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23 January 2009 @ 02:27 am
Unreliable narrators  
When you think of an unreliable narrator, do you think of a character who is keeping some kind of information back in a conscious way? They know the info, and they know that (for whatever reason) they're not passing it along?

Would you call someone an unreliable narrator if they weren't passing information along to readers because they didn't know it themselves? There could be myriad reasons why they don't know or notice things that (by whatever standard) most other characters would notice -- they could be spacey or oblivious or incapable of knowing that thing; or repressing things for emotional coping reasons; or extremely busy noticing other types of things. If that's the case -- they don't know that they're even missing something, let alone that they're not passing it along to the reader -- is that called an unreliable narrator?

A character is allowed to leave some things out -- things that they know or don't know -- long before we'd consider them unreliable. There's never been a single narrator who doesn't leave things out, nor would one be possible, practically or theoretically. But where is the line on the other side of which is unreliability? Is it about proportion -- how much they leave out? Is it about the importance of the information left out? How important need it be?

(My questions above make it sound as if every narrator relevant to this conversation is framed as consciously telling a story to readers. But that's not true -- most aren't. Yet still, I think this question makes sense. It's that gray area where a character is a narrator and tells us things even if to them, inside their world, they're not telling anyone anything.)
steepholmsteepholm on January 23rd, 2009 08:22 am (UTC)
I think both the types you mention could be called unreliable - but I tend to think of the second type when I use the phrase; that is, a narrator whose point of view I don't trust, not because s/he is deliberately lying but because of some repression, mistake, or prejudice that the narrator is unaware of.

As for the question of degree, that's trickier. I think the way I'd put it is that you have an unreliable narrator when the text sets up a distance between the povs of the narrator and the implied reader, and the reader's perception of that difference is a significant part of experience of the text. So, if (say) a creationist author put creationist views into a narrator's mouth, that would probably not be an example of an unreliable narrator (even though I might find the narrator unreliable from a scientific point of view), because the text's implied reader is probably also a creationist. But if Richard Dawkins invented a creationist narrator for the purpose of providing a petard on which creationism could hang itself, then that would be an unreliable narrator. (And of course, as a critic I would hope to recognize that fact, even if I happened to be a creationist myself.)
steepholmsteepholm on January 23rd, 2009 08:23 am (UTC)
Darn! I knew I shouldn't have written 'petard' there! Please substitute the appropriate cliche.
ex_gnomicut on January 23rd, 2009 05:31 pm (UTC)
the reader's perception of that difference is a significant part of experience of the text

I'm glad I decided to read comments before I posted anything because this is more clear than anything I would have said. My classic unreliable narrator is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, in which the protagonist has no idea he is being an unreliable narrator but the reader does. (In that case, the protagonist isn't even an unreliable narrator as far as facts go, but simply has false interpretation of the facts.)

Which leads to really interesting ideas of reading against the text. I wonder if you could read, say, Twilight's Bella as an unreliable narrator for not commenting on the obvious abusive stalkerish behavior of Edward, and therefore see the text is a commentary on her blindness. It would be reading against the text, but could you do it? *ponders*
lady_schrapnelllady_schrapnell on January 24th, 2009 11:40 am (UTC)
I wonder if you could read, say, Twilight's Bella as an unreliable narrator for not commenting on the obvious abusive stalkerish behavior of Edward, and therefore see the text is a commentary on her blindness.

Ooh, shiny. You'd have to put aside the implied reader, wouldn't you? At this point, anyway - as Meyer has *obviously* got her implied reader bound up in sparkly chains of Edward lurve. And, yes - it would be difficult reading against the text and at the same time seeing the text AS a commentary on her blindness, rather than sort of unintentionally providing a commentary on her blindness. If you do it, I wanna see!
lady_schrapnelllady_schrapnell on January 23rd, 2009 10:18 am (UTC)
I also think more of the second type when someone mentions an unreliable narrator - though Gen in The Thief is a wonderful example of the first.

Degree, proportion and importance of the information left out all combine, I'd say, although I was interested in gnomicutterance's saying that Katsa was an unreliable narrator because she wasn't able to voice her own sadness well. I think I'd have expected more unreliability myself to call her that, though I don't actually disagree with her.

Another thing that's interesting is where some kind of boundary between playing *fun* games with the reader crosses over into irritating elbow-jabs from the author over the narrator's head, as it were. Unsurprisingly, this is often seen in children's/YA - with a character obviously romantically interested in our (clueless) narrator or with parents or other authority figures either being obviously baaaaad and narrator not copping on, or clearly doing their best and getting no breaks from self-absorbed child/teen. Hmmm - is the boundary totally a matter of personal taste? And what about expected reader age/sophistication? Not that the two are necessarily linked, of course!

Just as a not-very-relevant example, but slight twist on the question, I was complaining to steepholm just the other day about a - well, not narrator, but it was a section totally in a character's head - and his being unreliable because he gave the reader information he almost definitely *wouldn't* have thought at that time.

Interesting questions....

ex_gnomicut on January 23rd, 2009 05:36 pm (UTC)
Yeah, Katsa isn't in my head in the box of "unreliable narrators", and I only thought of her that way when I realized that I had misinterpreted a lot of what went on in the book because I saw it so completely through her eyes. I didn't even see the potential of a Raffin/Bann relationship, and I have slash goggles like whoa. By steepholm's definition that would make her not even an unreliable narrator, because I didn't read against her interpretation, so it wasn't a significant part of my reading experience. Instead, she would be more of, I don't know, a Misleading Narrator.

As The Thief series continues, it's interesting to see how Turner continues to develop Gen as an unreliable narrator even when the readers are expecting some kind of trick. In the third book she has to switch styles from the first type to the second type in order to maintain the unreliability, having a character who is in unreliable narrator of the second type because he is watching another character be an unreliable narrator -- inside the te ! -- of the first type.
lady_schrapnelllady_schrapnell on January 24th, 2009 11:30 am (UTC)
The possibilities for types of narrator multiplies!

As The Thief series continues, it's interesting to see how Turner continues to develop Gen as an unreliable narrator even when the readers are expecting some kind of trick.

It is! And I'd been thinking of it before only in terms of her cleverness in pulling a new trick out of her writerly sleeve, but it's interesting to look at it from a more critical narrative perspective too. Actually, it'd be fun to read The Thief very carefully to see if he's really sort of reliably tricky, rather than 'unreliable'. Sort of like the way Laurel and The Lady (in The Perilous Gard) manage to lie by telling the truth... And then in QoA, from about the middle on both Gen and Attolia are doing the same with their dialogue, aren't they? And finally moving to a fresh unknowing perspective. What on EARTH will she do with the next?
Zen Misanthropyrosewater on January 23rd, 2009 02:49 pm (UTC)
Would you call someone an unreliable narrator if they weren't passing information along to readers because they didn't know it themselves?

This is the main thing I think of when I think of an unreliable narrator -- someone who is missing the big picture, which the reader can eventually piece together without his or her help. (I like best the ones who are unreliable because they're totally nuts, but ones who are just not very plugged in to what's going on work too.) Of course they're not unreliable if they're simply missing a few key bits of information -- someone who doesn't know that his wife is his mother, or whatever, because it's being held back for a big reveal -- but a narrator who is fooling him or herself or ignoring important data and passing that misinformation on to the reader, thus presenting a completely skewed or incomplete version of events, is what I would define as unreliable.
Amy Stern: Muppetsbigbrotherreads on January 24th, 2009 03:55 am (UTC)
You say:

There's never been a single narrator who doesn't leave things out, nor would one be possible, practically or theoretically.

and in a way, I think that DOES make every narrator unreliable, if not necessarily an Unreliable Narrator. The narrator's choices about what isn't important- and what s/he doesn't choose to share with the reader- inform about the character as much as what IS important and what s/he DOES share. Reliability, to some degree, is a sign of detachment. If the narrator is truly emotionally invested, it isn't possible to give a completely unbiased story, and if the story is completely reliable, it's rare that the author has actually done his/her job.

I'm trying to figure out how to phrase this clearly, and failing. Basically, I think that I would classify all narrators as unreliable, and while I'm not sure where I would draw the line between "a narrator who is unreliable" and "an unreliable narrator," I think it's somewhat different from where you seem to be drawing the line here.

...I also think it's possible my drawn line is influenced by too much unscripted television.
ex_writingh on January 24th, 2009 04:08 am (UTC)
Heh, timely question, as I just read Emma for class. I'd definitely call her an unreliable narrator, although her misinterpretation of events isn't deliberate. Actually, I think rosewater put it very well -- the "big picture" being, in my mind, what you need to know to understand the narrative. So yes, how crucial the information the narrator is withholding or misunderstanding is a big part of whether or not I'd think of her as an unreliable narrator. (And the question of what it means to "understand" the narrative leads back to steepholm's point about the implied reader...) I don't think it needs to matter whether the narrator is deliberately deceiving the reader, fooling themselves, or just incapable of understanding what's going on; all can be called unreliable narrators.

As rosewater points out, it's not the same if the narrator is in the dark because he or she is entirely lacking key information or being actively deceived in such a way that neither the narrator nor the reader has any reasonable chance of figuring it out, based on the available evidence. Now, if the narrator has evidence that is withheld from the reader, that would make him or her unreliable... that also doesn't sound like a very satisfying narrative, if the reader *never* has the necessary information to twig to the unreliability until there's some out-of-the-blue upset. Might be different if the narrator is withholding prior knowledge/understanding, a la Gen -- the narrator's not telling you everything he knows, but his descriptions of the actions are accurate enough that there are other kinds of evidence for the reader to pick up on. (If they're quicker than I was, anyway!)

Hmm... also, I think it's important that the narrator's unreliable perceptions mislead reader to some extent, too. I don't think it works as well if the narrator's unreliability is so obvious from page one that you are never tricked into seeing things from their point of view at all. ... Maybe that's why I didn't enjoy Diary of a Wimpy Kid. The narrator's unreliability was so transparent as to take all the fun out of it for me. (On the other hand, the same logic would not apply to Rosie's Walk... there's probably some interesting observation to make about unreliable narrator vs. ironic narrator, but I can't quite put my finger on it.)

Because of Emma, now I'm thinking about Clueless. Much of the distance between her voiceover narration and the film's "objective" portrayal of the events is so obvious as to be ironic, but the watcher is sometimes fooled by her misperceptions, too. It's really very well done.

Of course, it's also a sliding scale, not a hard-and-fast rule. Surely all narrators are unreliable narrators, for the reasons you mention above. A narrator that doesn't skew the reader's perspective in any way is not an interesting narrator at all.
ext_124034 on January 25th, 2009 05:28 pm (UTC)
I tend to think that all first-person narrators are to a degree unreliable, since everything is necessarily filtered through their consciousness. A totally effaced, third-person omniscient narrator is as close to "reliable" as I'll go. Barrie's narrator of Peter Pan (who uses that first person "I" all the time, and won't shut up) complicates this a bit - he's clearly omniscient, and clearly unreliable and fickle.

MY classic example of unreliable narrators is Kenny in Christopher Paul Curtis's The Watsons Go to Birmingham-1963. Kenny is simply naive, and we as readers know more than he does, so his reportage is not wholly reliable. It's an innocent unreliability, unlike - say - those sneaky layers of narration in *Turn of the Screw,* which I suspect of having ulterior motives.

eternally stressed semanticistcqs on January 26th, 2009 11:53 am (UTC)
Don't forget the narrator who actively, deliberately lies to the reader! Those are hard to spot, because it's not easy to get any kind of independent confirmation of their story. But there are narrators who give contradictory information, either because the author forgot their own continuity or because they're trying to keep the reader from knowing things.

For instance, Spider Robinson's first person narrator Jake says, of the bar where his stories take place, that it's always crowded at holidays and that it's always deserted at holidays, in two different stories. He claims (or does Robinson claim it in an introduction? I forget) that he does it in order to make it harder for people to find the bar, lest it be overrun with casual drinkers rather than the Right Kind of Folks.

It's a sort of variation on holding back information—it's holding back the truth of the matter, it's just also supplying an active lie as well.

There are other shades of unreliability, which I won't post about here for reasons of time and spoilers, but ask me at some point about Steven Brust and Agatha Christie.

(For what it's worth, the prototype in my mind of "unreliable narrator" is the one who doesn't realize he's unreliable, but the author expects the reader to be able to read past that. Huck Finn, I suppose, falls into that category; like the narrator of The Curious Incident..., he's unaware of his naivete, but the reader is likely to be entirely aware of what's really going on.)
Living ~400lbsliving400lbs on January 26th, 2009 09:37 pm (UTC)
I found the beginning of Connie Willis' To Say Nothing Of The Dog difficult because the narrator's perceptions were unreliable - he was "time-lagged", which came across as confused, lost, and mishearing words. Frustrating!