Welcome to the Reading Doctor!
We introduced this service last year and we welcome your questions again in 2021.
Read more about Dr Louise here. Send us your questions for her by emailing us: firstname.lastname@example.org
An unreliable literary narrator is one whose credibility is compromised in some way, so can’t be fully trusted by the reader to tell the complete truth. Almost always speaking in the first person, an unreliable narrator lives in the world of the story and thus has a subjective perspective, a bias, perhaps even an agenda. If truth itself is also a matter of perspective, then it could be argued, of course, that we are all unreliable narrators of our own lives.
Unreliable narrators may be deliberately unreliable: lying or concealing things in order to misdirect the reader. They might be naively unreliable: sincere, but not in possession of all the information, or failing to understand it (as in a child narrator, for instance). Or, they might be evasively unreliable: self-deceiving, self-justifying and even unaware of their own lies.
They all leave the reader with the work of reading under the surface and between the lines, beyond what we’re told, to make our own judgements.
· An investment banker and serial killer is the stream-of-consciousness narrator of American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis; he’s signalled as an untrustworthy storyteller for more reasons than the obvious, who contradicts himself, for instance, as his mental state progressively declines.
· A man confesses, at length, to various heinous crimes, while attempting to persuade the reader that the fault truly lies elsewhere, in Sleeping with Jane Austen by David Aitken.
· A narrator (who’s also a crime writer) with early-onset Alzheimer’s has trouble distinguishing fact from fiction in Paul Cleave’s thriller Trust No-one; when he confesses to actually committing the crimes in his novels, his friends and family assure him that’s not so, but doubt remains.
· The survivor of a shipwreck tells a story that’s difficult to believe in Life of Pi by Yann Martel, featuring a talking tiger and a carnivorous island, in a book concerned with the nature of truth.
· The teenage protagonist of A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess tells the story of his violent exploits and his experiences with authorities trying to reform him.
· A suspect narrates the report of a murder investigation in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, the third novel featuring Hercule Poirot.
· Bumbling his way through significant events in American history, Forrest Gump understands few of them, blessed as he is with a very simple – though wise – view of the world, in the book by Winston Groom.
· Nelly Dean is the main narrator of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, though her tale is highly coloured by her personal involvement with the Earnshaw and Linton families.