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Unreliable Narrator

An unreliable narrator is a narrator whose credibility is in doubt, or somehow compromised.

Unreliable narrators can be found in fiction, poetry, and prose poetry as well as in film and drama. The term was coined by Zayn C. Booth in The Rhetoric of Fiction in 1961. It refers to someone who the reader shouldn’t or can’t trust entirely. Their depiction of events might be incorrect or tinged by their experience. These narrators add to the overall story through their biased, compromised, or simply incorrect understanding of the story. 

Unreliable narrator pronunciation: uhn-ree-lie-uh-buhl nar-ay-tor

Unreliable Narrator - Definition, Explanation and Examples


Definition and Explanation of Unreliable Narrator 

An unreliable narrator might be an adult or a child, someone who is mentally impaired in some way, or someone who is simply too young to fully understand what’s going on. They are usually first-person narrators given that their personal experiences are often what’s influencing their reliability. Sometimes second and third-person narrators are possible in film or very original literature. 

In some stories, the unreliable narrator is quite obvious, such as in The Catcher in the Rye, while in other stories, this is not the case. It might not become clear that the narrator can’t be trusted until the reader gets partially through a book or story. Or, even more dramatic, they might not be revealed to be unreliable until the end of the story. This would create a very impactful twist ending. 


Examples of Unreliable Narrators in Literature

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger 

Holden Caulfield is the perfect example of an unreliable narrator. While many readers might sympathize with his experiences and opinion of the world, they are clearly influenced by his mental health issues and his teenage angst. He often presents views that contradict one another. He claims to hate a certain kind of person and then acts the same way. Holden’s hatred of the world, which he sees as caused by other people, is really caused by his inability to connect with anyone or give anyone the benefit of the doubt. 


Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov 

Lolita is one of the most commonly cited examples of an unreliable narrator. In it, readers are quickly made aware that Humbert Humbert is not to be entirely trusted. Nabokov wrote the character so convincingly that since the publication of the novel, readers have come to the conclusion that he too must share the narrator’s sexual predilection for children. Throughout the novel, Humbert expresses the belief that Lolita seduced him and that she was in control of their relationship. This is something that is blatantly untrue considering that Humbert is an adult, and Lolita is a child. He clearly has the upper hand. He continually deludes himself in order to hide is grievous misdeeds from himself.


A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess 

Alex is another fantastic example of an unreliable narrator. He lives in a dystopian world that he participates in wholeheartedly He’s violent, manipulative, and sociopathic. He has delusions of grandeur and a terrible understanding of what’s right and what’s wrong. His perspective is incredibly biased, tinged toward selfish, illegal, and even deadly pursuits. This is only emphasized after he goes through the painful treatment meant to free him of his criminal desires. 


Examples of Unreliable Narrators in Film 

Shutter Island

Although also a novel, Shutter Island is one of the best films to feature an unreliable narrator. Two marshals come to prison for the mentally insane, seeking out clues about the disappearance of an inmate. Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Teddy Daniels, believes that something odd is going on, something the institution is trying to hide. What becomes clear at the end of the movie is that Teddy is the “escaped inmate” and that he has constructed the fantasy. 


American Psycho 

American Psycho is another example of a novel made into a film. Patrick Bateman’s character is a complex, confusing character that is often debated as an unreadable narrator. Some believe he isn’t, while others wholeheartedly believe he is. It’s up for interpretation whether he’s truly the killer that the story sometimes makes him out to be, a psychopath, or is telling an elaborate “joke”. 


Signs of an Unreliable Narrator 

There are a few signs readers should be on the lookout for in order to identify an unreliable narrator. They include the narrator’s thoughts contradicting themselves. He or she might describe something one way and then re-describe it another way without noting the change. Alternatively, readers can use their common sense to understand that how a narrator is describing something contradicts their own experience of it. This might be true for some experiences but, with others, it is harder for this means of measurement. 

The narrator’s general behavior is also something that can quickly give away that they might be unreliable. If they act impulsively, are quick to anger, or are incapable of maintaining relationships, these might be signs that they can’t be trusted. Lastly, the genre of the story might give the narrator’s mind away. For example, if the main character is a serial killer, their perceptions of the world should not be immediately trusted. 


Types of Unreliable Narrators 

  • The Picario: brags, exaggerates, and stretches the truth of their life and their abilities. For example, Alex in A Clockwork Orange.
  • The Madman: does not have a full grasp of their reality. This is due to some kind of mental disorder, such as paranoia or schizophrenia. Alternatively, it might be due to some complex defense mechanisms which make it impossible to see the truth. For example, Patrick Bateman in American Psycho.
  • The Clown: doesn’t take their job as narrator seriously.
  • The Liar: purposefully misleads the reader and obscures their actions.
  • The Naïf: too young to fully understand the implications of what’s happening around them. For example, Holden Caulfield. 


Unreliable Narrator Synonyms 

Some words that might accompany an unreliable narrator are deceptive, unreasonable, unpredictable narrative, untrustworthy narrator, and disreputable. 


Why Do Writers Use Unreliable Narrators? 

Writers use unreliable narrators for any number of reasons. Depending on the story that you want to write, this kind of narrator right is the perfect plot device to bring the story together. In The Catcher in the Rye, the entire story is based on Holden’s perceptions of the world. Without the first-person perspective that Salinger gives the reader, the novel would not be what it is. It allows the reader to see into the mind of an angry young man and understand the world through his eyes. 

In the case of Shutter Island, the unreliable narrator was also an integral part of the plot. It allows for a twist ending that should take all readers, or viewers, by surprise. But, this feature is not as integral to the overall plot as Hold Caulfield is. It is unclear in Shutter Island where the main character’s perceptions of his world are incorrect. 


Related Literary Terms 

  • Characterization— is a literary device that is used to detail and explains the aspects of a specifically crafted character in a novel, play, or poem.
  • Dialogue— is a literary technique that is concerned with conversations held between two or more characters.
  • Flashback— is a plot device in a book, film, story, or poem in which the readers learn about the past.
  • Persona— an invented perspective that a writer uses. The point of view might be entirely different than their own.


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