“True! —nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am! but why will you
say that I am mad?” (Poe 199). Even if one has not read Edgar Allan Poe’s exceptional work, “The Tale-Tale Heart” they can get the feeling off the very first line, that the narrator might be unreliable. But what is an unreliable narrator?
I did a deep dive into the idea behind unreliable narration for my pre-thesis class and now you, my dear reader, get to reap the benefits! At first I didn’t even know that what I was looking for was unreliable narration. I had three books: The 7 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle (sometimes called the 7 1/2 Deaths...), Gone Girl, and Shutter Island. I knew these three works had something similar about them, which I wanted to replicate, but I wasn’t sure what it was.
After reading a bunch of articles, I landed on unreliable narration and boy did I learn a lot! In high school, they simplified the idea of the unreliable narrator to a narrator you can’t trust is telling the story 100% accurately. And that’s a great place to start, but boy let me tell you... if you want to take a literary deep dive, glance at the study of Narratology.
Anyway, what I thought I would do is write a brief series where I define unreliable narration and then analyze those three aforementioned books in relation to it.
I will draw heavily from two people who I would like to give credit to:
Greta Olsen- “Reconsidering Unreliability: Fallible and Untrustworthy Narrators”
Janina Jacke- “Unreliability and Narrator Types. On the Application Area of › Unreliable Narration”
So let’s look at how they define the unreliable narrator!
Olsen claims authors must distinguish between fallible narrators and untrustworthy narrators. Both types are unreliable; however, their motivations and actions differ vastly. An author, attempting to create an unreliable narrator, must acknowledge these differences.
This definition acted as a huge lightbulb for me! It allowed me to see how all three novels listed above used unreliable narration, even though I had vastly different reactions to the characters.
A prominent example of a fallible narrator is Huckleberry Finn. Finn doesn’t always narrate the way things are, his perception is warped, but that is because of his geographical location, his youth, and his time period. One doesn’t get the idea that Finn couldn’t learn better with time and correct his misplaced information. Thus he’s not actively lying to the reader.
An example of the untrustworthy narrator would be someone like Humbert Humbert from Lolita. Humbert is a creep. No one really gets the feeling that he will grow out of his warped perspective, nor does he seem to want to. Instead, he wants to justify his paedophilia. I think it’s safe to label him untrustworthy.
Super helpful, right? Maybe it was just me, but this distinction really helped me narrow down what felt like a vast area of possibility. I realized which of these unreliable narrators my protagonist would be and can concentrate my study on one type!
I also found Jacke’s definitions enlightening!
Jacke defines different types of unreliable narration:
1) Fact-Related Utterance- this type of unreliable narrator tells lies or withholds information (untrustworthy using Olsen’s method)
2) Fact-related cognitive unreliability- this type happens when the narrator has false beliefs but holds those beliefs to be true (fallible using Olsen’s method)
3) Value Related utterance and opinion reliability - these occur when the values of the narrator are strikingly different from the author or the general population (such as in Lolita). The narrators can either speak those opinions or merely hold them.
4) Value-related actional unreliability- occurs when the narrator acts upon those divergent opinions.
What I found so useful in these definitions was that they are all about how the character acts, things, and speaks. Basically, by thinking of unreliable narration this way, I have a road map for building an unreliable narrator.
Next time I will analyze Gone Girl using both Olsen’s and Jacke’s methods for understanding unreliable narration so you can see it in action! Until then...
Jacke, Janina. “Unreliability and Narrator Types. On the Application Area of › Unreliable
Narration.” Journal of Literary Theory (Berlin), vol. 12, no. 1, 2018, pp. 3–28.
Olson, Greta. “Reconsidering Unreliability: Fallible and Untrustworthy Narrators.” Narrative, vol. 11, no. 1, 2003, pp. 93–109. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20107302. Accessed 6 Mar. 2021.