Columns > Published on January 20th, 2014

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.”

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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…

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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.”

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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.”

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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

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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

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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?”

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

About the author

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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