Unreliable Narration: Shutter Island
Updated: Mar 26
If you haven't read the first post in this series, check it out here! This post will be an analysis of Shutter Island in relation to unreliable narration and will reference definitions/ organization from the first post. This is a bit of a hefty post, but I hope it's useful to other writers! If you can't get enough also check out the Gone Girl analysis here! I will reference it in the analysis below to make comparisons.
MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW!
Shutter Island is a novel about a man suffering from delusions. Teddy Daniels, also known as Andrew Laeddis, believes he is a marshal solving the disappearance of a woman from a mental health facility when in fact he is a patient there. The reader has a different reaction because Teddy is not actively trying to lie to the reader; he simply is fallible and missing parts of the truth.
We do not hold Teddy, who is suffering from delusions, to the same level of responsibility as Amy, who feels selfish, even though she likely suffers from mental health disturbances as well. This difference of reaction lies in character motivation, or lack thereof, in manipulating the reader. However, as one can see in the third work, readers can forgive untrustworthy narrators if they change into a better person by the end of their story.
Lehane introduces Teddy’s unreliability near the end of Shutter Island. While the reader
recognizes some things as not lining up, they do not spend as much time with Teddy after the revelation as they do with Amy in Gone Girl.
As stated earlier, Teddy is a fallible narrator, which means his cognitive issues drive both his lying and his actions, things he likely would not do if he viewed the world from a realistic perspective. All of Teddy’s cognitive issues stem from him being unable to admit that he killed his wife (Lehane 363). Because he does not believe in that reality, he cannot accept he is a patient at Ashcliffe (329) named Andrew Laeddis, so instead he claims he never had kids (334), that people named Teddy Daniels and Rachel Solando exist (327), and that he is a federal marshal investigating a corrupt hospital doing brain experiments on patients (337).
For a large portion of the book, the reader believes some of these things too, although doubt creeps in earlier than the final revelation. Lehane uses ambiguity and multiple interpretations to maintain our belief that Teddy is telling the truth.
A particularly enlightening section of the book comes when Teddy has a 100% factual conversation but reveals it to the reader incorrectly. He is not lying to the reader on purpose, like Amy does in Gone Girl; instead, the mistruths come from his cognitive unreliability. In this section, Teddy finally gets some information on Laeddis, the man he believes killed his wife. He is talking to George Noyce, a man Teddy believes was released from Ashecliffe but is now re-imprisoned.
The conversation begins with a whisper: “Laeddis” (Lehane 233). Teddy believes George
is drawing in his attention with this whisper to talk about a man other than himself. However, George is actually using Teddy’s real name and calling him over. Next, George says, “you were supposed to save me” (234). In Teddy’s delusion, he will later think this means that he shares the blame for George coming back to Ashecliffe.
In reality, George never left. He had moved from Ward C to the less restrictive ward, but after getting in a fight with Teddy, the staff forced him to return to Ward C. This is what George means, but Teddy, who has cast himself as “the good guy catching the bad guy”, can not allow his mind to accept this truth; thus, he creates another. Of course, it doesn’t help that George is also mentally ill.
George tries again with, “You told me I’d be free of this place. You promised,” and finished with “you lied” (235). Throughout the scene Teddy continually tries to produce light, but his only option is a package of matches which quickly burn out and return the scene to darkness. This represents moments of mental clarity for Teddy that are quickly extinguished with the power of his delusions (234-243).
Next, George explicitly tells Teddy that everything Teddy is experiencing is for him. He
does this multiple times. The first time he says, “This is about you. And Laeddis. This is all it’s ever been about” (236). Here, Lehane plays with punctuation. George is really saying ‘this is about you, and, Laeddis, this is all it’s ever been about,’ however, because we are still in the unreliable narration of Teddy’s mind, Lehane wrote the punctuation the first way. When Teddy faces his final awakening later in the book, Lehane writes this exact line the second way (347).
For a second time, George tells Teddy the truth when he answers Teddy’s question of who beat him up. He says, “You did this,” meaning that Teddy/Laeddis actually did the beating, but Teddy interprets it as a long reaching effect of his questioning which caused George to be ‘recaptured’.
And finally, George can’t be much clearer when he states the entire premise of the book by saying:
“This is a game. A handsomely mounted stage play. All this… is for you” (238).
A clear difference between Amy and Teddy is that while both are lying to the reader, Amy lies for selfish reasons and Teddy thinks he is telling the truth. However, at the very end of Shutter Island the reader is challenged and must decide whether Teddy is purposely lying or if he is lying based on his cognitive disabilities.
If Teddy refuses to accept his part in his wife’s death, the mental facility is going to lobotomize him. In the last chapter, it appears that Teddy has regressed and the staff are taking him to surgery; however, in that same chapter it says, “his vision was as clear as it had been when he was a child and his head as well” (367). This indicates that his mind hasn’t regressed back into an unreliable state but that he is choosing to lie to the staff so he never has to face the truth. After he reveals to Chuck that he has ‘regressed’, the narration states, “he had a minute. Maybe even a few minutes.”
Because Lehane chose to use third person, this could be narration of the circumstances, but as we saw earlier, the third person narration is led by Teddy’s state of mind to the point of moving commas around. He knows.
Lehane, Dennis. Shutter Island. Harper Perennial, 2009.