Unreliable narrators

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One of the most popular techniques in first person narrative is that of the “unreliable narrator”. For the uninitiated, this is where the perspective or opinions of the character telling the story are called into question either directly or implicitly. Using such a technique can be difficult, because it really forces the writer to credit the reader with intelligence and draw their own conclusions.

Here then, for no particular reason, are three favourite examples:

In Wuthering Heights, Nelly Dean is far too close to events and the characters concerned to be objective. The other narrator in the story, Lockwood, accepts without question Nelly’s version of events he did not witness, making him unreliable too. Therefore it is left to the reader to make their own judgements on Cathy and Heathcliff’s tumultuous and destructive romance. This very ambiguity that forces the reader to make their own conclusions is what makes Wuthering Heights a great novel.

Similarly, The Great Gatsby also features an unreliable narrator in the form of the emotionally timid Nick. He views Gatsby through seriously rose-tinted spectacles and it becomes increasingly clear to the reader that Gatsby is not merely what Nick says he is. For one thing, Nick continually glosses over the fact that Gatbsy is, for all intents and purposes, a bootlegging gangster.

I’ve talked about The Remains of the Day at some length in other posts, but again the butler Stevens is a classic unreliable narrator – not merely on events, but on his own feelings. His repressed nature is both absurdly comical and heartbreakingly tragic. Therefore when he comments on weighty matters such as whether Lord Darlington was guilty of treason, the reader takes what he says with more than just a pinch of salt. Indeed, the reader can see the truth long before it occurs to Stevens, and even then he can barely admit that he has given the best years of his service to a man who did not deserve it, at the cost of his own happiness.

In addition to the above three examples, there is also cinematic equivalent of the unreliable narrator technique. For example, in Get Carter no-one calls the hypocrisy of Michael Caine’s character into question. That is left to the audience. During opening scenes we see him enjoying a pornographic slideshow with gangster pals in London. But later when he discovers the 8mm dirty film that features his niece, he goes berserk and ends up killing the woman he just slept with (who was involved in the 8mm film). Several other killings follow, but as the story progresses, the viewer does not cheer Caine on in his quest to avenge his brother, as it is clear he is a destructive hypocrite. Yes, those who cross his path are bad, but they don’t all necessarily deserve to die. As a study of the futility of revenge, Get Carter gets the point across better than any other film I can think of.

I’ve tried to employ the unreliable narrator technique a little in some of my as yet unpublished work, though I confess that I don’t feel I have quite cracked it – yet. I shall keep working on it, and in the meantime watch this space.

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