Narrators can make or break a novel. If they don’t find the right tone and balance then it can switch the reader off early on and make them disinterested in the whole story. When an author uses a first person narrative they are resting the entire book on the character of the narrator and if it slips, nothing can save it. In my experience, there are three types of narrator that create a truly great book. The first two are perfect opposites’. A Narrator can be either wonderfully likeable or thoroughly despicable. In the likeable category, we have people like Scout from “To kill a mockingbird” or Red from “Rita Haywood and the Shawshank redemption”. Despicable Narrators can be found with Stelfox in “Kill your friends” and Patrick Bateman in “American Psycho”. But it is the third type I wanted to talk about. The unreliable Narrator.
I first came across an unreliable narrator reading “Catcher in the Rye”. I was 13 and was unaware of the fact that part of what I was reading might be false. I took Holden Caulfield at his word and believed everything he told me. Rereading it now I see how naïve I was, and yet, I’m still left questioning how much of the story was real and how much was in Holden’s mind. He’s undoubtedly disturbed and his actions are not those of a normal person. For example, blowing smoke into the nuns face in a café or pretending he’s been shot by the mob as he stumbles around the hotel. But there are scenes that are left in doubt. When Holden wakes up to find his old teacher by his bed Salinger uses the terms petting and patting which have wildly different connotations and we are left to decide whether Holden has perceived the situation correctly. It is the doubt that Holden puts into our minds that makes him such a worthy member of the unreliable narrators club and in my mind, what puts him at the top of the list.
Holden isn’t the only one though. One of my favourite narrators comes from one of my least favourite books,” Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov. Humbert Humbert, yeah I know, is undoubtedly a paedophile and a horrific person. But, he tells us the story and he makes himself the hero. All the way through he flatters the reader, he makes us feel like confidants and friends making the disgust we should feel, lessen to a degree. If he just said, I had sex with a 13-year-old girl because of some stuff that happened to me as a child; it would make for a disgusting, and probably shorter, novel. Instead, he somehow adds a touch of romance to the story which leaves the reader questioning themselves and Humbert as well.
There are so many I could talk about but it would be a ridiculously long post. One that I had to mention though was Christopher Boone from “The Curious Incident of the dog in the night-time”. While Holden leaves us in doubt over the story and Humbert is undoubtedly and openly beguiling, Christopher’s unreliability comes from his condition itself. His Autism makes him miss things that the average reader would pick up on in situations such as emotional indicators or social nuances. We are told the story from his point of view and therefore we are not told these things as they do not register for him. Because of this, we are left to make up our own minds as to the subtleties and deeper meanings of the novel.
The best thing about an unreliable narrator is the fact that we as readers have the choice of trust. Scout and Red lay out the story for us, explaining all the way what is happening. An unreliable narrator gives us the power to make up our own minds. I’ve met people who thought that Holden Caulfield was nothing more than an entitled and whiny asshole, others who think that Humbert Humbert is a fantastic and wonderful character. It is our ability to choose the story we understand that makes Unreliable narrators so much fun to read.
Obviously, I’ve left out a lot of others. Who would you add to the list?