What is "The Unreliable Narrator" in mystery stories?

An early example: Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle, a Posthumous Writing of Diedrich Knickerbocker.

Knickerbocker is firmly convinced of the truth of his narrative, but it’s clear to the reader that Rip Van Winkle was just a lazy bugger who wandered off for years to avoid the responsibilities of married life and told a whopper on his return. Irving includes plenty of winks at the reader of which Knickerbocker is blithely unaware, like:

In Iain Pears’ An Instance of the Fingerpost, the same story is told by 3 or 4 unreliable narrators.

The Remains of the Day is also told by someone who completely misinterprets many of the actions and emotions of people around him.

How about the rationalizations of that European sophisticate, Mr. Humbert Humbert?

While there are early examples of the technique, I think it did become much more common in the 20th century as authors sought to make clever knowing comments to the audience on the structure and process of writing–it is meant to make us feel as if we are in the room with the author looking over his shoulder and he is commenting on the cool things he is putting into his book as he goes on with it.

Many of the earlier examples I can think of seem to involve humor/satire (Tristram Shandy, Gulliver) or mystery/horror, where the story was not supposed to be paramount–I think it is more important to suspend that disbelief and pretend you can’t see the structure if you want to be swept up in a plot-driven story.

Doesn’t Rashomon take the notion of Unreliable Narrator to its logical extreme? FWIW, it was remade into a dismal knockoff called IIRC The Outrage with Paul Newman, Laurence Harvey, Claire Bloom, Edward G. Robinson, and, guess who?, William Shatner!

The quote in saoirse’s post says that an unreliable narrator can be deliberately lying. And let’s face it, you can’t get much less reliable than Verbal Kint :slight_smile:

Patrick Bateman in Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho is quite the unreliable narrator.

I would consider the narrator (if you can call him a narrator) of Murder by Death to be unreliable, since in the course of the film’s conclusion he goes from being Bensonmum to Marvin Metzler to Irving Goldman to Marvin Metzler to Irene “Rita” Twain to Sam Diamond to Lionel Twian to an unnamed woman.

Hey, I’m (slightly) famous. Not bad for a Monday.

Nice example; actually Rashomon has been remade or ripped off by a number of different movies and television shows; heck, there was even an episode of Star Trek:TNG that blatently [del]ripped off[/del]paid homage to Rashomon.

It’s actually The Curious Incident of the Dog At Night-Time, but the narrator in that, by virtue of his autism (or Asperger’s Syndrome–it isn’t stated explicitly), is unable to deliberately mislead the reader, and in fact states events precisely as he sees them, even if he is unable to make sense of them. This is similar to Huck Finn, who (as the author states) “mostly told the truth, mostly.” He doesn’t ever seem to lie to the reader (who often percieves more about the situation than Huck does) and so his narration isn’t deceptive or misleading, just limited to his own ability to comprehend what he perceives.

The case with Leonard in Momento is a little less clear; it is implied that the narrative device (showing the scenes in reverse order) conveys the same perception and lack of long-term comprehension that Leonard has, but it is implied that his problem is strictly pschological and somewhere in his consciousness he remembers what happened.

The aforementioned Christie novel, on the other hand, is the classic example of an unreliable narrator; he has a vested interest in deceiving the reader and so plants false clues or leaves out critical elements in order to distort the reader’s judgement. In a mystery novel, where the reader is vying with the detective or police to figure out the mystery, this is considered bad form to a point of dishonestly, and Agatha did this only once. As saoirse and lissner say, it’s not a strict invention of 20th Century mysteries, and in certain types of fiction it provides an interesting counterpoint; the recent film Kiss Kiss Bang Bang used Robert Downey, Jr. as an unreliable narrator (in the sense that he screws up a lot, rather than being deliberately mendacious) to great comic effect. Ditto with The Secret Life of Walter Mitty; there’s no clear distinction between his fantasy life and real life. But in a mannered murder mystery, it’s foul play…er, so to speak.

The Judeo/Christian Bible is full of unreliable narrators, not the least of which are the Gospels of the New Testament, none of which accurately correspond to one another, and we can assume that it was old hat then, so it’s hardly a new innovation.

As for the original thread, a character breaking away from the film and addressing the audience is generally breaking down the barrier between what happens in the film and what goes on in the viewer’s head; when Travis Bickle is looking at the screen and saying, “You talkin’ to me?” he’s not breaking the fourth wall because he’s not acknowledging that anybody is watching. However, when Ferris Bueller makes his wry observations to the viewer, he’s acknowledging, perhaps slyly, perhaps less so, that he’s just a character in a film and we shouldn’t take the story seriously. That’s okay for a light comedy; it wouldn’t work for a serious drama.


Harry Potter is a recent popular example of the unreliable narrator (or more accurately unreliable POV). The books aren’t in third person, but Rowling stays inside Harry’s head for nearly all of them, and – I realize as I write this – the scenes in which she isn’t in Harry’s head, she’s in that of another unreliable character, Frank Bryce or the Prime Minister.

I think you meant the books **are **in the third person. I knew what you meant. I made the point in the last Harry Potter thread that Book 6 is the first time we see something that harry doesn’t. All the other scenes were in Harry’s head, even though they took place at the Riddle Estate, MoM or elswhere.

Tristram Shandy was an example of a narrator actually undermined by the author. The line “When I say nose, I mean nose, and nothing more and nothing less” is the first inkling the reader has that nose might mean anything other than nose.

Ha! Yes. It started out as “aren’t in first person” and ended up, er, wrong.

And good point about the Riddle House chapter being in Harry’s head! The reader doesn’t realize it at the beginning of the scene, so I forgot all about it.

I’ve seen the “Harry’s PoV is unreliable” argument before, and I don’t buy it. Sure, Harry is sometimes given inaccurate information or jumps to the wrong conclusions, but JKR never presents this information as fact – we’re always told “Harry thought X” or “Mr. Weasley said Y” – statements that are objectively true, regardless of the truth-value of X and Y.

I’d say that a true unreliable narrator is one who is either inaccurate in his perceptions – not just his assumptions about things he has not perceived – or knowingly deceitful, and Harry is neither.

Right, but the POV is (with the exception of one instance in HBP) limited to Harry’s. That means Snape could hold up a sign ritgh behind Harry’s head that said “I’m working for You-Know-Who” and the reader would find out about it when someone told Harry. Of course, Rowling is scrupulous about not giving us any false information, though.

Yeah, but that’s true of all first-person or third-person-limited novels (and virtually all mysteries fall into one of these two categories). In itself, it doesn’t constitute an unreliable PoV, merely a limited one.

By contrast, I’d consider this fanfic to be a classic example of an unreliable PoV.

Don’t forget about the first scene in the first book. That’s also told from a third-person POV.

Is there some other way to tell a story? Are there some good examples?

Endless Night? Although that’s not really a traditional Christie “whodunnit”.

There’s third-person omniscent, such as much of Dickens (think of A Tale of Two Cities, for example). In that, the narrative can go anywhere, see anything, and know everything, but usually doesn’t have a “person” telling the story.

There’s also second-person, but that’s pretty rare. Bright Lights, Big City is the major recent second-person novel; it’s slightly more common in short fiction but it’s damn hard to do right. (Second person is “you,” so the main character is always referred to as “you.”)

As others have mentioned, the unreliable narrator isn’t restricted to mysteries (though it’s a tool that works well in a mystery plot) and wasn’t invented in the 20th century. Nor is it restricted to prose; Robert Browning used unreliable narrators all the time in his poetry. (“My Last Duchess” is a good example.)

If I’m remembering Roger Ackroyd correctly,

She cheats somewhat, in that the narrator doesn’t tell you everything he’s been up to. However, she does make it possible to solve the mystery, because he slips up and mentions a bit of information he should not have known to Poirot, and that conversation is included in the narrative.

Also Uncle Vernon in book one.

I’d like to add that I don’t think that Harry Potter is an unreliable narrator. As others have pointed out, he isn’t actually narrating the story.

It seems to me Rowling doesn’t give us false information but can give the wrong impression of what’s happening by using Harry’s point of view. If the narrator says “Snape entered the hall looking suspicious” then he did enter the hall and did look suspicious (though in this case he may have only looked suspicious to Harry).