The most compelling storytellers are often those who make us read between the lines. Here, we take a look at nine stories with unreliable narrators and consider why authors employ these untrustworthy guides and how to spot them.
Authors have many reasons for using a narrator who doesn’t tell the whole story. At their worst, an unreliable narrator offers writers an easy means of withholding vital information in order to surprise readers later on. Unless the author really knows what they’re doing this generally comes off as a cheap trick and the reader is left feeling ‘cheated’ (cough, *Gone Girl*, cough, cough).
At their best, unreliable narrators ask us to actively engage with their storytelling—demanding we pay as much (if not more attention) to what is implied or left unsaid. Good writers see a narrator’s unreliability not as a way to ‘trick’ readers, but as a means of developing a character, giving them a strong and distinctive ‘voice’ and inviting us to experience the story from an unusual perspective. While the term ‘unreliable narrator’ implies that these characters set out to deceive, the best of them tell the truth, or rather, their version of the truth.
Narrators will usually tell you when they can’t be trusted, albeit in a round about way. If a narrator insists they’re not crazy, they’re probably bat shit. If they confess to committing a heinous crime, but believe it was justified, they’re most likely a monster: proceed with caution. (Fun fact: this style of confession is what writer David Lodge calls ‘special pleading’. When done well it can make you sympathise with the worst criminals). If the narrator is significantly younger than the intended readership or has an intellectual handicap, you’re likely dealing with a ‘naive narrator’ who doesn’t fully understand the story they’re telling. Read between the lines and pay close attention to the other characters’ dialogue.
There’s a number of famous unreliable narrators you’re likely already be familiar with: The Madman in Edgar Allan Poe’s short story ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ (1843), Scout Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) and, more recently, Christopher John Francis Boone in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003). If you enjoyed these stories, here’s nine more of our favourites.
If we’ve left something off the list, let us know in the comments below.
Richard Papen in Donna Tartt’s The Secret History (1992)
Richard begins his story with a double confession: he was party to the murder of a friend and has a fatal flaw: ‘a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.’ What follows is a Greek tragedy played out on the claustrophobic stage of an elite liberal arts college in 1980s America, as Richard recalls how he became enamoured with a clique of classics students who kill one of their classmates then realise it probably wasn’t such a great idea.
At it’s heart, The Secret History is a garish thriller, full of cheap drama: sex, death and scandal. Tartt’s genius lies in her ability to take this basest of stories and, through Richard’s narration, give it the appearance of high art. Violence, orgies and incest are swept discretely off page, and the rampant drug abuse and alcoholism are only begrudgingly alluded to. Instead, centre stage, Richard conjures beatific descriptions of his friends and their lives: elegant, candlelit dinners, weekend romps to the countryside, lazy afternoons rowing and reciting poetry on a private lake, earnest discussions of philosophy and art and hushed confessions in the three a.m. dark.
Humbert Humbert in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955)
In his opening statement, Humbert Humbert makes an irresistible promise: ‘You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.’ A good story, well told—what reader could resist? As it turns out, murder is far from the worst of old Hum’s crimes, and yet, as storytellers go, he is a master enchanter.
Lolita is clever and playful, and Humbert drapes his story in nostalgia’s rosy veil. It reads like a romance, a tender, tragic love story. And yet. The object of Humbert’s affections is his teenage step daughter. But don’t let the subject matter put you off. Lolita is a masterwork of storytelling, a book that pits art against morality.
Mrs de Winter in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938)
The first sign that du Maurier’s narrator is withholding information is her refusal to give her name. Throughout the story she identifies herself only as ‘Mrs de Winter’, a title she acquires from her husband early in the story and is never entirely comfortable with.
On its surface Rebecca is a romantic thriller. The young narrator catches the eye of widower Maxim de Winter, and after becoming his wife returns with him to Manderley, a country estate to rival Pemberley, where she finds herself haunted by reminders of Maxim’s first wife, Rebecca. As the story progresses it becomes increasingly clear that Max hasn’t been entirely forthcoming about the details of his first marriage and Rebecca wasn’t who she seems.
At first the narrator appears merely naive, but she’s almost too gauche to be believed—as though she’s trying to play the heroine in a rags-to-riches fairytale. And when the story departs from this well-worn plot it becomes clear that what Mrs de Winter perceives as a fairytale is in fact a Gothic nightmare. At its heart, Rebecca is a story about feminine identity—a struggle between the the mad woman in the attic and the angel in the house, negotiating the space between who a woman is and the role she chooses to play.
‘Verity’ in Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity (2012)
In World War II a Scottish spy who calls herself Verity has been captured by Nazis in occupied France and tortured into writing down everything she knows. But her ‘confession’ goes far beyond allied secrets. In fact, it focuses on her unlikely friendship with a young British pilot named Maddie. Knowing she’ll likely be killed when her story is done, Verity, like Scheherazade, spins out her tale, lingering on seemingly unimportant details and offering lengthy lamentations that she has become ‘a proper little Judas’—so much so that the reader suspects the lady doth protest too much. It isn’t until Maddie takes over as narrator and tells her side of the story that the full genius of Verity’s confession is revealed. To say more would be to give too much away, except that Wein is a diligent researcher with an incredibly keen eye for detail and in Verity she has created a most intriguing and charismatic storyteller.
Cadence Sinclair Eastman in E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars (2013)
As a general rule, be wary the amnesiac narrator (see ‘cheap tricks’ above). But like all rules, there are exceptions and Cadence is one of them. Two years ago something bad happened on her family’s private island where she summers with her cousins. She has no memory of the events that occurred, but they have left her fragile. Cadence struggles to reconnect with her cousins and uncover the truth from her family who say what they ought and not what they feel. Savvy readers will piece together what happened long before Cadence, especially if they’re familiar with Shakespeare’s King Lear upon which the story is loosely based. However, guessing the twist heightens rather than diminishes the reader’s enjoyment, as Lockhart crafts her story with the deft hand of a capable tragician.
Merricat in Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962)
From the beginning there is something strange about Merricat. Her parents are dead and she lives a reclusive life in a big old house on the edge of a small town with her elder sister and ailing uncle. While her sister bakes and tends her kitchen garden, Merricat buries things and hangs talismans around the estate to ward off visitors. But when a distant cousin appears with the intent to sell the family heirlooms, Merricat needs more than tokens to fend him off.
The creepy kid is a much used trope in Gothic fiction and film, but it’s one thing for them to haunt a narrative, quite another to have them speak directly to you, especially when they’re being selective about what they disclose. Shirley Jackson penned some of the 20th century’s creepiest stories, and while The Lottery (1948) and The Haunting of Hill House (1959) may inspire more outright terror, they don’t get under your skin and make it crawl the way Merricat does.
Chappy in A. M. Homes’s The End of Alice (1996)
Like his predecessor, Humber Humbert, A. M. Homes’s middle-aged pedophile known only as ‘Chappy’ is charming and charismatic. Unlike Hum, the story he weaves is complete with carnal detail. While he awaits parole in prison for a crime not even he likes to remember, he receives letters from a budding monster like himself, circling her first victim. He offers her advice, and where her letters lack satisfying detail, he eagerly fills in the blanks.
The End of Alice is deeply unsettling and at times nauseating, though Homes avoids falling into the trap of being controversial for the sake of it. For those with a strong stomach, it’s a fascinating character study and an unnerving reminder that monsters walk undetected among us.
Patrick Bateman in Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (1991)
Another tale to turn your stomach. Wall Street executive Patrick Bateman gives as much weight to heinous acts of sexual violence and gruesome murder as he does to the font on his business cards, the brand of champagne he drinks with friends en route to dinner and his finely tuned skin care routine. American Psycho is a sprawling novel of excess, materialism and surfaces, a story of a weak and increasingly frustrated young man seeking his worth in objects and in which the line between reality and fantasy is blurry at best.
Fun fact: Patrick Bateman makes a cameo in Ellis’s earlier novel The Rules of Attraction (1987) as the brother of Sean Bateman. Tartt’s classics students from The Secret History (see above) also get a shout out (Tartt and Ellis were classmates at Bennington College and Tartt dedicated The Secret History to Ellis).
Jack in Emma Donoghue’s Room (2010)
Five year old Jack has always believed the world is no bigger than a single room measuring eleven by eleven feet. Aside from himself there is only Ma and Old Nick who comes at night. To discover that the world is infinitely larger than Room and that Ma had once lived outside is almost too much for Jack to get his head around.
Inspired by true events, Room is a story of abduction, imprisonment and rape told from the naive perspective of a boy with no comprehension of the horror he is born into. But far more than a clever exercise in point of view, Donoghue’s story digs deep into the bond between mother and child.
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