Why do we enjoy reading stories when we know we're being fooled? Authors sometimes use an Unreliable Narrator to tell the story, a protagonist who can't be trusted to tell the events accurately. Either they are insane, evil, delusional, forgetful, or just plain wrong...whatever their reasons, the writer uses this technique to 'hook' the reader.
This is not merely characters sharing different "points of view." These narrators purposefully lack credibility. Though we know the author is pulling our leg, we're usually happy to read an interesting story. Authors either offer clues gradually to discredit the narrator, or disclose the lie right from the start. Edgar Allan Poe called this technique "a novel or vivid effect" in his essay, The Philosophy of Composition. Writers employ an Unreliable Narrator so the reader has to figure out the real story (it must be really fun to write). Enjoy reading the stories below, followed by Why they are Unreliable, Unreliable Narrator Novels, Discussion Questions, and Useful Links.
The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe tells the story from the perspective of a maniacal murderer, who at first assures the reader "how healthily-- how calmly I can tell you the whole story." As the story progresses, he reveals his true mental derangement which spirals out of control in front of the reader, a true psychotic killer, we know, without a doubt. Poe offers the quintessential definition of "telltale" in the story's revealing betrayal. Poe uses this technique brilliantly in so many of his stories, it's hard to choose. Some of our other favorites: The Cask of Amontillado, The Black Cat, The Pit and the Pendulum, and The Angel of the Odd.
The Repairer of Reputations by Robert W. Chambers is itself a dystopia, in which the author invites the reader to disbelieve the authenticity of the story's events (the protagonist is an unreliable narrator because he sustained a head injury and is committed to an insane asylum). He becomes ultra-paranoid and may have committed murder after reading a censored play, The King in Yellow, which itself is a false document the author tries to convince the reader is authentic. A true dystopian horror story.
Hearts and Hands by O. Henry offers the author's usual irony and clever wordplay, this one about a prisoner being escorted to Levenworth by a sympathetic marshal, who perpetrates his mistaken identity on account of Easton's run-in with his acquaintance, Miss Fairchild. O. Henry himself is an unreliable narrator as an ex-con, wanted on embezzlement charges and fled to Honduras before turning himself in for his sentence. This story was published the year he was released from prison.
The Moonlit Road by Ambrose Bierce is a story about a woman's murder in which he invokes elements of supernatural and horror, told from three different perspectives: the son, the murderous husband, and the dead wife (through a medium). Bierce's brilliance is his ability to convey clarifying details to the reader, so we feel as though we discovered the husband's guilt on our own. He doesn't make it easy for us, given the inconsistent names, we don't immediately connect they are son and father: Joel Hetman, Jr.'s statement (the son), followed by Caspar Grattan's (the father) narrative, rationalizing his actions some twenty years later. Julia Hetman (the dead wife/mother) tells her story from the after-life through the Medium Bayrolles, so she is REALLY an unreliable narrator-- or is she telling the actual truth best of all, which means the reader believes in the supernatural? Bierce leaves ambiguity and doubt: was that shadow leaving her chamber real or imagined? Why does the husband use the name Grattan? Did Julia commit adultery? The brilliance is in the unreliability of the interwoven stories.
The Chronicles of Clovis by H.H. Munro (SAKI), is a collection of short stories about a disenchanted, upper-class youth with a mean-streak who delights in tormenting his elders. SAKI makes it quite apparent that his protagonist's perspective is nowhere near the truth, or what his elders think! In addition to the collection of Clovis Sangrail stories, check out his titles involving Reginald, a snarky young man who points out the blatantly hypocritical actions of the upper-class, a perfect vehicle for SAKI to deliver his own biting social commentary. Clovis on Parental Responsibilities and Reginald's Christmas Revel are both good examples of the Unreliable Narrator technique, though almost all of SAKI's work offers such witty banter, told by the brashest of characters, the reader knows is absolutely "wrong" by conventional standards, and that's the point!
Extracts from Adam's Diary by Mark Twain is the companion to the better-known (reliable narrator), Eve's Diary, in which Twain playfully reimages the Biblical version of original sin by writing a narrative from both participants in the Garden of Eden. Because Adam is so clueless about Eve's capabilities and wisdom (Twain's intent), he is the clear Unrealiable Narrator in this short story pairing.
The Fortune Teller by Machado de Assis is about betrayal and treachery, told by a woman's lover, who hopes her husband remains unsuspecting of their adultery. This Unreliable Narrator is completely clueless, has no idea how obvious their affair is to everyone else, particularly the cuckolded husband. The fortune-teller is an "aiding and abetting" unreliable narrator, because she assures each lover that they have nothing to fear. The reality ends up being quite different (we won't spoil the story's end).
Asleep in Armageddon by Ray Bradbury is a masterful narration by the only man left on earth (how can he be reliable, nobody can corroborate his story?). After death, he has conversations with feuding spirits who might just be his dreams or thoughts. How long is time, distance in space, which planets exist-- his account is absolutely unreliable, and fascinating!
The Story of the Three Apples from The Tales of the Arabian Nights is a complex tale of deceit in which many people confess to their role in the murder of a young woman, whose own children admit to taking an apple. Hard to know who to believe and who to convict of the murder.
The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a story challenging equitable medical practices, narrated by a woman suffering from extreme post-partum depression. The other perspectives on her condition are that of her husband, the doctor (neither one has a clue). Gilman leaves the reader to evaluate whether she is credible or on the verge of insanity because of a dysfunctional medical system.
The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells, who employs a journalistic storytelling technique through an unreliable narrator, who sensationalizes all events, but they come off as sounding real. The Halloween, 1938 radio broadcast of the story, narrated by Orson Welles, was convincing enough that listeners who tuned-in mid-broadcast mistakenly thought it was a real alien invasion.)
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain is one of his masterworks and best example of the Unreliable Narrator. He employs dramatic irony relying on Huck, a naive and uneducated boy, to narrate the story, in which he knows he is "wrong" to help runaway slave, Jim. But Twain ensures that the reader knows he's doing the "right" thing.
The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford chronicles the tragedy of Edward Ashburnham, set before World War I, using a series of unreliable flashbacks in non-chronological order, gradually revealing a version of events that is totally different than those at the start. Ford's credited with pioneering this technique of "literary impressionism."
Dream Women: A Mystery in Four Narratives by Wilkie Collins employs the dramatic technique of unraveling a mystery with three unique perspectives. He wrote one of the first modern English detective novels, The Moonstone (1868).
1. What does an "Unreliable Narrator" mean? Name some reasons an author might use this technique to engage their readers.
2. Edgar Allan Poe is one of the most prolific writers who uses this technique. Discuss how the narrator in The Tell-Tale Heart assures us: "how healthily-- how calmly I can tell you the whole story" at the beginnings, and proceeds to reveal his psycho-killer confession of murder. Closely read the story and provide evidence for how and when Poe reveals the truth.
3. Though they share some common elements, contrast an Unreliable Narrator with characters having different Points of View. Provide evidence in your response.
4. Read the The Moonlit Road, and identify the ways in which all three narrators in Bierce's story are unreliable? Which do you think has the most credibility? How does the supernatural play a role in our ability to discern the "truth"?
5. Narrators who are confirmed as insane or mentally ill are dead giveaways as unreliable narrators. Combine that with horror, and you have The Repairer of Reputations. How does Chambers use the fictional play, "The King in Yellow" (which is a false document, made up by the author), as the catalyst that drove Hildred Castaigne crazy and to commit murder?
6. Discuss how authors use false historical accounts to discredit their narrative (a form of an Unreliable Narrator). Consider The Repairer of Reputations (a contrived future American history review in 1920), and The Pit and the Pendulum (Spanish Inquisition tortures occurred in the 1470s, his rescuer, General Lasalle was in the Napoleonic Wars in the 1790s).
7. An Encounter with an Interviewer is Mark Twain's blatant lies in response to a reporter's questions (e.g., "How old are you? Nineteen, in June...") What is the effect of making himself the Unreliable Narrator (a.k.a. satire) and who is he making fun of?
8. Discuss O. Henry's use of multiple unreliable narrators in his short story about a prisoner and a marshal, Hearts and Hands, in which the marshal shows compassion in front of the prisoner's lady-acquaintenance, and pretends to be the prisoner so he can save-face. Explain the observation O. Henry reveals at the end by two bystanders: "Say, did you ever know an officer to handcuff his prisoner to his right hand?"
9. The Story of the Three Apples offers many lies about how the apples were acquired by various people (the slave, the children particularly), and who is liable for their crimes. Who will be charged with her murder, the husband or the slave? (Remember this is an Arabic story, whose judicial processes differed from Western due-process.
10. Writing Prompt: Choose one of the Unreliable Narrator stories featured here, and rewrite the story by a different character who is a reliable narrator.
In a Grove (short story summary) by Ryunosuke Akutagawa (not yet in the public domain)
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