The Pleasures of the Unreliable Narrator

I don’t usually reread books I’ve enjoyed. It reminds me of Thomas Wolfe’s extraordinary book title, “You Can’t Go Home Again.” Going back to a beloved book might mean discovering that you’ve changed and the book is no longer compelling. It might mean, it wasn’t that great to begin with, but you deluded yourself because you fell in love with a character—or worse, because it was popular at that time and you were swept away in the mood of the moment.

But sometimes, rereading a book can be a wonderful, enlightening and inspiring experience. Last summer I reread a few Agatha Christie novels and enjoyed her masterful plotting all over again. This summer, on an impulse while I was traveling, I downloaded Russell James “Painting in the Dark.” I read this when it was published in 2001 and recalled the wonderful deception he perpetrated on the reader.

I’m rereading it now—slowly and with great pleasure—as I note how the clever author reveals information while deceiving the reader with a variation on one of my favorite literary gambits—the unreliable narrator. All narrators are unreliable, just as all eyewitnesses are unreliable. It’s because we are human and have human flaws, and individual points-of-view. But an unreliable narrator has an agenda—the character doesn’t just color the story with a particular perspective, he or she manipulates it.

One of the principal characters is an elderly lady, once a well-known member of the British Union Party (the fascists). Her recollections about Hitler’s inner circle during the rise of the Nazi regime are wonderful and disingenuous at the same time. She keeps reminding the reader that she was not alone in her admiration for the Third Reich at the time. It’s masterful writing.

Poe is another author with a penchant for the unreliable narrator, but I’d like to propose that many of the “honest” voices in famous books are also unreliable. Doesn’t Nick Carraway’s infatuation with Daisy color his story about Jay Gatsby? Does it make his version of the events in ‘The Great Gatsby’ unreliable or just skewed? Do you have any thoughts on this to share?


My Kindle at the moment...

My Kindle at the moment…


  1. Unreliable narrators are some of my favorite types of characters 🙂 I’m eager to see how Rachel’s character from The Girl on the Train will be handled in the movie version. I’ve not read Painting in the Dark, so I think I’ll head over and it to my TBR queue.

    • Candy Korman

      Yes… the classic unreliable narrator is a treasure trove of misleading information. I love them. I just read ‘Interference.’ It was a Kindle First selection and it’s flawed but still an interesting read due in large part to the narrator’s agendas.

      I always go back to Poe. His narrators are often mystifying. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve parsed the text to see if I can find a clue as to why the horrific murder is committed in ‘The Cask of Amontillado.’ We know that the narrator has been abused, misused, undermined, etc. but now what actually happened. Is he a paranoid and there was no real offense? Is the huge slight something he should have brushed off in the normal course of events?

      Agendas, agendas, agendas…

  2. I’m not sure about narrators, but I love weaving a plot out of the misperceptions of the characters. Some deceive deliberately, but most genuinely do want the ‘truth’. But what is truth? Whose truth?

    We all see a truth coloured by our own wants and needs…even the reader. 😉

    • Candy Korman

      Yes! Who has control of the truth?

      The unreliable narrator shapes the story to suit his or her agenda. But don’t we all do that? To one degree or another we are ALL unreliable narrators. And maybe we are unreliable readers too?