Has any narrator ever been reliable?
If you’re like me and most of the other avid readers I’ve talked to, your first reaction to this question isn’t a categorical “yes” or “no.” It’s probably more along the lines of, “Huh. That is a really good question.” And now your head is spinning and you’re suddenly thinking about all the books you’ve read that weren’t told by intentionally deceptive narrators and wondering whether all those narrators really could have been entirely reliable.
It’s a question that, frankly, brings up even more questions. Exactly how do you define a reliable narrator? Does your perception of the reliability depend on specific factors such as genre and theme or the point-of-view and identity of the narrator? And after you explore the possible answers to those questions, a follow up question arises: Does it even matter whether a narrator is reliable?
After spending some time with my own thoughts on this topic, I initially came to two conclusions:
- Is there such a thing as a reliable narrator? No — not any more reliable than any of us is in real life. Everything we say or recount, even if we intend to be honest, is shaded by our own lived experiences, identities, and biases. It follows that it must be the same for characters and narrators.
- Does it matter if a narrator is truly reliable? No. For the most part, the reason I read stories — fiction and most nonfiction — is not to get a set of indisputable facts, but to get a glimpse of how another person experiences the world of that story.
Of course I couldn’t keep this delicious question to myself, so I decided to ask a handful of other avid readers and writers for their opinions, too. Their answers both confirmed and also cast doubts on my initial conclusions as well as provoked me to contemplate factors I hadn’t yet considered.
How Do We Define a Reliable Narrator?
In all of the discussions I had, a reliable narrator was defined as one who presents an accurate, unbiased, complete account of events. All of us agreed that what makes a narrator reliable or unreliable in the literary sense, is the reader’s perception of the narrator’s intention.
Is There Such a Thing As a Reliable Narrator?
Out of everyone I talked to, my friend and author, Jenny (Each of Us Killers), was the quickest to answer with a “no.” As a writing teacher, this concept is something she reiterates to her students.
“Every narrator has some agenda, biases, blind spots, baggage, etc. that makes them unreliable,” she told me in an email.
While all of us agreed that reliable narration is a reader’s perception about the narrator’s intentions, my friend Cindy told me there is definitely one type of narrator she perceives as more reliable: an omniscient one. Omniscient narrators, she explained to me, don’t have any stakes in the storyline, which means they don’t have a need to manipulate facts in order to promote an agenda.
Do Factors Like Genre, Themes, and POV Affect Our Perceptions of Reliability?
Although genre doesn’t necessarily determine whether a reader will or won’t perceive a narrator as reliable, I discovered that sometimes genre affects readers’ desire for reliability. Cindy told me that she’s been craving more reliability in narrators recently. This might be because she’s been reading so many thrillers, a genre that’s embraced an unreliable narration trend in titles like Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train, and My Sweet Girl among others. Cindy told me that it’s become exhausting and distracting to have to constantly question narrators instead of simply enjoying the story.
Another friend, Vicki, shared she’s been wishing for more definitive reliability as she’s been delving into the biography of a female composer who’s no longer living. Vicki finds herself constantly questioning the validity of the author’s conclusions about someone she’s never been able to meet.
For me, as someone who almost exclusively reads realist contemporary or literary fiction, an unreliable narrator feels much more rare — and I love running across one, simply because of the contemplation it provokes. Barbara from What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal, for example, left me thinking more deliberately and questioning my own notions about aging, betrayal, and the moral complications around discovering someone else’s explosive secret.
My husband and our friend, Staci, who also both read a lot of realist fiction, told me they relish an unreliable narrator, too. Jenny, who writes both narrators who are intentionally unreliable and ones who try to be reliable, told me that as a reader, she prefers unreliable narrators because she enjoys the opportunity to “engage at a deeper level with a story and feel like I’m a part of it instead of just a passive bystander.” Jenny cited the realist literary title, Lolita, as an example of an unreliably narrated story that invites readers to think more deliberately about their own value systems.
Themes and Content
Perhaps content and themes are stronger factors in our perceptions of reliability. As I was discussing Lolita with my husband and Staci, we agreed that the nature of its theme — centered around an obsession most readers would consider abhorrent — could have made it easier to perceive its narrator, Humbert Humbert, as unreliable.
On the other hand, Cindy, Vicki, and I agree that when it comes to memoirs, we’re likely to believe the narrator’s intention is to be reliable. After all, their purpose in sharing their writing is to share their unique perspectives.
POV and Identity
The flip side of Cindy’s willingness to more easily trust an omniscient narrator is that she more easily mistrusts a first-person account. She told me reading Gone Girl certainly didn’t help. Both narrators recounted their stories in first-person and both were untrustworthy characters and narrators. Vicki also came away from Gone Girl with a bad taste in her mouth for unreliability — although she’s still trying to figure out if that reaction stemmed from the fact that both narrators were unreliable or that both were, as she put it, “awful people.”
Staci offered some different thoughts about multiple narrators. In some cases, such as in the novel, Of Women and Salt, she thinks the presence of more than one narrator whose understandings of the same story don’t always align, helps reveal the impossibility of entirely reliable narration. But unlike Gone Girl, which leaves some readers angry at both narrators, Of Women and Salt left Staci with a more nuanced understanding of how reliability and unreliability exists in all of our experiences, and therefore, in those of narrators who have reliable intentions.
Jenny shared some of her thoughts with me around the complex issue of how race and identity affect perception of reliability. “As in the real world,” she told me, “certain privileges and identity labels automatically give us more credibility. If I have a narrator-character who happens to be from the lower rungs of society and, perhaps, a person of color, a reader is going to bring their own baggage about such people which will dictate how they accept this narrator’s ‘truth.’”
Does It Matter If a Narrator Is Reliable?
Vicki told me that for the most part, especially in fiction, she’s happy to be “along for the ride.” She understands that narrators can’t ever be truly impartial, but says it doesn’t bother her. “It’s just the human condition,” she told me. This was the general consensus among all of us.
On the other hand, some readers pointed out that the reliability or unreliability of a narrator does matter in how we absorb the story. My husband believes that some stories — such as Lolita — are arguably more effective when they’re told from an unreliable narrator’s point of view. Jenny also agrees that Lolita would have been “an entirely different story” without the unreliable narration. “Nabokov wanted to unsettle us, make us question our own values and ethics about what was happening with the characters.”
As an author, Jenny offered her perspective on how a narrator’s reliability very much matters in a story.
“My initial thoughts,” she told me, “when selecting how to position my narrator’s worldview, are: what kind of tension do I want to create in the story, who do I want the reader to sympathize with, and do I want the reader to accept or question what the narrator is telling them. The answers to such questions lead me to decide whether I need a narrator who’s straightforward and aiming to be truthful/accurate or whether I need a slippery person who’s going to lead my reader along some merry paths until they realize they’re going to have to do a lot more imaginative engagement to figure out what’s really going on.”
After considering all of these discussions around reliable narrators, I concluded that, as hard as a narrator might try, she never has the full, complete story — and I consider this article proof of that fact. My initial answer to the question, “Does it matter if a narrator is reliable?” was certainly incomplete. In fact, if I’d written this piece based only on my own perspectives without taking into account the perspectives of my friends — each of whose opinions are in turn shaded by their own circumstances and experiences — I believe it would have been far less interesting, not to mention far less nuanced.
So, is there such thing as a reliable narrator? No, and doesn’t that make the stories we read all the more beautiful?