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.