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By Sarah Powell

It’s always wonderful to come across a few well-known narrative techniques, because they make reading so much more interesting. One of my favorites is the unreliable narrator. I love trying to guess what’s going on inside the head of such characters: Huck Finn, Holden Caulfield, The Great Gatsby’s Nick Carraway, the murderer in “The Tell-Tale Heart” who insists he is sane, or the nameless narrator of the cult classic Fight Club.

But what makes a narrator unreliable, exactly?

The OED defines reliable as “able to be trusted; in which reliance or confidence may be placed; trustworthy, safe, sure.” A narrator who is unreliable, then, must be someone who is untrustworthy, in whom the reader cannot place her confidence.

But how can you distinguish an unreliable narrator from a narrator with ordinary human flaws? The first-person point of view is almost always filtered through the thoughts and biases of a single character. But, as you may rightly point out, “unreliable” is not synonymous with “first person.” Any character’s knowledge and powers of perception (or his attention span) will affect how he conveys information to the reader. Even the third-person limited has this trait. When the external narrator steps close enough to a protagonist to allow his thoughts to color the narration, we know we’re not getting the unvarnished, objective truth.

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So does that mean all narrators who aren’t perfect or omniscient must be considered, by default, unreliable?

In the most literal sense, maybe. However, from an analytical standpoint, it’s probably only meaningful to talk about unreliable narrators who conceal things or put a substantially different spin on the story than an omniscient narrator would. No viewpoint can give the reader the entire story—that would be one heck of a long book. But if the author chose the narrator in question because he is unique among all possible narrators as the only one who would present the story a particular way, because of how he views the world or what he wishes to keep secret, then that narrator can be considered unreliable.

As a good working definition, then, an unreliable narrator is one whose unreliability the author uses to create an effect.

Of course, in a certain sense, all narration—even omniscient—is unreliable, because the author ultimately controls the flow of information to the reader. And telling the story from a disreputable point of view is only one of the many techniques authors have in their arsenals to create the reading experience they want their readers to have.


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