Many people assume that a narrator who tells lies or who is unlikeable is unreliable, but this is not how the term is used in literary criticism, where it means something quite specific. The term was proposed in 1961 by Wayne Booth, in The Rhetoric of Fiction:
I have called a narrator reliable when he speaks for or acts in accordance with the norms of the work …, unreliable when he does not. It is true that most of the great reliable narrators indulge in large amounts of incidental irony, and they are thus “unreliable” in the sense of being potentially deceptive. But difficult irony is not sufficient to make a narrator unreliable. Nor is unreliability ordinarily a matter of lying…. It is most often a matter of what [Henry] James calls insouciance [carelessness]; the narrator is mistaken, or he believes himself to have qualities which the author [or the text] denies him. Or, as in Huckleberry Finn, the narrator claims to be naturally wicked while the author [or the text] silently praises his virtues behind his back. (Booth. The Rhetoric of Fiction. 2nd ed. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1983. 154-55.)
Now, this is a difficult concept. First, note that I’ve inserted editorial square brackets, especially when Booth refers to the “author.” As we discussed in class, it’s often preferable simply to speak about the “text” or the “work” or–a difficult and debated notion–“the implied author” (which I deleted from the quotation (see the first ellipsis), but which I’ll explain briefly in class).
Basically what Booth means is that a narrator is unreliable when he or she misjudges him- or herself (or a situation or another character) relative to the way the narrative judges him, her, or it. It may help to think about Peachum in The Beggar’s Opera: he is not really a narrator, but he makes extended speeches that argue for a sort of (a)moral system that justifies his seedy livelihood; but the play as a whole is not sympathetic with Peachum’s norms, and it mercilessly mocks them. While Peachum is making his pronouncements, however, he might be thought of as a kind of unreliable “narrator.”
This is simple enough with characters in a play, but perhaps you can see where the difficulty comes in with fiction: isn’t the narrator all we have to go on? He or she is the voice of the narrative (i.e., the narrator), so how can the text tell us the narrator is misjudging? Well, this is where close reading and careful attention to textual detail comes in. A narrator can say something while, between the lines, saying something altogether different. If you’ve ever written a sarcastic email to someone, the email had an unreliable narrator. Think about it: the narrator of the email (“you”) is saying the opposite of the text’s intention. And if the sarcasm is to do its work, there has to be some kind of textual evidence to tell the reader to read with a grain of salt.
Here’s a more famous example: Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” (1729) is a canonical example of unreliable narration (though whether it counts as a narrative is another question). It pertains to be a letter from a well-meaning Irish citizen concerned with the plight of the poor Irish, who has come up with a solution: poor families should simply sell their babies so that the rich can eat them. He goes on to outline many reasons why this would help.
This narrator is unreliable, but not really because what he proposes is so sick (though it is–that’s the point of the satire). He’s unreliable because his proposal, which he presents in complete earnest, is evidently at odds with the point that “A Modest Proposal” is actually making, which is that the occupation of Ireland has put the Catholic Irish is such bad straits that they might as well be fed to the British. The important word in the last sentence is “evidently”; that is, there is textual evidence if you look for it, that plainly contradicts his judgment of the situation and the sanity of his proposal. To give just one example, here is the final paragraph of the piece:
I profess, in the sincerity of my heart, that I have not the least personal interest in endeavouring to promote this necessary work, having no other motive than the public good of my country, by advancing our trade, providing for infants, relieving the poor, and giving some pleasure to the rich. I have no children by which I can propose to get a single penny; the youngest being nine years old, and my wife past childbearing. (Jonathan Swift. A Modest Proposal and Other Satirical Works. New York: Dover, 1996. 58 – 59).
So, apart from being totally out of touch with even the laxest of moral codes, the narrator completely misjudges what helpful “work” means. But he is not lying or trying to deceive; I think he’s being sincere about his “sincerity.” There is plenty of evidence of his unreliability in the one paragraph above (note his rather heterodox word use in “providing for infants”), but the best, to my ears, is the last sentence. He simply cannot imagine that anyone could object to his proposal on any grounds but the grounds of personal interest (this is consistent, I think, with Swift’s critique of the mercenary trade practices he saw taking place in his country). So his final defense is against the charge of benefiting from the baby-trade. The thing is, the text is not asking us, at this point, to wonder “hey, is this guy just trying to make some cash by selling his own children for meat?” Our questions about him have less to do with his motives than with his understanding. To put it plainly, the text seeks to reveal the hypocrisy of the colonial project (which pretends to rule Ireland for its own good) and the cluelessness of well-intentioned but hapless and potentially dangerously naive pundits. The narrator thinks he is saying something else entirely.
Incidentally, many people then read–and continue to this day to read–this satire as if it weren’t ironic. Reactions range from “this guy is sick!” to “that’s not a bad idea…”
Some famous unreliable narrators:
Mr Lockwood and Nelly in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights; Huck Finn in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; Humbert Humbert in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita; Barbara in Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal; William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (three out of four of the narrators are unreliable, in different ways: Benjy because he is severely mentally disabled, Quentin because he is suffering from an extreme psychological trauma, and Jason because he is so misanthropic). The best example I know of for unreliability in film is Fight Club, where the unnamed narrator (played by Ed Norton) dissociates his gentler, less anti-social self from his megalomanical and anarchic side by creating…. I’d better not give it away, just in case someone hasn’t seen the movie. Another is The Sixth Sense, where (again I’ll hold back the spoiler) the focal character played by Bruce Willis completely misjudges his own position in the story (he’s not literally a narrator, but the film is so thoroughly focalized through his perspective that he might as well be).
So…. is Tony Webster in The Sense of an Ending unreliable?
This is a tough one, and I’m not even sure where I stand. Some of my students have been quick to argue that a narrator much like Tony (Dowell in Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier) is unreliable because he keeps claiming that he doesn’t know what happened or what it means. But this isn’t unreliability: it’s not like the novel offers us, between the lines, clarity that Dowell somehow misses. (He is unreliable, I think, but for other reasons.)
Here is a little feature on unreliable narrators in The Huffington Post–but be sure to read the user comments! Now, a little pop quiz: which of the featured novels actually have an unreliable narrator (if you haven’t read them, base your answer on the blurb provided)?