Unreliable Narrators


I recently finished The Red Tree by Caitlin R. Kiernan, and the narrator herself invokes the idea of unreliability. She postulates that no first-person narrative is reliable, because no one has total recall. We all miss things and turn them slightly toward our own perspective. It’s an interesting idea, so let’s discuss it.

It’s easy to think of some more famous examples of a truly untrustworthy narrator when broaching this subject. Such as American Psycho‘s Patrick Bateman, which I have invoked before. Here we have a 1980s businessman who sees himself as a serial murderer, but evidence of his crimes seems to randomly disappear and trying to get caught is nearly impossible. So what’s really happening to Patrick? The theories are endless, but the point I’m making here is the author clearly wants us to wonder. We’re not meant to take anything at face value, and as you read, you’ll find that increasingly difficult if that’s what you want. It’s a good storytelling trick that works incredibly well here.

But insisting that there is no such thing as a first-person narrator that can be trusted quickly becomes like that douche you know. The subject of someone’s declining health comes up, and they intone importantly, “well, we’re all dying.” Yes, technically, but some of us are dying. The same goes for something like this. Okay, no narrator is reliable, but some must be considered more so than others for the story to retain its integrity.

Consider Dracula by Bram Stoker. Like The Red Tree, it’s an epistolary novel, composed of journal entries and other found media. Where the narrator of The Red Tree, Sarah, speaks freely about her inability to remember details and put everything down perfectly, Dracula acts as if it is a completely sound account. Some interesting things happen when you consider these characters’s POVs to be skewed. Something bad is happening around them, something they want a scapegoat for. They turn to the new man in town, who happened to arrive when all this began. They whisper about creatures in the night to one another, whipping themselves up into hysteria until they’re pursuing him across countries with a stake in hand. Maybe the story is really about an innocent man and xenophobia. No one is stopping you from having that theory in your pocket, but unlike American Psycho, it’s clear enough that’s not what Stoker intends. He wants it to be a vampire. He wants you to fear Dracula, not the people exacting justice on him. Believing they are a mob of xenophobes is interesting and a good discussion piece, but it also erases the story entirely.

I understand that might help some readers though. Suspending disbelief for a perfect account, dialogue and all, of events someone witnessed isn’t possible for some people. If you can consider every narrative as told by one person’s account of it flawed, it’s easier to swallow. That’s fine, but it’s also a very post-modernist view. For works that don’t exist in that type of fiction, you have to consider that the author wasn’t thinking of that flaw. They intended for the account given to be “accurate” to that character’s knowledge. The reason we have unreliable narrators is because authors questioned someone’s ability to recall an event so well and started writing characters who couldn’t possibly be that truthful, so questioning it does have merit. But consider this: it’s true that we do each have our own point-of-view that we bend to suit us, so how do our theories regarding someone else’s POV show how we’re equally susceptible?

Deep, I know. What I mean is that even our fan theories about what someone was really going through, what was really happening, further warp the narrative. We’re part of that cycle when we attempt to make sense of it, explain it, and mold it to suit us. But how reliable are we?

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