We’re all biased, for we are all thinking, feeling beings with opinions and experiences all our own. This means that, no matter what we write, the nature of the text will always be slightly unreliable because what is presented through the text is a projection of our understanding of reality, not reality itself.
Now you can do your best to hide your bias and hide the unreliable nature of your text, or you can embrace it and choose to present your literary vision through a set of unreliable eyes.
There are a few different varieties of unreliable narrators used in text and some great examples out there in literature.
Humbert Humbert from Lolita
Lolita, if you haven’t read it, is a book with a charming, literary, intelligent, protagonist who tells the story of his love affair with a 12-year-old girl to justify the murder of her other lover. Let that sink in for a minute. The opening lines of the book illustrate just how seductive this unreliable narrator is:
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.
Humbert Humbert’s command of language can sometimes mask his unreliable nature, but in the book the audience he is addressing with his tale is a jury that is trying him for murder. Humbert Humbert is being charming and displaying wit to literally try and get away with murder. When it comes to unreliable narrators, Humbert Humbert is a plain old liar, or an unreliable narrator that deliberately tells a skewed version of events that take place within the story. Humbert Humbert is most certainly twisting reality to serve his purpose of avoiding a conviction.
The Narrator from Fight Club
Fight Club‘s never-named narrator isn’t unreliable by choice. You see, he suffers from insomnia and, despite everything he tries like visiting doctors or joining support groups for diseases he doesn’t actually have, he cannot sleep. This lack of sleep creates a split personality and a disconnect from what is really taking place in the story that completely catches a reader off guard.
The never-named narrator splits off into two people – himself and Tyler Durden, and reports the story to his reader as himself and tells the actions of Tyler Durden and the underground fight club they form together and the anarchy that ensues. This narrator is ignorant of his unreliable nature, similar to Chief from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
This type of narrator is called the madman, and he or she is usually suffering from some sort of mental lapse or disassociation with reality. It can be argued that all unreliable narrators suffer from some sort of disassociation from reality, like Humbert Humbert depicting his relationship with Lolita as romantic and not pedophilic, but the madman suffers an extreme disassociation like the narrator from Fight Club having fist fights with himself outside of bars and thinking there’s another person there hitting him. Madmen aren’t always able to tell what is real and what is not, while liars like Humbert Humbert know what is real and choose to twist stories to fit their own ends.
Nick Carraway from The Great Gatsby
While the narrator of Fight Club and Humbert Humbert of Lolita are two common varieties of extremely unreliable narrating, there are more subtle ways a narrator can be unreliable. Nick Carraway from The Great Gatsby doesn’t immediately strike one as unreliable. He’s nice enough and honest with his readers. When he learns about something he reports it to us right away and he always shares his thoughts and his feelings about Gatsby and his girlfriend Jordan, and even his cousin Daisy and her husband Tom.
But Nick is unreliable. He is the naïf, or a narrator with a limited view on events that are really happening and reports to the reader from his or her own, restricted, and therefore unreliable view. Nick doesn’t know how Gastby gets his money, nor does he know the type of relationship Daisy and Tom have. He can only tell the reader what he, a newcomer to his cousin’s sphere, sees.
So what kind of narrator do you want for your story? You can do your best to make them unbiased and reliable, but really, where’s the fun in that? Make your narrator a liar. Have them charm us and disgust us at the same time. Give your narrator a whack upside the head and see what madness comes out and how that madness changes the narration of the text. Or, you can always be more subtle and surprise your reader with just how little the narrator of the story actual knows about the story being told.
Have fun with it, and for more on the types of unreliable narrators, check out this Wikipedia entry.