An unreliable narrator is a narrator, whether in literature, film, or theatre, whose credibility has been seriously compromised. The term was coined in 1961 by Wayne C. Booth in The Rhetoric of Fiction. This narrative mode is one that can be developed by an author for a number of reasons, usually to deceive the reader or audience. Unreliable narrators are usually first-person narrators, but third-person narrators can also be unreliable.
The nature of the narrator is sometimes immediately clear. For instance, a story may open with the narrator making a plainly false or delusional claim or admitting to being severely mentally ill, or the story itself may have a frame in which the narrator appears as a character, with clues to his unreliability. A more dramatic use of the device delays the revelation until near the story's end. This twist ending forces the reader to reconsider their point of view and experience of the story. In some cases the narrator's unreliability is never fully revealed but only hinted at, leaving the reader to wonder how much the narrator should be trusted and how the story should be interpreted.
Historical novels, speculative fiction, and clearly delineated dream sequences are generally not considered instances of unreliable narration, even though they describe events that did not or could not happen.
The idea of unreliable narrators dates back to the science of hadith in Islamic historiographical literature, where narrators of hadiths (narratives) regarding Muhammad and his companions were subjected to scrutiny by 9th-century hadith scholars such as Muhammad al-Bukhari, who only included narrations from those he deemed to be reliable narrators in his Sahih al-Bukhari and rejected ones from those he deemed to be unreliable narrators. This was used as a literary device by the 10th-century Islamic philosopher, Abū Hayyān al-Tawhīdī. In one of his works, he assumed the role of an "unreliable narrator" providing intentionally misleading narrations of his teacher Abu Yaqub Sijistani. Al-Tawhidi "occasionally enciphered records of discussions concerning sensitive issues in cryptic language, employing literary techniques of reticence and self-contradiction to entice the attuned reader to deeper penetration and understanding."
The literary device of the "unreliable narrator" was used in several medieval fictional Arabic tales of the One Thousand and One Nights, also known as the Arabian Nights. In one tale, "The Seven Viziers", a courtesan accuses a king's son of having assaulted her, when in reality she had failed to seduce him (inspired by the Qur'anic/Biblical story of Yusuf/Joseph). Seven viziers attempt to save his life by narrating seven stories to prove the unreliability of the courtesan, and the courtesan responds by narrating a story to prove the unreliability of the viziers.
The unreliable narrator device is also used to generate suspense in another Arabian Nights tale, "The Three Apples", an early murder mystery. At one point of the story, two men claim to be the murderer, one of which is revealed to be lying. At another point in the story, in a flashback showing the reasons for the murder, it is revealed that an unreliable narrator convinced the man of his wife's infidelity, thus leading to her murder. This device of an unreliable narrator misleading a man into believing the infidelity of his wife and thus murdering her is also later used in "Un Capitano Moro", a tale from Giovanni Battista Giraldi's Gli Hecatommithi (1565), and its theatrical adaptation, Shakespeare's Othello (1603).
Another early example of unreliable narration is Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. In the Merchant's Tale for example, the narrator, being unhappy in his marriage, allows his misogynistic bias to slant much of his tale. In the Wife of Bath's, the Wife often makes inaccurate quotations and incorrectly remembers stories.
Wilkie Collins' early detective story The Moonstone (1868) is an early example of the unreliable narrator in crime fiction. The plot of the novel unfolds through several narratives by different characters, which contradict each other and reveal the biases of the narrators.
A controversial example of an unreliable narrator occurs in Agatha Christie's novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, where the narrator hides essential truths in the text (mainly through evasion, omission, and obfuscation) without ever overtly lying. Many readers at the time felt that the plot twist at the climax of the novel was nevertheless unfair.
Many novels are narrated by children, whose inexperience can impair their judgment and make them unreliable. In Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), Huck's innocence leads him to make overly charitable judgments about the characters in the novel, even going so far as to accuse his author, "Mr. Mark Twain", of having stretched the truth in the previous book, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, an early example of a fourth-wall breach. In contrast, Holden Caulfield, in The Catcher in the Rye, tends to assume the worst.
Ken Kesey's two most famous novels feature unreliable narrators. "Chief" Bromden in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest suffers from schizophrenia, and his telling of the events often includes things such as people growing or shrinking, walls oozing with slime, or the orderlies kidnapping and "curing" Santa Claus. Narration in Sometimes a Great Notion switches between several of the main characters, whose bias tends to switch the reader's sympathies from one person to another, especially in the rivalry between main character Leland and Hank Stamper. Many of Susan Howatch's novels similarly use this technique; each chapter is narrated by a different character, and only after reading chapters by each of the narrators does the reader realize each of the narrators has biases and "blind spots" that cause them to perceive shared experiences differently.
Charlie Gordon, the narrator in Daniel Keyes' epistolary novel Flowers for Algernon, is mentally retarded at the start of the novel but develops greater intelligence and understanding. Following a Rorschach inkblot test early in the novel, Charlie reports that he was told to imagine pictures in the ink contrary to the standardised way of delivering the test. Subsequently, on listening to an audio recording of the test, he realises that his memory was flawed.
Humbert Humbert, the main character and narrator of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, often tells the story in such a way as to justify his pedophilic fixation on young girls, in particular his sexual relationship with his 12-year-old stepdaughter. Similarly, the narrator of A.M. Homes' The End of Alice deliberately withholds the full story of the crime that put him in prison — the rape and murder of a young girl — until the end of the novel.
In some instances, unreliable narration can bring about the fantastic in works of fiction. In Kingsley Amis' The Green Man, for example, the unreliability of the narrator Maurice Allington destabilizes the boundaries between reality and the fantastic. The same applies to Nigel Williams's Witchcraft. An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears also employs several points of view from narrators whose accounts are found to be unreliable and in conflict with each other.
The film Rashomon (1950), adapted from In a Grove (1921), uses multiple narrators to tell the story of the death of a samurai. Each of the witnesses describe the same basic events but differ wildly in the details, alternately claiming that the samurai died by accident, suicide, or murder. The term Rashomon effect is used to describe how different witnesses are able to produce differing, yet plausible, accounts of the same event, with equal sincerity. The 1995 film The Usual Suspects reveals that the narrator had been deceiving another character, and hence the audience, by inventing stories and characters from whole cloth. The 1945 film noir Detour is told from the perspective of an unreliable protagonist who may be trying to justify his actions.
Mentally impaired narrators may describe the world as they perceive it rather than as it really is. In the film, Bubba Ho-tep, the main character is either Elvis Presley or an Elvis impersonator named Sebastian Haff. He appears to suffer from Alzheimer's disease, making it unclear how much of his story is real. The play and film Amadeus is narrated by an elderly Antonio Salieri from an insane asylum, where he claims to have murdered his rival, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. It is left unclear whether the story actually happened, or whether it is the product of Salieri's delusions; this is especially ambiguous, as there is no concrete historical evidence that Salieri killed Mozart.
Randy Newman is noted for his use of the unreliable narrator; most of his lyrics are from the perspective of a character far removed from Newman's own biography. For example, the 1972 song "Sail Away" is written as a slave trader's sales pitch to attract slaves, while the narrator of "Political Science" is a U.S. nationalist who complains of worldwide ingratitude toward America and proposes a brutally ironic final solution. One of his biggest hits, "Short People" was written from the perspective of a lunatic who hates short people.
Eminem often uses his "Slim Shady" persona as an unreliable narrator. In "Stan", however, the unreliable narrator is actually an obsessed fan whose messages to Eminem become increasingly erratic and who eventually commits a murder-suicide. "Shady" is presented in this song as a reliable secondary narrator.
In the final episode of M*A*S*H, unreliable narration is used to create dramatic effect; Hawkeye Pierce, now a patient of Sidney Freedman in an army mental hospital ward, recounts a traumatic memory of a recent event. In the recounting a key component is substituted with something more innocuous, leaving the viewer wondering why that incident resulted in his mental illness. Later, psychoanalysis with free-association reveals the true memory, which is much more disturbing and can be clearly seen as the cause.
In the episode "Three Stories" of the show House, M.D., the title character, Dr. Gregory House, gives a lecture recounting the stories of three patients who came in with leg pain. House constantly changes details and lies about the stories to make them more interesting and, as is ultimately revealed, to conceal the identity of one of the patients. It is ultimately revealed that in one of the stories he is actually describing himself.
Films with an unreliable point-of-view (or points-of-view):
Smith, M. W. (1991). Understanding Unreliable Narrators. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.