An Unreliable List of the 9 Best Unreliable Narrators

Humbert Humbert in LOLITA

 

“We loved each other with a premature love, marked by a fierceness that so often destroys adult lives. I was a strong lad and survived; but the poison was in the wound, and the wound remained ever open"

 

At least Humbert was reliable enough to understand it was a "poison", in the quote above about his dead first love, but as he makes his case to reader of Nabokov's controversial novel his justifications fall short. 

 

Lockwood and Nelly in WUTHERING HEIGHTS

 

"Were I in your place, I would frame high notions of my birth; and the thoughts of what I was should give me courage and dignity to support the oppressions of a little farmer!"

 

Wuthering Heights has two main narrators: Lockwood and Ellen "Nelly" Dean. The primary narrator is Lockwood, who begins and ends the narrative and is recording the story that he hears from Nelly.

Nelly is Lockwood's inside source of information, though, as he can only directly report what he witnesses in the present time—beginning in 1801, the year before Heathcliff dies. So, Nelly is telling Lockwood her version of the events, which then get filtered and recorded through his perspective. In cases where Nelly was not a witness to the events, she fills in the story with either someone else's eyewitness report to her or with quotes from a letter.

It's important to remember that both Nelly and Lockwood have their own interests, biases, likes, and dislikes. So what we read is a highly biased account of the story of the Linton, Earnshaw, and Heathcliff families. With the exception of a few stretches in the novel, we are always receiving information through the double lens of these two characters... neither of whom is objective or detached.

 

 

Alex in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE

 

"Great Music, it said, and Great Poetry would like quieted Modern Youth down and make Modern Youth more Civilized. Civilized my syphilised yarbles. Music always sort of sharpened me up, O my brothers, and made me feel like old Bog himself, ready to make with the old donner and blitzen and have vecks and ptitsas creeching away in my ha ha power."

 

Interesting thought: education and appreciation for the arts and music can manipulate shy little rascals into becoming high-achieving kids. Alex bastardizes this idea, though, because he admittedly uses the power of music to be even more violent towards others.

The Narrator in FIGHT CLUB

 

“If you wake up at a different time in a different place, could you wake up as a different person?”

 

Palahniuk's tale of masculinity in the then modern world is the best use of the unreliable narrator device in recent memory (maybe there's one slightly better...keep reading this list) and is full of that perfect foreshadowing that makes you shout "of course!" at the end without taking you out of the narrative during the journey. In case you're tempted to skip this one because you've seen David Fincher's faithful film adaptation, don't. The ending is different so there's still another treat left to reward your effort.  

 

Patrick Bateman in AMERICAN PSYCHO

 

“...there is an idea of a Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me, only an entity, something illusory, and though I can hide my cold gaze and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable: I simply am not there.”

 

Is he? I remain suspicious that the whole "it was all just a dream bit" was Ellis trying to dodge accusations that he himself is a psychopath for writing such an indulgently violent misogynistic novel. This book sucks and I'm only including it because objectively people think this book has merit. Then again I was raised indoctrinated with overly puritan values as a child so I may be a bit unreliable myself. Meta.

 

The many narrators of HOUSE OF LEAVES

"This is not for you" – the novel’s dedication page

Deborah Biancotti summed this up perfectly over at weird fiction: "The only thing we’re relatively sure of is that somewhere outside of all this, Mark Z. Danielewski (the author) is populating his text with a multitude of unreliable, articulate, and weird narrators in a frenzy of something that is deeply meaningful – or discordantly meaningless, depending on your point of view. Because in this text like no other, the reader must become a character too, either a believer or a doubter. You find what you bring. You find exactly what you bring, what meaning and what power, what effort for which puzzles. And when you choose to bring that meaning and power – or doubt – to the text, you, too, are creating something unique, some personal level of collusion with the author who – like a true puppet master – is pulling your strings as dextrously as he is manipulating the characters in his book. It’s just that in the case of the characters, they’re all fictional. And you’re real. Aren’t you?

Nick Carraway in THE GREAT GATSBY

.

"...sturdy, straw-haired man of thirty with a rather hard mouth and a supercilious manner. Two shining, arrogant eyes had established dominance over his face, and gave him the appearance of always leaning aggressively forward … you could see a great pack of muscle shifting when his shoulder moved under his thin coat. It was a body capable of enormous leverage—a cruel body."

   

Nick is just the sort of envy rotten, money worshipping social climber as Gatsby, and is constantly excusing the great one while passing judgement on others like Tom. Meta fact: so was Fitzgerald. I wonder if he was even aware he was writing Carraway to be unreliable? 

 

The Narrator in FIGHT CLUB

 

“If you wake up at a different time in a different place, could you wake up as a different person?”

 

Palahniuk's tale of masculinity in the then modern world is the best use of the unreliable narrator device in recent memory (maybe there's one slightly better...keep reading this list) and is full of that perfect foreshadowing that makes you shout "of course!" at the end without taking you out of the narrative during the journey. In case you're tempted to skip this one because you've seen David Fincher's faithful film adaptation, don't. The ending is different so there's still another treat left to reward your effort.  

 

Holden Caulfield in THE CATCHER IN THE RYE

 

"One of the biggest reasons I left Elkton Hills was because I was surrounded by phonies. That's all. They were coming in the goddam window. For instance, they had this headmaster, Mr. Haas, that was the phoniest bastard I ever met in my life. Ten times worse than old Thurmer. On Sundays, for instance, old Haas went around shaking hands with everybody's parents when they drove up to school. He'd be charming as hell and all. Except if some boy had little old funny-looking parents. You should've seen the way he did with my roommate's parents. I mean if a boy's mother was sort of fat or corny-looking or something, and if somebody's father was one of those guys that wear those suits with very big shoulders and corny black-and-white shoes, then old Haas would just shake hands with them and give them a phony smile and then he'd go talk, for maybe a half an hour, with somebody else's parents. I can't stand that stuff. It drives me crazy. It makes me so depressed I go crazy."

 

This was the novel of a generation and for pretty good reason. Holden exemplifies teenage angst in a the time before the internet and Catcher's theme of letting go of innocence complements and completes the beaten-to-death lamenting loss of innocence stories writers have been telling us for so long. Anyway, Holden spoils the end for us at the end of the quote above. And of course he is the biggest phony of them all.

Tristram Shandy in The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

“I have undertaken, you see, to write not only my life, but my opinions also; hoping and expecting that your knowledge of my character, and of what kind of a mortal I am, by the one, would give you a better relish for the other: As you proceed further with me, the slight acquaintance which is now beginning betwixt us, will grow into familiarity; and that, unless one of us is in fault, will terminate in friendship.”

In his attempt to tell the story of his life in win our approval, Tristram Shandy is incapable of telling a chronological narrative, not arriving at his birth until volume three. Shandy pens little notes and excuses on the margins of the pages we read, certainly a literary innovation for 1759. Number one because it may be the first so intentional attempt at an unreliable narrator. This classic re-entered pop-culture as Kubrick's film adaptation Barry Lyndon.

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