrator when it is told from the perspective of a character who is deficient in some way. Morally deficient. Intellectually deficient. Physically. Emotionally. You name it. Any deficiency that would prevent you, the reader, from implicitly trusting what that character says indicates unreliability.
William Riggan in 1981 helpfully classified unreliable narrators into four types. The picaro exaggerates and brags (Moll from Moll Flanders). The madman has difficulties discerning reality from delusion or fantasy (Charles Kinbote from Nabokov’s Pale Fire). The clown deliberately circumvents our expectations and plays with conventions (almost anything by Kurt Vonnegut), and the naïf’s perceptions are limited by immaturity or knowledge of the world (Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye). Finally, the liar is someone with normal cognitive capabilities who deliberately tells untruths (both Nick and Amy from Gone Girl).
Wayne C. Booth came up with the term unreliable narrators in 1961 in his influential The Rhetoric of Fiction, but unreliable narrators themselves have been around for thousands of years. Plautus's comedy Miles Gloriosus, in which a soldier grandiosely exaggerates his triumphs, is the best-known example from the dramas of ancient Greece. In Milton’s Paradise Lost, we get the fall from grace from Satan’s point of view—certainly not someone you would depend on for the unvarnished truth. Later on, The Canterbury Tales gives us stories told by patently dubious characters such as the Merchant and the Wife of Bath.
What’s the deal? Why do we keep reading?
First, there’s the pleasure of the puzzle: what is the truth if I can’t trust this narrator? What clues has the writer given to guide me toward an understanding of what reality is? You’re playing a mental cat-and-mouse game, and that’s fun.
There’s also the pleasure of a dramatic surprise when everything you thought true turns out to be false. What? We’ve been led around by a ghost? (Bruce Willis in Sixth Sense). Okay, that’s a movie, but I didn’t want to give away any literary spoilers.
But in my view, the true value of an unreliable narrator is to give us unique insights into the world that would otherwise be missed if a story were told “straight.”
What if Catcher in the Rye had been told from a mature adult perspective? Or Lolita had been written from a neutral, omniscient third-person point of view? How much would we, as an audience, have lost?
A lot. We would have missed the opportunity getting a very different perspective on the world—a world we take for granted, with all its social and moral norms and mores (not to mention actual laws).
But what do we get from seeing life from, for example, the perspective of the unapologetic pedophile Humbert Humbert? We are clearly meant to regard Humbert as an abomination. Humbert himself eventually admits—in some of the most moving paragraphs of the book—that he has utterly destroyed another human being through his actions. Do we really benefit from seeing inside this man’s monstrous soul?
I would say yes.
The more we see, the more we understand. I would suggest we better see the true horror of what humans are capable of by inhabiting Humbert for the 300-plus pages Nabokov has given us. We don’t have to approve of or accept Humbert’s behavior. But we learn from it.
With this, I would go further than William Riggan and suggest there’s a fifth kind of unreliable narrator, of which Humbert is an example. A very important kind of narrator for our day and age.
The outsider stands apart from mainstream society. Sometimes she is forced into that position because of her race, or her sexuality, her religion, her social status, or some other attribute that make others reject her. Callie (Cal) Stephanides in Middlesex. Frances Phelan in Ironweed. Celle in The Color Purple.
Sometimes he chooses to be an outsider, like the unnamed narrator of The Sympathizer. Or Humbert Humbert.
Why would outsiders be considered unreliable? Because they give us a view of reality that’s skewed when compared to mainstream attitudes. They shock us with contrary opinions, actions.
To give you an example from a different genre, Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette, which is billed as a standup comedy routine by Netflix, but goes way beyond that. As an outsider unreliable narrator, Gadsby gives us an extraordinarily powerful view of what our world looks like from someone who’s been pushed to the fringes. It ain’t pretty.
Which is the point. The unreliable narrator tells us truths that we simply couldn’t get any other way. And given the state of the world, given our current mainstream reality, we desperately need more so-called unreliable outsiders to make their voices heard—in literature and beyond.
Half Moon Bay by Alice LaPlante – Published by Titan Books
Jane O'Malley loses everything when her teenage daughter is killed in a senseless accident. Devastated, she makes one tiny stab at a new life and moves from San Francisco to the tiny seaside town of Half Moon Bay. As the months go by she is able to cobble together some possibility of peace. Then children begin to disappear, and soon Jane sees her own pain reflected in all the parents in the town. She wonders if she will be able to live through the aching loss, the fear once again surrounding her, but as the disappearances continue, fingers of suspicion all begin to point at her