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Unreliable narrator

Unreliable narrator

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An unreliable narrator is a narrator, whether in literature, film, or theatre, whose credibility has been seriously compromised. The term was coined in 1961 by Wayne C. Booth
Wayne C. Booth
Wayne Clayson Booth was an American literary critic. He was the George M. Pullman Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in English Language & Literature and the College at the University of Chicago...

 in The Rhetoric of Fiction. This narrative mode is one that can be developed by an author for a number of reasons, usually to deceive the reader or audience. Unreliable narrators are usually first-person narrators
First-person narrative
First-person point of view is a narrative mode where a story is narrated by one character at a time, speaking for and about themselves. First-person narrative may be singular, plural or multiple as well as being an authoritative, reliable or deceptive "voice" and represents point of view in the...

, but third-person narrators can also be unreliable.

The nature of the narrator is sometimes immediately clear. For instance, a story may open with the narrator making a plainly false or delusional claim or admitting to being severely mentally ill, or the story itself may have a frame
Frame story
A frame story is a literary technique that sometimes serves as a companion piece to a story within a story, whereby an introductory or main narrative is presented, at least in part, for the purpose of setting the stage either for a more emphasized second narrative or for a set of shorter stories...

 in which the narrator appears as a character, with clues to his unreliability. A more dramatic use of the device delays the revelation until near the story's end. This twist ending forces the reader to reconsider their point of view
Point of view (literature)
The narrative mode is the set of methods the author of a literary, theatrical, cinematic, or musical story uses to convey the plot to the audience. Narration, the process of presenting the narrative, occurs because of the narrative mode...

 and experience of the story. In some cases the narrator's unreliability is never fully revealed but only hinted at, leaving the reader to wonder how much the narrator should be trusted and how the story should be interpreted.

Historical novels, speculative fiction
Speculative fiction
Speculative fiction is an umbrella term encompassing the more fantastical fiction genres, specifically science fiction, fantasy, horror, supernatural fiction, superhero fiction, utopian and dystopian fiction, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, and alternate history in literature as well as...

, and clearly delineated dream sequence
Dream sequence
A dream sequence is a technique used in storytelling, particularly in television and film, to set apart a brief interlude from the main story. The interlude may consist of a flashback, a flashforward, a fantasy, a vision, a dream, or some other element. Commonly, dream sequences appear in many...

s are generally not considered instances of unreliable narration, even though they describe events that did not or could not happen.

Historical occurrences


The literary device of the "unreliable narrator" was used in several medieval fictional Arabic tales
Arabic literature
Arabic literature is the writing produced, both prose and poetry, by writers in the Arabic language. The Arabic word used for literature is adab which is derived from a meaning of etiquette, and implies politeness, culture and enrichment....

 of the One Thousand and One Nights, also known as the Arabian Nights. In one tale, "The Seven Viziers", a courtesan
Courtesan
A courtesan was originally a female courtier, which means a person who attends the court of a monarch or other powerful person.In feudal society, the court was the centre of government as well as the residence of the monarch, and social and political life were often completely mixed together...

 accuses a king's son of having assaulted her, when in reality she had failed to seduce him (inspired by the Qur'an
Qur'an
The Quran , also transliterated Qur'an, Koran, Alcoran, Qur’ān, Coran, Kuran, and al-Qur’ān, is the central religious text of Islam, which Muslims consider the verbatim word of God . It is regarded widely as the finest piece of literature in the Arabic language...

ic/Biblical
Bible
The Bible refers to any one of the collections of the primary religious texts of Judaism and Christianity. There is no common version of the Bible, as the individual books , their contents and their order vary among denominations...

 story of Yusuf/Joseph
Joseph (Hebrew Bible)
Joseph is an important character in the Hebrew bible, where he connects the story of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in Canaan to the subsequent story of the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt....

). Seven vizier
Vizier
A vizier or in Arabic script ; ; sometimes spelled vazir, vizir, vasir, wazir, vesir, or vezir) is a high-ranking political advisor or minister in a Muslim government....

s attempt to save his life by narrating seven stories to prove the unreliability of the courtesan, and the courtesan responds by narrating a story to prove the unreliability of the viziers. The unreliable narrator device is also used to generate suspense
Suspense
Suspense is a feeling of uncertainty and anxiety about the outcome of certain actions, most often referring to an audience's perceptions in a dramatic work. Suspense is not exclusive to fiction, though. Suspense may operate in any situation where there is a lead-up to a big event or dramatic...

 in another Arabian Nights tale, "The Three Apples", an early murder mystery
Crime fiction
Crime fiction is the literary genre that fictionalizes crimes, their detection, criminals and their motives. It is usually distinguished from mainstream fiction and other genres such as science fiction or historical fiction, but boundaries can be, and indeed are, blurred...

. At one point of the story, two men claim to be the murderer, one of whom is revealed to be lying. At another point in the story, in a flashback
Flashback (narrative)
Flashback is an interjected scene that takes the narrative back in time from the current point the story has reached. Flashbacks are often used to recount events that happened before the story’s primary sequence of events or to fill in crucial backstory...

 showing the reasons for the murder, it is revealed that an unreliable narrator convinced the man of his wife's infidelity
Infidelity
In many intimate relationships in many cultures there is usually an express or implied expectation of exclusivity, especially in sexual matters. Infidelity most commonly refers to a breach of the expectation of sexual exclusivity.Infidelity can occur in relation to physical intimacy and/or...

, thus leading to her murder.

Another early example of unreliable narration is Geoffrey Chaucer
Geoffrey Chaucer
Geoffrey Chaucer , known as the Father of English literature, is widely considered the greatest English poet of the Middle Ages and was the first poet to have been buried in Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey...

's The Canterbury Tales
The Canterbury Tales
The Canterbury Tales is a collection of stories written in Middle English by Geoffrey Chaucer at the end of the 14th century. The tales are told as part of a story-telling contest by a group of pilgrims as they travel together on a journey from Southwark to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at...

. In "The Merchant's Tale
The Merchant's Prologue and Tale
"The Merchant's Tale" is one of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. In it Chaucer subtly mocks antifeminist literature like that of Theophrastus . The tale also shows the influence of Boccaccio , Deschamps' , Roman de la Rose by Guillaume de Lorris , Andreas Capellanus, Statius and Cato...

" for example, the narrator, being unhappy in his marriage, allows his misogynistic
Misogyny
Misogyny is the hatred or dislike of women or girls. Philogyny, meaning fondness, love or admiration towards women, is the antonym of misogyny. The term misandry is the term for men that is parallel to misogyny...

 bias to slant much of his tale. In "The Wife of Bath
The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale
"The Wife of Bath's Tale" and prologue are among the best-known of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. They give insight into the role of women in the Late Middle Ages and are probably of interest to Chaucer himself, for the character is one of his most developed ones, with her prologue twice as...

", the Wife often makes inaccurate quotations and incorrectly remembers stories.

Novels


Wilkie Collins
Wilkie Collins
William Wilkie Collins was an English novelist, playwright, and author of short stories. He was very popular during the Victorian era and wrote 30 novels, more than 60 short stories, 14 plays, and over 100 non-fiction pieces...

' early detective story The Moonstone
The Moonstone
The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins is a 19th-century British epistolary novel, generally considered the first detective novel in the English language. The story was originally serialized in Charles Dickens' magazine All the Year Round. The Moonstone and The Woman in White are considered Wilkie...

 (1868) is an early example of the unreliable narrator in crime fiction
Crime fiction
Crime fiction is the literary genre that fictionalizes crimes, their detection, criminals and their motives. It is usually distinguished from mainstream fiction and other genres such as science fiction or historical fiction, but boundaries can be, and indeed are, blurred...

. The plot of the novel unfolds through several narratives by different characters, which contradict each other and reveal the biases of the narrators.

A controversial example of an unreliable narrator occurs in Agatha Christie
Agatha Christie
Dame Agatha Christie DBE was a British crime writer of novels, short stories, and plays. She also wrote romances under the name Mary Westmacott, but she is best remembered for her 66 detective novels and 14 short story collections , and her successful West End plays.According to...

's novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is a work of detective fiction by Agatha Christie, first published in the UK by William Collins & Sons in June 1926 and in the United States by Dodd, Mead and Company on the 19th of the same month. It features Hercule Poirot as the lead detective...

, where the narrator hides essential truths in the text (mainly through evasion, omission, and obfuscation) without ever overtly lying. Many readers at the time felt that the plot twist
Plot twist
A plot twist is a change in the expected direction or outcome of the plot of a film, television series, video game, novel, comic or other fictional work. It is a common practice in narration used to keep the interest of an audience, usually surprising them with a revelation...

 at the climax of the novel was nevertheless unfair. Christie used the concept again in her 1967 novel Endless Night
Endless Night
Endless Night is a work of crime fiction by Agatha Christie, first published in the UK by the Collins Crime Club on October 30, 1967 and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company the following year. The UK edition retailed at eighteen shillings and the US edition at $4.95...

.

Many novels are narrated by children, whose inexperience can impair their judgment and make them unreliable. In Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a novel by Mark Twain, first published in England in December 1884 and in the United States in February 1885. Commonly named among the Great American Novels, the work is among the first in major American literature to be written in the vernacular, characterized by...

 (1884), Huck
Huckleberry Finn (character)
Huckleberry "Huck" Finn is a fictional character created by Mark Twain, who first appeared in the book The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and is the protagonist and narrator of its sequel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. He is 12 or 13 years old during the former and a year older at the time of the latter...

's innocence leads him to make overly charitable judgments about the characters in the novel, even going so far as to accuse his author, "Mr. Mark Twain
Mark Twain
Samuel Langhorne Clemens , better known by his pen name Mark Twain, was an American author and humorist...

", of having stretched the truth in the previous book, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain is an 1876 novel about a young boy growing up along the Mississippi River. The story is set in the Town of "St...

, an early example of a fourth-wall breach
Fourth wall
The fourth wall is the imaginary "wall" at the front of the stage in a traditional three-walled box set in a proscenium theatre, through which the audience sees the action in the world of the play...

.

Ken Kesey
Ken Kesey
Kenneth Elton "Ken" Kesey was an American author, best known for his novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest , and as a counter-cultural figure who considered himself a link between the Beat Generation of the 1950s and the hippies of the 1960s. "I was too young to be a beatnik, and too old to be a...

's two most famous novels feature unreliable narrators. "Chief" Bromden in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (novel)
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is a novel written by Ken Kesey. Set in an Oregon asylum, the narrative serves as a study of the institutional process and the human mind, as well as a critique of Behaviorism and a celebration of humanistic principles. Written in 1959, the novel was adapted into a...

 suffers from schizophrenia
Schizophrenia
Schizophrenia is a mental disorder characterized by a disintegration of thought processes and of emotional responsiveness. It most commonly manifests itself as auditory hallucinations, paranoid or bizarre delusions, or disorganized speech and thinking, and it is accompanied by significant social...

, and his telling of the events often includes things such as people growing or shrinking, walls oozing with slime, or the orderlies kidnapping and "curing" Santa Claus
Santa Claus
Santa Claus is a folklore figure in various cultures who distributes gifts to children, normally on Christmas Eve. Each name is a variation of Saint Nicholas, but refers to Santa Claus...

. Narration in Sometimes a Great Notion
Sometimes a Great Notion (novel)
Sometimes a Great Notion is Ken Kesey's second novel, published in 1964. While One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was arguably the more famous of the two novels, many critics consider Sometimes a Great Notion Kesey's magnum opus...

 switches between several of the main characters, whose bias tends to switch the reader's sympathies from one person to another, especially in the rivalry between main character Leland and Hank Stamper. Many of Susan Howatch
Susan Howatch
Susan Howatch is an English author. Her writing career has been distinguished by family saga-type novels which describe the lives of related characters for long periods of time...

's novels similarly use this technique; each chapter is narrated by a different character, and only after reading chapters by each of the narrators does the reader realize each of the narrators has biases and "blind spots" that cause them to perceive shared experiences differently.

Humbert Humbert, the main character and narrator of Vladimir Nabokov
Vladimir Nabokov
Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov was a multilingual Russian novelist and short story writer. Nabokov wrote his first nine novels in Russian, then rose to international prominence as a master English prose stylist...

's Lolita
Lolita
Lolita is a novel by Vladimir Nabokov, first written in English and published in 1955 in Paris and 1958 in New York, and later translated by the author into Russian...

, often tells the story in such a way as to justify his pedophilic
Pedophilia
As a medical diagnosis, pedophilia is defined as a psychiatric disorder in adults or late adolescents typically characterized by a primary or exclusive sexual interest in prepubescent children...

 fixation on young girls, in particular his sexual relationship with his 12-year-old stepdaughter. Similarly, the narrator of A. M. Homes
A. M. Homes
Amy M. Homes is an American writer. She is best-known for her controversial novels and unusual stories, most notably The End of Alice , a novel about a convicted child molester and murderer...

' The End of Alice
The End of Alice
The End of Alice is a 1996 novel by A. M. Homes. It was published in the U.S. by Homes Scribner and in Britain by Anchor UK.The story is mostly narrated by a middle-aged pedophile and child killer who is serving a life sentence....

 deliberately withholds the full story of the crime that put him in prison – the rape and murder of a young girl – until the end of the novel.

In some instances, unreliable narration can bring about the fantastic in works of fiction. In Kingsley Amis
Kingsley Amis
Sir Kingsley William Amis, CBE was an English novelist, poet, critic, and teacher. He wrote more than 20 novels, six volumes of poetry, a memoir, various short stories, radio and television scripts, along with works of social and literary criticism...

' The Green Man
The Green Man
Written in 1969, The Green Man , is a novel by the noted British author Kingsley Amis. A Times Literary supplement reviewer described The Green Man as “three genres of novel in one”: ghost story, moral fable, and comic novel...

, for example, the unreliability of the narrator Maurice Allington destabilizes the boundaries between reality and the fantastic. The same applies to Nigel Williams's
Nigel Williams (author)
Nigel Williams is an English novelist, screenwriter and playwright.-Biography:He was educated at Highgate School and Oriel College, Oxford, is married with three sons and lives in Putney, south-west London...

 Witchcraft. An Instance of the Fingerpost
An Instance of the Fingerpost
An Instance of the Fingerpost is a 1997 historical mystery novel by Iain Pears.-Synopsis:A murder in 17th-century Oxford is related from the contradictory points of view of four of the characters, all of them unreliable narrators...

 by Iain Pears
Iain Pears
Iain Pears is an English art historian, novelist and journalist. He was educated at Warwick School, Warwick, Wadham College and Wolfson College, Oxford. Before writing, he worked as a reporter for the BBC, Channel 4 and ZDF and correspondent for Reuters from 1982 to 1990 in Italy, France, UK and...

 also employs several points of view from narrators whose accounts are found to be unreliable and in conflict with each other.

Mike Engleby, the narrator of Sebastian Faulks
Sebastian Faulks
-Early life:Faulks was born on 20 April 1953 in Donnington, Berkshire to Peter Faulks and Pamela . Edward Faulks, Baron Faulks, is his older brother. He was educated at Elstree School, Reading and went on to Wellington College, Berkshire...

' Engleby
Engleby
Engleby is a novel by the author Sebastian Faulks. - External links :* * The Independent, 18 May 2007, 'Sad lad, or mad lad?' * The Guardian, May 8, 2007, The digested read: Engleby by Sebastian Faulks...

, leads the reader to believe a version of events of his life that is shown to be increasingly at odds with reality.

Zeno Cosini, the narrator of Italo Svevo
Italo Svevo
Aron Ettore Schmitz , better known by the pseudonym Italo Svevo, was an Italian writer and businessman, author of novels, plays, and short stories.- Biography :...

's Zeno's Conscience, is a typical example of unreliable narrator: in fact the novel is presented as a diary of Zeno himself, who unintentionally distorts the facts to justify his faults. His psychiatrist, who publishes the diary, claims in the introduction that it's a mix of truths and lies.

Films


The play and film Amadeus
Amadeus
Amadeus is a play by Peter Shaffer.It is based on the lives of the composers Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri, highly fictionalized.Amadeus was first performed in 1979...

 is narrated by an elderly Antonio Salieri
Antonio Salieri
Antonio Salieri was a Venetian classical composer, conductor and teacher born in Legnago, south of Verona, in the Republic of Venice, but who spent his adult life and career as a faithful subject of the Habsburg monarchy....

 from an insane asylum, where he claims to have murdered his rival, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart , baptismal name Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart , was a prolific and influential composer of the Classical era. He composed over 600 works, many acknowledged as pinnacles of symphonic, concertante, chamber, piano, operatic, and choral music...

. It is left unclear whether the story actually happened, or whether it is the product of Salieri's delusions; this is especially ambiguous, as there is no concrete historical evidence that Salieri killed Mozart.

In Citizen Kane
Citizen Kane
Citizen Kane is a 1941 American drama film, directed by and starring Orson Welles. Many critics consider it the greatest American film of all time, especially for its innovative cinematography, music and narrative structure. Citizen Kane was Welles' first feature film...

 (1941), the story of Charles Foster Kane is told by five different acquaintances of his, each with varying opinions of the character.

In the 1996 film, Courage Under Fire
Courage Under Fire
Courage Under Fire is a 1996 film directed by Edward Zwick, and starring Denzel Washington, Meg Ryan, Lou Diamond Phillips and Matt Damon. It is one of the first films to depict the 1991 Gulf War.-Plot:...

, Denzel Washington
Denzel Washington
Denzel Hayes Washington Jr. is an American actor, screenwriter, director, and film producer. He first rose to prominence when he joined the cast of the medical drama, St. Elsewhere, playing Dr...

's character is tasked with researching the events related to a posthumous Medal of Honor nomination for a female helicopter pilot (played by Meg Ryan
Meg Ryan
Margaret Mary Emily Anne Hyra , professionally known as Meg Ryan, is an American actress and producer. Raised in Bethel, Connecticut, Ryan began her acting career in 1981 in minor roles, before joining the cast of the CBS soap opera As the World Turns in 1982...

). The research involves getting accounts of the events from the other people present, other military members who survived. Their accounts are seen as flashbacks and while the basic facts are the same in each memory, the details vary greatly.

The 1945 film noir
Film noir
Film noir is a cinematic term used primarily to describe stylish Hollywood crime dramas, particularly those that emphasize cynical attitudes and sexual motivations. Hollywood's classic film noir period is generally regarded as extending from the early 1940s to the late 1950s...

 Detour
Detour (1945 film)
Detour is a film noir thriller that stars Tom Neal, Ann Savage, Claudia Drake and Edmund MacDonald. The movie was adapted by Martin Goldsmith and Martin Mooney from Goldsmith's novel of the same name and was directed by Edgar G. Ulmer...

 is told from the perspective of an unreliable protagonist who may be trying to justify his actions.

In Possessed
Possessed (1947 film)
Possessed is a 1947 Warner Bros. film starring Joan Crawford, Van Heflin, and Raymond Massey in a tale about an unstable woman's obsession with her ex-lover. The screenplay by Ranald MacDougall and Silvia Richards was based upon a story by Rita Weiman. The film was directed by Curtis Bernhardt and...

 (1947), Joan Crawford
Joan Crawford
Joan Crawford , born Lucille Fay LeSueur, was an American actress in film, television and theatre....

 plays a woman who is taken to a psychiatric hospital in a state of shock. She gradually tells the story of how she came to be there to her doctors, which is related to the audience in flashbacks, some of which are later revealed to be hallucinations or distorted by paranoia.

The film Rashomon (1950), adapted from In a Grove
In a Grove
is a short story by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, first appearing in the January 1922 edition of the Japanese literature monthly Shinchō. Akira Kurosawa used this story as the basis for his award-winning movie Rashōmon....

 (1921), uses multiple narrators to tell the story of the death of a samurai
Samurai
is the term for the military nobility of pre-industrial Japan. According to translator William Scott Wilson: "In Chinese, the character 侍 was originally a verb meaning to wait upon or accompany a person in the upper ranks of society, and this is also true of the original term in Japanese, saburau...

. Each of the witnesses describe the same basic events but differ wildly in the details, alternately claiming that the samurai died by accident, suicide, or murder. The term "Rashomon effect
Rashomon effect
The Rashomon effect is the effect of the subjectivity of perception on recollection, by which observers of an event are able to produce substantially different but equally plausible accounts of it. A useful demonstration of this principle in scientific understanding can be found in an article by...

" is used to describe how different witnesses are able to produce differing, yet plausible, accounts of the same event, with equal sincerity.

The narrator of the 1950 Billy Wilder
Billy Wilder
Billy Wilder was an Austro-Hungarian born American filmmaker, screenwriter, producer, artist, and journalist, whose career spanned more than 50 years and 60 films. He is regarded as one of the most brilliant and versatile filmmakers of Hollywood's golden age...

 film Sunset Boulevard
Sunset Boulevard (film)
Sunset Boulevard is a 1950 American film noir directed and co-written by Billy Wilder, and produced and co-written by Charles Brackett...

, William Holden
William Holden
William Holden was an American actor. Holden won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1954 and the Emmy Award for Best Actor in 1974...

's character of down-and-out screen-writer turned kept man Joseph C. Gillis, is an unreliable narrator because his narration of the film is delivered from beyond the grave, as Gloria Swanson
Gloria Swanson
Gloria Swanson was an American actress, singer and producer. She was one of the most prominent stars during the silent film era as both an actress and a fashion icon, especially under the direction of Cecil B. DeMille, made dozens of silents and was nominated for the first Academy Award in the...

's character, former silent-screen actress Norma Desmond, had shot and killed him the night before the earliest events in the film (which he narrates posthumously, and in flashback) began.

The 1995 film The Usual Suspects
The Usual Suspects
The Usual Suspects is a 1995 American neo-noir film written by Christopher McQuarrie and directed by Bryan Singer. It stars Stephen Baldwin, Gabriel Byrne, Benicio del Toro, Chazz Palminteri, Kevin Pollak, Kevin Spacey and Pete Postlethwaite....

 reveals that the narrator had been deceiving another character, and hence the audience, by inventing stories and characters from whole cloth.

In the 2001 film A Beautiful Mind
A Beautiful Mind (film)
A Beautiful Mind is a 2001 American drama film based on the life of John Nash, a Nobel Laureate in Economics. The film was directed by Ron Howard and written by Akiva Goldsman. It was inspired by a bestselling, Pulitzer Prize-nominated 1998 book of the same name by Sylvia Nasar...

, it is eventually revealed that the narrator is suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, and many of the events he witnessed occurred only in his own mind.

Television


In the final episode of M*A*S*H, unreliable narration is used to create dramatic effect; Hawkeye Pierce, now a patient of Sidney Freedman in an army mental hospital ward, recounts a traumatic memory of a recent event. In the recounting a key component is substituted with something more innocuous, leaving the viewer wondering why that incident resulted in his mental illness. Later, psychoanalysis
Psychoanalysis
Psychoanalysis is a psychological theory developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud. Psychoanalysis has expanded, been criticized and developed in different directions, mostly by some of Freud's former students, such as Alfred Adler and Carl Gustav...

 with free-association
Free association (psychology)
Free association is a technique used in psychoanalysis which was originally devised by Sigmund Freud out of the hypnotic method of his mentor and coworker, Josef Breuer....

 reveals the true memory, which is much more disturbing and can be clearly seen as the cause.

In the episode "Three Stories" of the show House, M.D.
House (TV series)
House is an American television medical drama that debuted on the Fox network on November 16, 2004. The show's central character is Dr. Gregory House , an unconventional and misanthropic medical genius who heads a team of diagnosticians at the fictional Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital in...

, the title character, Dr. Gregory House, gives a lecture recounting the stories of three patients who came in with leg pain. House constantly changes details and lies about the stories to make them more interesting and, as is ultimately revealed, to conceal the identity of one of the patients.

How I Met Your Mother
How I Met Your Mother
How I Met Your Mother is an American sitcom that premiered on CBS on September 19, 2005, created by Craig Thomas and Carter Bays.As a framing device, the main character, Ted Mosby with narration by Bob Saget, in the year 2030 recounts to his son and daughter the events that led to his meeting...

 creator Craig Thomas
Craig Thomas (screenwriter)
Craig Thomas is an American television writer, he, along with writing partner Carter Bays, has written episodes of American Dad!, Oliver Beene, Quintuplets and the hit CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother, which they created in 2005. He has been nominated for six primetime Emmy Awards...

 has explicitly said that the series narrator, "Future Ted"
Ted Mosby
Theodore Evelyn "Ted" Mosby is the titular fictional character of the U.S. television sitcom How I Met Your Mother, portrayed by Josh Radnor...

, is an unreliable narrator. The narrator would sometimes come up with "what if?" conversations for other characters and almost revealing key plot points.

In the episode "Remember this" (Season 3, episode 4) of the British sitcom Coupling
Coupling (UK TV series)
Coupling is a British television sitcom written by Steven Moffat that aired on BBC2 from May 2000 to June 2004. Produced by Hartswood Films for the BBC, the show centres on the dating and sexual adventures and mishaps of six friends in their thirties, often depicting the three women and the three...

, the story of the first meeting of Patrick and Sally is recounted by several people, all of whom turn out to be unreliable narrators. Most jokes in this episode hinge on disparities amongst certain details of the story (and their psychological implications).

Comics


In Alan Moore and Brian Bolland's Batman: The Killing Joke
Batman: The Killing Joke
Batman: The Killing Joke is an influential one-shot superhero graphic novel written by Alan Moore and drawn by Brian Bolland. First published by DC Comics in 1988, it has remained in print since then, and has also been reprinted as part of the trade paperback DC Universe: The Stories of Alan...

, the Joker
Joker (comics)
The Joker is a fictional character, a comic book supervillain published by DC Comics. He is the archenemy of Batman, having been directly responsible for numerous tragedies in Batman's life, including the paralysis of Barbara Gordon and the death of Jason Todd, the second Robin...

, who is the anti-hero of the story, reflects on the pitiful life that transformed him into a psychotic murderer. Although the Joker's version of the story is not implausible given overall Joker storyline in the Batman
Batman
Batman is a fictional character created by the artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger. A comic book superhero, Batman first appeared in Detective Comics #27 , and since then has appeared primarily in publications by DC Comics...

 comics, the Joker admits at the end of The Killing Joke that he himself is uncertain if it is true.

Between his first appearance in 2008 and 2010, the human identity of Red Hulk, a tactically intelligent version of the Hulk
Hulk (comics)
The Hulk is a fictional character, a superhero in the . Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the character first appeared in The Incredible Hulk #1 ....

, was a source of mystery. In the 2010 book Fall of the Hulks: Gamma, Red Hulk is depicted in flashback to have killed General Thunderbolt Ross at the behest of Bruce Banner (the Hulk's human identity), with whom he has formed an alliance. However, in the 2010 "World War Hulks
World War Hulks
"World War Hulks" is a comic book crossover storyline published by Marvel Comics that ran in 2010 following the "Fall of the Hulks" storyline....

" storyline that flashback is revealed to have been false when, during a battle with Red She-Hulk, the Red Hulk reverts to human form, and is revealed to be General Thunderbolt Ross himself.

Works featuring unreliable narrators

  • Martin Amis
    Martin Amis
    Martin Louis Amis is a British novelist, the author of many novels including Money and London Fields . He is currently Professor of Creative Writing at the Centre for New Writing at the University of Manchester, but will step down at the end of the 2010/11 academic year...

    's Time's Arrow
    Time's Arrow (novel)
    Time's Arrow: or The Nature of the Offence is a novel by Martin Amis. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize .- Plot summary :The novel recounts the life of a German Holocaust doctor in a disorienting reverse chronology...

  • Emily Brontë
    Emily Brontë
    Emily Jane Brontë 30 July 1818 – 19 December 1848) was an English novelist and poet, best remembered for her only novel, Wuthering Heights, now considered a classic of English literature. Emily was the third eldest of the four surviving Brontë siblings, between the youngest Anne and her brother...

    's Wuthering Heights
    Wuthering Heights
    Wuthering Heights is a novel by Emily Brontë published in 1847. It was her only novel and written between December 1845 and July 1846. It remained unpublished until July 1847 and was not printed until December after the success of her sister Charlotte Brontë's novel Jane Eyre...

  • Peter Carey's Illywhacker
    Illywhacker
    Illywhacker is a novel by Australian writer Peter Carey. It was published in 1985, short-listed for the 1985 Booker Prize, and won the Victorian Premier's Literary Award and The Age Book of the Year Award...

  • Angela Carter
    Angela Carter
    Angela Carter was an English novelist and journalist, known for her feminist, magical realism, and picaresque works...

    's Wise Children
    Wise Children
    Wise Children was the last novel written by Angela Carter. The novel follows the fortunes of twin chorus girls, Dora and Nora Chance, and their bizarre theatrical family. It explores the subversive nature of fatherhood, the denying of which leads Nora and Dora to frivolous "illegitimate" lechery...

  • Geoffrey Chaucer
    Geoffrey Chaucer
    Geoffrey Chaucer , known as the Father of English literature, is widely considered the greatest English poet of the Middle Ages and was the first poet to have been buried in Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey...

    's The Canterbury Tales
    The Canterbury Tales
    The Canterbury Tales is a collection of stories written in Middle English by Geoffrey Chaucer at the end of the 14th century. The tales are told as part of a story-telling contest by a group of pilgrims as they travel together on a journey from Southwark to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at...

  • Wilkie Collins
    Wilkie Collins
    William Wilkie Collins was an English novelist, playwright, and author of short stories. He was very popular during the Victorian era and wrote 30 novels, more than 60 short stories, 14 plays, and over 100 non-fiction pieces...

    's The Moonstone
    The Moonstone
    The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins is a 19th-century British epistolary novel, generally considered the first detective novel in the English language. The story was originally serialized in Charles Dickens' magazine All the Year Round. The Moonstone and The Woman in White are considered Wilkie...

  • The works of Bret Easton Ellis
    Bret Easton Ellis
    Bret Easton Ellis is an American novelist and short story writer. His works have been translated into 27 different languages. He was regarded as one of the so-called literary Brat Pack, which also included Tama Janowitz and Jay McInerney...

    , most prominently American Psycho
    American Psycho
    American Psycho is a psychological thriller and satirical novel by Bret Easton Ellis, published in 1991. The story is told in the first person by the protagonist, serial killer and Manhattan businessman Patrick Bateman. The book's graphic violence and sexual content generated a great deal of...

  • William Faulkner
    William Faulkner
    William Cuthbert Faulkner was an American writer from Oxford, Mississippi. Faulkner worked in a variety of media; he wrote novels, short stories, a play, poetry, essays and screenplays during his career...

    's The Sound and the Fury
    The Sound and the Fury
    The Sound and the Fury is a novel written by the American author William Faulkner. It employs a number of narrative styles, including the technique known as stream of consciousness, pioneered by 20th century European novelists such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. Published in 1929, The Sound and...

  • F. Scott Fitzgerald
    F. Scott Fitzgerald
    Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald was an American author of novels and short stories, whose works are the paradigm writings of the Jazz Age, a term he coined himself. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest American writers of the 20th century. Fitzgerald is considered a member of the "Lost...

    's The Great Gatsby
    The Great Gatsby
    The Great Gatsby is a novel by the American author F. Scott Fitzgerald. First published in1925, it is set on Long Island's North Shore and in New York City from spring to autumn of 1922....

  • Ford Madox Ford
    Ford Madox Ford
    Ford Madox Ford was an English novelist, poet, critic and editor whose journals, The English Review and The Transatlantic Review, were instrumental in the development of early 20th-century English literature...

    's The Good Soldier
    The Good Soldier
    The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion is a 1915 novel by English novelist Ford Madox Ford. It is set just before World War I and chronicles the tragedy of Edward Ashburnham, the soldier to whom the title refers, and his own seemingly perfect marriage and that of two American friends...

  • Kazuo Ishiguro
    Kazuo Ishiguro
    Kazuo Ishiguro OBE or ; born 8 November 1954) is a Japanese–English novelist. He was born in Nagasaki, Japan, and his family moved to England in 1960. Ishiguro obtained his Bachelor's degree from University of Kent in 1978 and his Master's from the University of East Anglia's creative writing...

    's When We Were Orphans
    When We Were Orphans
    When We Were Orphans is the fifth novel by the British-Japanese author Kazuo Ishiguro, published in 2000 . It is loosely categorised as a detective novel...

  • Henry James
    Henry James
    Henry James, OM was an American-born writer, regarded as one of the key figures of 19th-century literary realism. He was the son of Henry James, Sr., a clergyman, and the brother of philosopher and psychologist William James and diarist Alice James....

    's The Turn of the Screw
    The Turn of the Screw
    The Turn of the Screw is a novella written by Henry James. Originally published in 1898, it is ostensibly a ghost story.Due to its ambiguous content, it became a favourite text of academics who subscribe to New Criticism. The novella has had differing interpretations, often mutually exclusive...

  • James Lasdun
    James Lasdun
    James Lasdun is an English author, poet and academic. Lasdun was one of the judges for the 2008 Griffin Poetry Prize.-Career:...

    's The Horned Man
  • Anita Loos
    Anita Loos
    Anita Loos was an American screenwriter, playwright and author.-Early life:Born Corinne Anita Loos in Sisson, California , where her father, R. Beers Loos, had opened a tabloid newspaper for which her mother, Minerva "Minnie" Smith did most of the work of a newspaper publisher...

    's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
    Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (novel)
    Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: The Illuminating Diary of a Professional Lady is a comic novel written by Anita Loos first published in 1925. Loos was inspired to write the book after watching a sexy blonde turn intellectual H. L. Mencken into a lovestruck schoolboy. Mencken, a close friend, actually...

  • Vladimir Nabokov
    Vladimir Nabokov
    Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov was a multilingual Russian novelist and short story writer. Nabokov wrote his first nine novels in Russian, then rose to international prominence as a master English prose stylist...

    's Pale Fire
    Pale Fire
    Pale Fire is a novel by Vladimir Nabokov. The novel is presented as a 999-line poem titled "Pale Fire", written by the fictional John Shade, with a foreword and lengthy commentary by a neighbor and academic colleague of the poet. Together these elements form a narrative in which both authors are...

  • Anne Rice
    Anne Rice
    Anne Rice is a best-selling Southern American author of metaphysical gothic fiction, Christian literature and erotica from New Orleans, Louisiana. Her books have sold nearly 100 million copies, making her one of the most widely read authors in modern history...

    's The Vampire Chronicles
    The Vampire Chronicles
    The Vampire Chronicles is a series of novels by Anne Rice that revolves around the fictional character Lestat de Lioncourt, a French nobleman turned into a vampire in the 18th century....

  • Mordecai Richler
    Mordecai Richler
    Mordecai Richler, CC was a Canadian Jewish author, screenwriter and essayist. A leading critic called him "the great shining star of his Canadian literary generation" and a pivotal figure in the country's history. His best known works are The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Barney's Version,...

    's Barney's Version
  • Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children
    Midnight's Children
    Midnight's Children is a 1981 book by Salman Rushdie about India's transition from British colonialism to independence and the partition of India. It is considered an example of postcolonial literature and magical realism...

    '
  • Robert Shea
    Robert Shea
    Robert Joseph Shea was an American novelist and former journalist best known as co-author with Robert Anton Wilson of the science fantasy trilogy Illuminatus!. It became a cult success and was later turned into a marathon-length stage show put on at the British National Theatre and elsewhere. In...

     & Robert Anton Wilson
    Robert Anton Wilson
    Robert Anton Wilson , known to friends as "Bob", was an American author and polymath who became at various times a novelist, philosopher, psychologist, essayist, editor, playwright, poet, futurist, civil libertarian and self-described agnostic mystic...

    's The Illuminatus! Trilogy
    The Illuminatus! Trilogy
    The Illuminatus! Trilogy is a series of three novels written by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson first published in 1975. The trilogy is a satirical, postmodern, science fiction-influenced adventure story; a drug-, sex-, and magick-laden trek through a number of conspiracy theories, both...

  • The works of Gene Wolfe
    Gene Wolfe
    Gene Wolfe is an American science fiction and fantasy writer. He is noted for his dense, allusive prose as well as the strong influence of his Catholic faith, to which he converted after marrying into the religion. He is a prolific short story writer and a novelist, and has won many awards in the...

    , most prominently The Book of the New Sun
    The Book of the New Sun
    The Book of the New Sun is a novel in four parts written by science fiction and fantasy author Gene Wolfe. It chronicles the journey and ascent to power of Severian, a disgraced journeyman torturer who rises to the position of Autarch, the one ruler of the free world...

     and The Fifth Head of Cerberus
    The Fifth Head of Cerberus
    The Fifth Head of Cerberus is the title of both a novella and a single-volume collection of three novellas, written by American science fiction and fantasy author Gene Wolfe, both published in 1972.-Explanation of the novel's title:...

  • William Thackeray's The Luck of Barry Lyndon
    The Luck of Barry Lyndon
    The Luck of Barry Lyndon is a picaresque novel by William Makepeace Thackeray, first published in serial form in 1844, about a member of the Irish gentry trying to become a member of the English aristocracy...

  • Robert Graves
    Robert Graves
    Robert von Ranke Graves 24 July 1895 – 7 December 1985 was an English poet, translator and novelist. During his long life he produced more than 140 works...

    's I, Claudius
    I, Claudius
    I, Claudius is a novel by English writer Robert Graves, written in the form of an autobiography of the Roman Emperor Claudius. As such, it includes history of the Julio-Claudian Dynasty and Roman Empire, from Julius Caesar's assassination in 44 BC to Caligula's assassination in AD 41...



Films with an unreliable point-of-view (or points-of-view):

  • A Beautiful Mind
    A Beautiful Mind (film)
    A Beautiful Mind is a 2001 American drama film based on the life of John Nash, a Nobel Laureate in Economics. The film was directed by Ron Howard and written by Akiva Goldsman. It was inspired by a bestselling, Pulitzer Prize-nominated 1998 book of the same name by Sylvia Nasar...

     directed by Ron Howard
    Ron Howard
    Ronald William "Ron" Howard is an American actor, director, and producer. He came to prominence as a child actor, playing Opie Taylor in the sitcom The Andy Griffith Show for eight years, and later the teenaged Richie Cunningham in the sitcom Happy Days for six years...

  • Amarcord
    Amarcord
    Amarcord is a 1973 Italian comedy-drama film directed by Federico Fellini, a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age tale about Titta, an adolescent boy growing up among an eccentric cast of characters in the fictional town of Borgo in 1930s Fascist Italy...

     directed by Federico Fellini
    Federico Fellini
    Federico Fellini, Cavaliere di Gran Croce OMRI , was an Italian film director and scriptwriter. Known for a distinct style that blends fantasy and baroque images, he is considered one of the most influential and widely revered filmmakers of the 20th century...

  • Big Fish
    Big Fish
    Big Fish is a 2003 American fantasy adventure film based on the 1998 novel of the same name by Daniel Wallace. The film was directed by Tim Burton and stars Albert Finney, Ewan McGregor, Billy Crudup, Jessica Lange and Marion Cotillard. Finney plays Edward Bloom, a former traveling salesman from...

     directed by Tim Burton
    Tim Burton
    Timothy William "Tim" Burton is an American film director, film producer, writer and artist. He is famous for dark, quirky-themed movies such as Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow, Corpse Bride and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet...

  • The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
    The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
    The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a 1920 silent horror film directed by Robert Wiene from a screenplay by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer. It is one of the most influential of German Expressionist films and is often considered one of the greatest horror movies of the silent era. This movie is cited as...

     directed by Robert Wiene
    Robert Wiene
    Robert Wiene was an important film director of the German silent cinema.Robert Wiene was born in Breslau, as the elder son of the successful theatre actor Carl Wiene. His younger brother Conrad also became an actor, but Robert Wiene at first studied law at the University of Berlin. In 1908 he also...

  • Fight Club
    Fight Club (film)
    Fight Club is a 1999 American film based on the 1996 novel of the same name by Chuck Palahniuk. The film was directed by David Fincher and stars Edward Norton, Brad Pitt and Helena Bonham Carter. Norton plays the unnamed protagonist, an "everyman" who is discontented with his white-collar job...

     directed by David Fincher
    David Fincher
    David Andrew Leo Fincher is an American film and music video director. Known for his dark and stylish thrillers, such as Seven , The Game , Fight Club , Panic Room , and Zodiac , Fincher received Academy Award nominations for Best Director for his 2008 film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and...

  • Hero
    Hero (2002 film)
    Hero is a 2002 wuxia film directed by Zhang Yimou. Starring Jet Li as the nameless protagonist, the film is based on the story of Jing Ke's assassination attempt on the King of Qin in 227 BC....

     (2002) directed by Zhang Yimou
    Zhang Yimou
    Zhang Yimou is a Chinese film director, producer, writer and actor, and former cinematographer. He is counted amongst the Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers, having made his directorial debut in 1987 with Red Sorghum....

  • Memento directed by Christopher Nolan
    Christopher Nolan
    Christopher Jonathan James Nolan is a British-American film director, screenwriter and producer.He received serious notice after his second feature Memento , which he wrote and directed based on a story idea by his brother, Jonathan Nolan. Jonathan went to co-write later scripts with him,...

  • Rashomon
    Rashomon (film)
    The bandit's storyTajōmaru, a notorious brigand , claims that he tricked the samurai to step off the mountain trail with him and look at a cache of ancient swords he discovered. In the grove he tied the samurai to a tree, then brought the woman there. She initially tried to defend herself with a...

     directed by Akira Kurosawa
    Akira Kurosawa
    was a Japanese film director, producer, screenwriter and editor. Regarded as one of the most important and influential filmmakers in the history of cinema, Kurosawa directed 30 filmsIn 1946, Kurosawa co-directed, with Hideo Sekigawa and Kajiro Yamamoto, the feature Those Who Make Tomorrow ;...

  • Stage Fright
    Stage Fright (film)
    Stage Fright is a 1950 British crime film directed and produced by Alfred Hitchcock starring Jane Wyman, Marlene Dietrich, Michael Wilding and Richard Todd...

     directed by Alfred Hitchcock
    Alfred Hitchcock
    Sir Alfred Joseph Hitchcock, KBE was a British film director and producer. He pioneered many techniques in the suspense and psychological thriller genres. After a successful career in British cinema in both silent films and early talkies, Hitchcock moved to Hollywood...

  • "Box" segment from "Three... Extremes" (2004) directed by Takashi Miike
    Takashi Miike
    is a highly prolific and controversial Japanese filmmaker. He has directed over seventy theatrical, video, and television productions since his debut in 1991. In the years 2001 and 2002 alone, Miike is credited with directing fifteen productions...

  • The Usual Suspects
    The Usual Suspects
    The Usual Suspects is a 1995 American neo-noir film written by Christopher McQuarrie and directed by Bryan Singer. It stars Stephen Baldwin, Gabriel Byrne, Benicio del Toro, Chazz Palminteri, Kevin Pollak, Kevin Spacey and Pete Postlethwaite....

     directed by Bryan Singer
    Bryan Singer
    Bryan Singer is an American film director and film producer. Singer won critical acclaim for his work on The Usual Suspects, and is especially well-known among fans of the science fiction and superhero genres for his work on the X-Men films and Superman Returns.-Early life:Singer was born in New...



Textbook


Smith, M. W. (1991). Understanding Unreliable Narrators. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

External links