Liars, Madmen, Demons and Children: 10 Unforgettable Unreliable Narrators

You could argue that truly reliable first-person narrators don’t even exist. After all, every character views the story through the distortion of their own biases, experiences, perspectives and personality quirks, and tells the story through a series of omissions and carefully chosen facts. But you could also argue that there is a difference between sane, mature, well-intentioned narrators who are doing their best to give you the straight dope and narrators who are—intentionally or unintentionally—steering you through a seriously distorted version of events because they are insane, immature, dishonest, egocentric, insecure, defensive, addicted, and/or immoral. These unreliable narrators are not to be trusted—but they are to be enjoyed. Some of literature’s most memorable and beguiling characters can be classified as unreliable narrators. Here are ten worth the challenge…


1. Chief Bromden from 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest' by Ken Kesey

Chief Bromden has seen some shit in his time. He’s fought in World War II. He’s witnessed the humiliation and decline of his Native American father. He’s been so ignored by those around him that people have come to believe he is deaf and mute. He’s been locked in a mental ward for a decade. He is schizophrenic (with a side of PTSD) and chock full of psychiatric meds. He suffers from hallucinations and is paranoid about a group called “The Combine,” which he believes secretly runs society. Under normal circumstances, he’s not the first one you’d go to for a reliable account of events, but there’s no one better suited to tell this story.

Unreliable quote: “It’s still hard for me to have a clear mind thinking on it. But it’s the truth even if it didn’t happen.”

Buy One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (Signet) from Amazon.com

 

2. Patrick Bateman from 'American Psycho' by Bret Easton Ellis

Whether you believe that Patrick Bateman is a bored Wall Street investment banker living an unhappy life of monotonous yuppie bullshit that drives him to a fantasy world of rape, murder, cannibalism, and horrific torture via rat, or you believe that he is truly a homicidal psychopath who wanders around in public covered in human blood and fails to get a reaction, one thing is certain: Bateman is unreliable. And before those of you who favor the literal interpretation of events start arguing, I have five words for you: “Feed me a stray cat.” See also, “pursued by a park bench.” See also, “television interview with a Cheerio.” I rest my case. 

Unreliable quote: “…when I look over at Luis in one brief, flashing moment his head looks like a talking vagina and it scares the bejesus out of me…

Buy American Psycho from Amazon.com

 

3. Humbert Humbert from 'Lolita' by Vladimir Nabokov

Being a creepy pedophile doesn’t automatically make you an unreliable narrator, but spending 300+ pages trying to manipulate the sympathies of readers to rationalize your pedophilia does, and that’s where we find Humbert Humbert. While some scholars point to problems with the chronology of the timeline as evidence of his unreliability, we should probably be more concerned with his omissions, delusions, and downright lies (e.g., that Lolita seduced him). At times, Humbert claims to have a flawed memory that prevents him from accurately portraying events. At other times, he asserts that he has a photographic memory that allows him to transcribe letters and diary entries word for word. He tries to justify his crimes by flattering and finding common ground with the “learned reader.” His calculated manner of soliciting sympathy led some to believe that the author himself shared Humbert’s perversions and forced Nabokov to write an afterward declaring himself to be 100% free of kiddy fiddler tendencies.

Unreliable quote: “Don’t cry, I’m sorry to have deceived you so much, but that’s how life is.”

Buy Lolita from Amazon.com

 

4. Jack from 'Room' by Emma Donoghue

Unlike some characters on this list, five-year-old Jack’s unreliability is entirely unintentional. Not only is the narrator a child, which would be enough reason to question his credibility, he is a child who has spent his entire life trapped in a single room with his mother. He sees televised images of the outside world but believes them to be fiction. He sleeps in a closet. He talks to the rug (I mean to “Rug”). We’re talking massively skewed perspective here. We hear the entire story in the language and grammar of a well-intentioned but severely confused five-year-old boy.

Unreliable quote: “When I was a little kid I thought like a little kid, but now I’m five I know everything.”

Buy Room from Amazon.com

 

5. Benjy, Quentin, and Jason from 'The Sound and the Fury' by William Faulkner

It’s quite the trick to feature three unreliable first-person narrators in one book, but then, Faulkner is quite the writer. The novel is separated into four sections, each with its own narrator. In the first section, you’ll encounter Benjy, who is cognitively disabled and conveys his version of events via meandering, nonlinear stream-of-consciousness fragments. Benjy’s mental impairment and disjointed memories take their toll on his reliability—and his readability—as a narrator. Faulkner recognized the challenging nature of the text and added italics (his original intention was to use different color inks) to help readers along. Next, you meet Quentin, Benjy’s older brother, and assume that you’re in for a smoother ride. He’s at Harvard, after all. Unfortunately, Quentin is troubled, depressed, and deteriorating rapidly. He has ceased to comprehend time or chronology of events and soon enough, he has ceased to give one shit about punctuation, grammar, capitalization, spelling, or sense. So good luck with that. The third section is narrated by Jason IV, the last Compson brother and the final unreliable narrator you’ll need to contend with. Fortunately, Faulkner has blessed the greedy asshole with the ability to tell a story in a linear manner. Unfortunately, you’re now getting a point of view tainted by Jason’s cynicism, materialism, and anger. Every way you look at it, you lose (coo-coo-cachoo).

Unreliable quote: “I wasn’t crying, but I couldn’t stop. I wasn’t crying, but the ground wasn’t still, and then I was crying.” —Benjy

Buy The Sound and the Fury: The Corrected Text from Amazon.com

 

6. Nick and Amy from 'Gone Girl' by Gillian Flynn

Right away you know something is wrong because the novel’s two narrators tell conflicting stories. Amy is missing. Her diary reveals the imperfections of her seemingly blissful marriage. Nick has secrets and is, frankly, a bit of a dick. There is deceit stacked on deceit in this novel and a plot twist that would make M. Night Shyamalan salivate, but it’s tough to say more without driving this train straight into Spoilertown Station. Trust me: They’re unreliable.

Unreliable quote: “It had gotten to the point where it seemed like nothing matters, because I’m not a real person and neither is anyone else.” —Nick

Buy Gone Girl from Amazon.com

 

7. Jakabok Botch from 'Mister B. Gone' by Clive Barker

Here’s what I always say, “Never trust a demon.” (See also, Screwtape from C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters.) It’s good advice; you’ll thank me later. Narrator Jakabok Botch is a demon, even though he didn’t actually mean to admit that (“You were bound to figure it out for yourself sooner or later”). The double-tailed fiend’s book is a desperate concoction of threats, seductions, appeals, abuse, and lies designed to lure readers into do his bidding.

Unreliable quote: “You never fell for any of my tricks. I used every deceit and subterfuge in the book, so to speak.”

Buy Mister B. Gone from Amazon.com

 

8. Narrator from 'Candy' by Luke Davies

If Rule #1 is “never trust a demon,” then Rule #2 must be “never trust a junkie,” and the narrator of Luke Davies’s Candy is not only a heroin addict but also a codependent blinded by love. That’s a double whammy for those keeping score at home. We spend the novel inside his head, and in there, the mood shifts as quickly as water retreating before a tsunami. It’s jarring and enthralling all at once.

Unreliable quote: “There’s a chasm between me, where I am, and the world I am in.”

Buy Candy: A Novel of Love and Addiction from Amazon.com

 

9. Holden Caulfield from 'Catcher in the Rye' by J.D. Salinger

You’d think a kid who walks around calling everyone else “phony” would be the most authentic dude you’ve ever met—but you’d be wrong. Holden Caulfield has several characteristics that compromise the believability of his version of events: his adolescence, his defensiveness, his pessimism, his judgmental nature, his emo-esque level of angst, and his confessed tendency to lie whenever possible. Let’s put it this way, if I asked you to tell a story about your worst enemy, your version would probably differ considerably from the version they provided, yeah? Well, pretty much every adult is Holden’s worst enemy, so extrapolate his credibility from there.

Unreliable quote: “I'm the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life. It's awful. If I'm on my way to the store to buy a magazine, even, and somebody asks me where I'm going, I'm liable to say I'm going to the opera. It's terrible.”

Buy The Catcher in the Rye from Amazon.com

 

10. Narrator from 'Fight Club' by Chuck Palahniuk

I can’t imagine the condemnation in the comments if I didn’t include Fight Club on this list, so here we go. Our beloved narrator is plagued by insomnia, hooked on support groups, and keen to get his face bashed during bare-knuckle brawls, but none of that is what makes him a classic example of the unreliable narrator. For the benefit of the one person who has yet to read Palahniuk’s 1996 novel, let’s avoid spoilers and just say that if you stood by and witnessed the same events the narrator witnesses, you’d undoubtedly describe them differently.

Unreliable quote: “If I could wake up in a different place, at a different time, could I wake up as a different person?”

Buy Fight Club: A Novel from Amazon.com


There are plenty more where these came from. Who is your favorite unreliable narrator? Who did I miss? Let me know in the comments.

Kimberly Turner

Column by Kimberly Turner

Kimberly Turner is an internet entrepreneur, DJ, editor, beekeeper, linguist, traveler, and writer. This either makes her exceptionally well-rounded or slightly crazy; it’s hard to say which. She spent a decade as a journalist and magazine editor in Australia and the U.S. and is now working (very, very slowly) on her first novel. She holds a B.A. in Creative Writing and an M.A. in Applied Linguistics and lives in Atlanta, Georgia, with her husband, two cats, ten fish, and roughly 60,000 bees.

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Comments

Jessica Dotter's picture
Jessica Dotter January 20, 2014 - 4:41pm

I have yet to read some of these, but I expected to see Christopher John Francis Boone, the 15-year-old, possibly autistic, narrator of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, included in this list. 

SammyB's picture
SammyB from Las Vegas is reading terribly written student essays January 20, 2014 - 6:21pm

This is a great list. Unreliable narrators are my favorite. In fact, I'm teaching Cuckoo's Nest and Sound and Fury this year. I don't know what it is about Quentin Compson, but he is one of my favorite characters/narrators. It's funny because I have a love/hate relationship with Faulkner's work. My students really struggle with unreliable narrators. They tend to believe what they're being told, even though I point out the contrdictions or the narrator's mental instability.

Christopher Enzi's picture
Christopher Enzi from San Francisco is reading Product Details The Red Hot Typewriter: The Life and Times of John D. MacDonald January 20, 2014 - 8:28pm

My favorite author of unreliable narrators is PATRICK McGRATH who has two outstanding entries. ASYLUM has it's unreliable narrator, a blameless, virtually faceless psychiatrist tell the love story of one of his employees wives and the lunatic who becomes her paramour. Although we always have some questions about his motives, the way in which he is up to his neck in this torrid affair or sex, madness, jealousy ennucleation, child endangerment, murder, suicide and warped desires is murky until the final chapters. DR. HAGGARD'S DISEASE is a full blown Gothic Horror Romance with Ghosts. It's tale is told by the Doctor himself, once a promising London surgeon, now addicted to opiates and rusticated to palliative care for the elderly at a seaside hospice. This book features the BEST (happy?) ending I have ever read for a novel.

Joel Michalak's picture
Joel Michalak January 20, 2014 - 8:54pm

"House of Leaves" should have made the list.

Tim Johnson's picture
Tim Johnson from Rockville, MD is reading NOS4A2 by Joe Hill January 20, 2014 - 9:02pm

I'm finally getting around to reading American Psycho now, and I'm finding it thoroughly unejoyable. Bret Easton Ellis needed all of 30 pages to do what he's doing, and it seems like he's just stalling because he needed to sell a novel.

Didn't like Catcher in the Rye either. There, I said it.

Fight Club is a good example of how to do the unreliable narrator right. It has that level of intrigue, but it also holds your attention and commands your empathic attention with interesting characters and a dynamic plot. It was one of the first books I read that showed me good fiction can be both deep and fun.

Brad Brazeal's picture
Brad Brazeal January 20, 2014 - 10:19pm

If you like Humbert Humbert in Lolita, then you should read Pale Fire as well.  Charles Kinbote definitely gives HH a run for his money.

Ms. Jackalope's picture
Ms. Jackalope from Colorado is reading Still disappointed from reading Night Film. January 21, 2014 - 12:45am

In a similar vein, A. M. Homes' The End of Alice is a transgressive look at not one but two pedos here. A rough read but I actually liked it more than Lolita. And I looooved We Need to Talk About Kevin my Lionel Shriver. The film did not do it justice. A bit like Gillian Flynn's unlikeable female characters. What can I say, I was going through a transgression phase.

I'm a big fan of Fight Club, Room, and Gone Girl. Now I have a few more books on my summer reading list. Thank you for that.

...'s picture
... January 21, 2014 - 5:27am

I honestly think it's a little messed up House of Leaves isn't included. I couldn't even begin to imagine a better constructed and simultaneously less reliable narrator. I mean, I'm a huge Palahniuk fan (I even took a bus hundreds of miles to go to one of his readings) but House of Leaves makes Fight Club look like some weak ass high school creative writing project. Again, that kind of hurts to say since I love his books so much including Fight Club but c'mon. House of Leaves, man. Where's the love?
Also, Marabou Stork Nightmares. Just throwing that baby out there. Great book. Not even remotely reliable in any way, shape or form.

Daria's picture
Daria January 21, 2014 - 7:39am

I think I'm the third to mention House of Leaves. Like the Sound and the Fury, there are multiple unreliable narrators, but in HoL the unreliable stories aren't presented back-to-back, they are layered, in a narrative that has passed through several hands (or has it?) I also notice a dearth of unreliable female narrators on the list. Off the top of my head, I would suggest Kate Atkinson's Behind the Scenes at the Museum, and Susan Hill's We Have Always Lived at the Castle. And if we can add classic short stories, The Yellow Wallpaper is one of the most famous examples of unreliable narrator...

Melissa Hore's picture
Melissa Hore January 21, 2014 - 11:22am

Euchrid Eucrow from "And the Ass saw the Angle" by Nick Cave.  He is a very unreliable narrator but makes for one amazing book.

Chacron's picture
Chacron from England, South Coast is reading Treasure Island January 21, 2014 - 2:27pm

Nice to see Clive Barker make one of these lists. I loved Mr B Gone!

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading The Bone Clocks January 21, 2014 - 4:09pm

Marabou Stork Nightmares is a good one. That's a book that doesn't get enough mention.

Nick Stewart_2's picture
Nick Stewart_2 January 21, 2014 - 5:00pm

THOMAS PYNCHON - INHERENT VICE "DOC" 

Jim Tinney's picture
Jim Tinney January 21, 2014 - 6:15pm

Frank Cauldhame in The WASP FACTORY: A NOVEL by Iain Banks.

Kimber's picture
Kimber from Atlanta is reading N0S4A2 by Joe Hill January 22, 2014 - 2:54pm

You guys are awesome. Thanks for adding to the list. Keep 'em coming. For those fans of unreliable narrators who are adding books to your reading queue, here (for your convenience...I'm here to serve) is a list of those that have been added in the comments:

  • HOUSE OF LEAVES. MY GOD, I SHOULD HAVE INCLUDED HOUSE OF LEAVES by Mark Z. Danielewski (It's true. I thought about it and then it got bumped but THAT WAS AN ERROR. Seriously. I'm sorry; I'll flog myself when I'm finished with my coffee.)
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
  • Asylum and/or Dr. Haggard's Disease by Patrick McGrath
  • Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov
  • The End of Alice by A. M. Homes
  • We Need to Talk About Kevin my Lionel Shriver (was on the short list but I covered it in my list of top psychopaths, so I bumped it)
  • Marabou Stork Nightmares by Irvine Welsh (good one)
  • Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson
  • We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson (was also on the short list)
  • The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (would've been listed if it weren't a short story but is still a great addition to the extended list)
  • And the Ass saw the Angle by Nick Cave
  • Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon
  • The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks (was also in the sociopaths post with "We Need to Talk About Kevin," linked to above)
  • The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
  • The Good Soldier by Ford Maddox Ford

There are also lots of great additions on the discussion at Reddit: http://www.reddit.com/r/books/comments/1vpz4e/liars_madmen_demons_and_ch...

Jeff's picture
Jeff from Florida is reading Big Book of Pulps January 21, 2014 - 10:43pm

The narrator of Poe's "The Black Cat" would have us believe that he was always very fond of animals. 

Otis Bright's picture
Otis Bright January 22, 2014 - 1:53am

The Good Soldier by Ford Maddox Ford is an absolute classic when it comes to unreliable narrators, you can't believe much of what John Dowell says.

 

Do you eat food's picture
Do you eat food January 22, 2014 - 11:02am

Good list.  Agree HoL omission was regrettable.

And We Have Always Lived in the Castle was Shirley Jackson, not Susan Hill.  Think you're confusing with I'm the King of the Castle.

May I add The Blind Assassin to the list of nearly-rans?

 

Daria's picture
Daria January 22, 2014 - 1:33pm

You are right. Sorry, posting while flu-ridden.

Daria's picture
Daria January 22, 2014 - 1:47pm

(She's got the wrong author's name on the list because I submitted the wrong name in my comment.)

Kimber's picture
Kimber from Atlanta is reading N0S4A2 by Joe Hill January 22, 2014 - 2:39pm

Fixed. Thanks, y'all. I cut and pasted without paying enough attention. My bad.

notyou's picture
notyou January 22, 2014 - 3:37pm

Pretty much all of Martin Amis' narrators are unreliable:

John Self from Money (lies to himself, lies to us, lies to everyone around him, is unable to see through the antagonist's lies).

Samson Young from London Fields (and basically everyone else in the novel who tell him their own stories).

The Time Ghost from Time's Arrow (how could a narrator who lives life backward inside a character's consciousness as that consciousness moves forward in time NOT be unreliable?).

And Xan Meo (and others, one assumes) from Yellow Dog (which I failed to finish) (Xan is recovering from a serious beatdown which has caused significant brain damage -- clearly unreliable).

[EDIT] I suppose Xan doesn't count 'cause he's not a first person narrator in that novel.

CBid's picture
CBid January 24, 2014 - 3:14am

Definitely add Nick Cave's And the Ass Saw the Angel to the list.

Will Self's My Idea of Fun too.

It's been a long time since I read it but from what I recall, Self's narrator plays it straight as an arrow through most of the novel and succeeds at having a great deal of "fun" in the process.

Jo Hofman's picture
Jo Hofman April 7, 2014 - 10:20am

Turn of the Screw by Henry James and The Governess as narrator would be a great addition to list.