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Today we have a delightful guest visiting us from elsewhere on the internet! We are excited to welcome Jenny from Reading the End to Lady Business to share several bits of cool knowledge about Unreliable Narrators. Check out her excellent words below!


Whilst planning this article, people variously told me that unreliable narrators are cheap show-offy authorial tricksiness, that nobody has time to spend worrying whether their own narrator knows what's up, and WHY WOULD I READ A BOOK THAT'S JUST GOING TO LIE TO ME? (My podcast co-host, Whiskey Jenny, very much does not like being lied to.)

It's also a slippery, wobbly sort of trope to pin down. Do we include the protagonist of Emma as an unreliable narrator, since her unflinching belief in her intelligence and rightness blind her to what's happening right in front of her? (I vote no.) What about the protagonist of Karen Joy Fowler's excellent We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, who tells us the exact truth but withholds a single, vital detail until about a third of the way through the book? (Again, and very controversially at my family's Sunday breakfast, no.)

And what differentiates an unreliable narrator from one who's simply wrong? We're asked to place the worst possible interpretation on Laurent's behavior throughout the first Captive Prince book, because we're seeing him through Damen's eyes, but that ends up being because Damen, like us, is simply not in possession of a full set of facts. So in the end, that's what I decided made the difference. To count as an unreliable narrator, in the super-scientific taxonomy I am about to unveil, the narrator must have the facts available to them, and their narration must convey to the reader a skewed, limited, or biased version of those facts.

("But Jenny, doesn't We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves count under that metric?" You hush. It's only that one single secret she doesn't tell right away. Who's the captain of this taxonomy schooner anyway?)

Here's the taxonomy in a nutshell: Unreliable narrators are being unreliable either consciously or unconsciously. The facts and events about which they are unreliable are either decipherable by the reader or they are not. This creates four lovely quadrants of unreliable narrators, and if I were mathematically minded I'd make a fabulous interactive graph for you. Since I am not you will have to make do with words.

Genuinely Trying Their Best, Poor Pets: The Unconscious Decipherables


The key element of the decipherable axis is that narrators of this type are telling readers more than they realize they're telling us. So the most prominent examples of this first type are children or certain kinds of neuroatypical character, who lack the mental context to accurately depict the full extent of what's going on around them. The Unconscious Decipherables depend on the reader's ability to pick up subtext.

For instance, you've got your Rooms, in which you the reader are courteously appalled by the trauma and sexual abuse little Jack doesn't quite realize he's describing. cover of Chime You've got your Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Times, where you can see, even if Christopher can't, that the father is on the verge of a total breakdown with this kid and his obsessions. Your Flowers for Algernons, where you want to kick everyone bullying Charlie, even if he doesn't realize that's what's going on. Basically, neither the author nor the narrator is trying to hide anything from you here. An attentive reader can figure out a lot of what's happening, because the author is doing their level best to convey it.

My maybe favorite ever unreliable narrator fits into this category too: Briony from Franny Billingsley's YA fantasy novel Chime. As the story goes along, it becomes clearer and clearer—to the reader first, to Briony second—that the stories Briony's been told about her own life, the stories that are governing her fears and behaviors, have all been lies. She's fundamentally misunderstood, and led us to misunderstand, who she is and what she's done. Discovering the particulars of this is my favorite part of the book.

(Chime and Curious Incident both have elements of a mystery novel about them, and these aspects are not guessable—or at least not intentionally guessable—by the reader. What's decipherable are the ways the narrator's untrustworthinesses are leading them to wrong conclusions about the things they're witnessing and experiencing.)

Descending into Madness: The Unconscious Indecipherables


Okay, they're not all descending into madness, the narrators in this category. But a lot of them are. The point of this type of unreliable narrator is, generally, to create a certain atmosphere or mood, rather than to carry a plot along. cover of The Haunting of Hill House The facts are less important, and the characters and settings more.

Eleanor, the ?heroine? of Shirley Jackson's excellent The Haunting of Hill House is a superb example. You know the house is haunted, or else the whole group wouldn't be there in the first place. As the book goes on, though, you're less and less sure which bits are haunted house and which bits are Eleanor losing her grip on reality. It's brilliantly unsettling.

Sometimes the Unconscious Indecipherables are themselves the twist ending, which is an impossible book element to discuss without spoilers, and a very tricky one to slap spoiler warnings on, since mentioning them here at all would itself be a spoiler. Assuming that it's achieved cultural saturation, I'm choosing The Sixth Sense as my example here. Malcolm Crowe (that's Bruce Willis—I know, right? Who knew?) suggests to the viewer that he's in relationships with Cole and Cole's mother and his own wife. Actually, he's been fooling himself all along. Poor sap's been dead for months, and the only person who's been talking back to him is this creepy, tormented kid.

Have Probably Killed Someone, TBH: The Conscious Indecipherables


Maybe this is my favorite type. I am a pretty good liar myself, although I do it rarely for reasons of morality, but anyway, this group is just lying. You'll find out about it at the end, but for most of the book, you'll know what they want you to know. As soon as you get comfy with them, they'll turn around and reveal that they've been lulling you into being buddies with a straight-up serial killer. Or sometimes a dashing rogue! (That one's the happier outcome.)

If you'd care to have a whole bunch of good books spoiled for you, you may apply to me on Twitter or by email for some examples of this kind of unreliable narrator. I'm operating under the assumption that unlike me, you'd prefer not to know when you're becoming character-friends with a legitimate machete murderer.

Just Not Very Good Liars: The Conscious Decipherables


Okay, this one's the trickiest. I had to go on a couple of lengthy, pensive walks to come up with examples of this type, and I anticipate pushback. Because the obvious question is that if they know they're lying, shouldn't they do a better job of it? To which I reply, well, yeah, but not everyone's a natural-born genius liar like me and [redacted] from [redacted]. Some people are garbage liars but they insist on doing it anyway because I guess they think nobody's going to call them on it. I've brought you two examples, one of which will make you go aw and one of which will make you go ew.

The aw example is Lydia Bennet from the webseries The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. cover of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries In her own vlogs, she's deliberately depicting a version of her life that leaves out the bad stuff, whether it's creeper guys bothering her at school or feelings of inadequacy and loneliness within her family. As the viewer, you are not dumb and can figure out what's going on, and this I think is really nicely done and sets up some later stuff that happens because Lizzie isn't paying any attention to her younger sister's feelings. (Lydia later becomes more of an unconscious indecipherable because Wickham's manipulating her and she doesn't realize it; but that whole thing is, in my opinion, less seamlessly executed.)

The ew example is Humbert Humbert from Lolita. No matter how hard Humbert tries to reframe what he's doing to sound righteous and reasonable, it's painfully obvious to the reader that he's abusing a vulnerable child who is, thanks to his manipulations, completely at his mercy. You can miss me with any arguments you may have about Lolita actually being a sexually precocious vixen. I promise that if that's what you got from the book, you missed the point.

The best/worst thing about a taxonomy is that as soon as you've nailed it together, someone comes along with an example that demolishes the whole thing and forces you to start from scratch. Let's test the seaworthiness of this one: Hit me up in the comments with your favorite and least favorite unreliable narrators!


Jenny chatters about books at Reading the End, conducts inconsequential arguments on Twitter at [twitter.com profile] readingtheend, and plans to know everything one day. She is also half of an excellent bookish podcast and has a Healthy Appreciation for Namibia.

Date: 2016-05-30 06:52 pm (UTC)
rymenhild: Manuscript page from British Library MS Harley 913 (Default)
From: [personal profile] rymenhild
The Conscious Indecipherable in Code Name Verity is one of my favorite characters in fiction. Thanks for this taxonomy!

Date: 2016-05-30 11:43 pm (UTC)
winterkoninkje: shadowcrane (clean) (Default)
From: [personal profile] winterkoninkje
I have one which may or may not throw a wrench in the works, though can't name it without spoilers. The issue stems from the book having multiple narrators both of which have been manipulating each other. The first narrator falls into the Conscious Indecipherable category (at first), but then the second narrator unveils the first as having actually been Unconscious, while the second is Conscious but vacillates between Decipherable (when they don't care about you being in on the lie) and Indecipherable (when they're avoiding admitting things).

tempt me!

Date: 2016-05-31 01:57 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] libraryhungry.blogspot.ca
Well, now I want to read this book, whatever it is!

Date: 2016-05-31 01:00 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] necromancyneverpays.wordpress.com
My favorite unreliable narrator tells the story of Why I Live at the P.O. She is a "conscious decipherable" by your taxonomy.
--non-necromancer

Date: 2016-05-31 01:59 am (UTC)
lilysea: Books (Books)
From: [personal profile] lilysea
Just stopped by to recc

Liar by Justine Larbalestier.

"Micah will freely admit that she’s a compulsive liar, but that may be the one honest thing she’ll ever tell you. Over the years she’s duped her classmates, her teachers, and even her parents, and she’s always managed to stay one step ahead of her lies. That is, until her boyfriend dies under brutal circumstances and her dishonesty begins to catch up with her. But is it possible to tell the truth when lying comes as naturally as breathing? Taking readers deep into the psyche of a young woman who will say just about anything to convince them—and herself—that she’s finally come clean, Liar is a bone-chilling thriller that will have readers see-sawing between truths and lies right up to the end. Honestly."

Date: 2016-05-31 05:03 pm (UTC)
foxfirefey: A seal making a happy face. (happyface)
From: [personal profile] foxfirefey
Ha yes, this is exactly the book that comes to my mind when I think unreliable narrator!

Date: 2016-05-31 02:23 am (UTC)
transcendancing: Darren Hayes quote "Life is for leading, for not people pleasing" (Default)
From: [personal profile] transcendancing
Excellent post and taxonomy!

Date: 2016-05-31 02:01 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] libraryhungry.blogspot.com
Two authors that come immediately to mind when you talk about unreliable narrators are Kazuo Ishiguro and Stephanie Kuehn. I think Ishiguro's are mostly Unconscious Decipherable (of the fooling themselves variety); Kuehn's are maybe more Conscious Indecipherable? Maybe? I haven't read all her books, though.

Date: 2016-07-04 07:33 pm (UTC)
soukup: Kodama from Mononoke-hime (Default)
From: [personal profile] soukup
I missed the party but:

I'm curious what you would say about Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. This novel is set in a society which is just enough like our own that the similarities invite you to assume as you're reading that you're looking at our world. It was written like a diary, and because the character writing it is writing it for herself, she doesn't clarify certain important details of the society she lives in until halfway through the book. So it all seems more and more mysterious as you hear about her memories of her childhood, where she grew up and various interactions with adults, until finally she happens to mention the day she first fully understood her role in the world she lives in, and explicitly spells it out.

This narrator seems tricky to classify because she's never lying or concealing anything on purpose; but she's also writing in a way that assumes that any reader (in her mind, herself, or maybe others from her world) would understand the context of her story.

What do you think? Does she qualify as an unconscious indecipherable during the first half of the book? Or is she in a separate category?

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