Unreliable Narrators

Liar? Naïve? Or impaired? What if the narrator of the story isn’t telling the truth? In this week’s episode, Brook and Sarah discuss surprising twists and the cues that they’re coming.

Works mentioned or discussed

Gone Girl (2012) Gillian Flynn

The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961) Wayne C. Booth

The Woman in Cabin 10 (2016) Ruth Ware

The Silent Patient (2019) Alex Michaelides

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) Agatha Christie

The Guest List (2020) Lucy Foley

One by One (2020) Ruth Ware

Rebecca (1938) Daphne Du Maurier

Forrest Gump (1994)

The Office (US)

Fight Club (1999)

The Sixth Sense (1999)

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Music: Signs To Nowhere by Shane Ivers – www.silvermansound.com

Transcript

SarahWelcome to Clued in Mystery. I’m Sarah.
BrookAnd I’m Brook. And we both love mystery.
SarahGood morning, Brook.
BrookHi Sarah. How are you doing?
SarahI’m good, thank you. How are you?
BrookGreat, great.
SarahSo today we are going to be talking about unreliable narrators, which is something I’m really looking forward to discussing with you.
BrookI know it’s been on our mind ever since we started the podcast, so this is going to be a fun conversation today.
SarahAbsolutely. Before we begin, I’ll just do a quick spoiler note. So, in this episode we are going to be speaking about big reveals and plot twists and while we will try to avoid spoilers, we may be providing more details about the mysteries than we typically do. If you haven’t read or watched the books and films listed in the show notes you might want to do that first before you listen to the rest of the episode.

So, let’s get started. When we say unreliable narrator, we are talking about the narration or the point of view of a story. An unreliable narrator is lying or withholding information from the reader or the viewer, which can lead to a surprising twist when the truth is revealed.

Sometimes withholding information is intentional, like in Gone Girl and until the big reveal, there is no hint that the narrator has been untruthful and concealed their true motivation. Other times, the narrator is impaired, for example by alcohol, which should be a clue to the reader that perhaps what the narrator is telling them may not be completely accurate. I personally get so wrapped up in the story that I usually miss that cue.

The term unreliable narrator appeared for the first time in 1961 in the Rhetoric of Fiction by Wayne C. Booth. Since then, other literary scholars have identified characteristics of different types of unreliable narrators creating lists of multiple categories. I’m not sure I would make quite so many distinctions, but I would break them down into three.

So, the first would be the naïve narrator. This is typically someone who is young. Then we have the impaired then we have the impaired narrator and as I mentioned this might be due to alcohol or to drugs. Finally, we have the intentionally unreliable or the lying narrator. In mystery we see the impaired and the lying narrators most frequently. Think the Woman in Cabin 10 where we’re not sure if she’s reliable because she’s been drinking or she’s taking medication. And an example of the lying narrator would be the silent in The Silent Patient.

Agatha Christie is credited with the first use of unreliable narration in 1926 with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd when the narrator of that mystery is the murderer. For some context, this book was published shortly before her disappearance which is why one of the theories about that time in her life was that it was a publicity stunt. In other words that she was her own unreliable narrator. In the book, Poirot puts the truth together through a series of clever clues. But most readers, including me even though I knew what the reveal was when I read it, didn’t don’t put it together. This caused a huge stir for readers and the book continues to be listed amongst the greatest mystery novels of all time, thanks I’m sure to the legacy of unreliable narrators that have followed.

Which brings me to Gone Girl. Published in 2012 it has sold more than twenty million copies and you could argue that it really led to a resurgence of novels featuring unreliable narration. So, Brook let’s start our conversation by talking about Gone Girl. I think about my reaction when I read the book, and I wonder if it was similar to the way that readers reacted to Roger Ackroyd. It was just such a surprise. What do you think?
BrookOh, I love that comparison, Sarah. And you know, here we are in 2022 and we have a lot of examples of unreliable narrators, I would say since the Gone Girl explosion. That’s become a trend and a really useful narrative device that we see often. But it was kind of a shock to us because it hadn’t been something that had been in a lot of fiction. So, it was so shocking. And I imagine that was the exact same when The Murder of Roger Ackroyd came out. I mean, clearly it hadn’t been used in detective fiction at all. She was sort of the first one to use that in the Golden Age and it had to have caused quite a stir. I can understand the controversy.
SarahYeah, and I just remember when Gone Girl came out, there just was this, so much buzz about it. And I have to say you know people were very very good about keeping the big reveal to themselves. I think because it was such—I don’t know if enjoyable… I guess enjoyable is the right word. It just was such an enjoyable experience to reach that part of the book and be like “oh my goodness”. And you know you wanted other people to have that same experience.
SarahSo, certainly the people around me were very careful not to reveal what the what the big secret of the book was.
BrookYeah, I’m actually proud of us as a society that that happened that way because I know a copy of it was passed around at the office I was working at the time. And I mean I just think about the 15 to. 20 people that were in that space and we were like “Ok, it’s your turn”. And the rest of the people would stand you know by so grinning knowing what was going to be revealed. And yeah, you’re right. I think that that’s something we could be proud of at our ability to keep that secret and keep the joy for the next reader.
SarahYou talked about the kind of explosion since Gone Girl in preparing for our conversation today I read an article that suggested that 680 novels have been published since 2012 with girl in the title. And you know that almost either girl or woman in the title is almost the signal that this book is going to have a wild unexpected twist in it.
BrookYes, and interestingly enough, even though we know that when we pick up that title. We… It’s the signal. There’s going to be an unreliable narrator in this, but I fall for it every time. It doesn’t lose its power. Like you said, I was really really happy to hear you admit that with, let’s say the impaired narrator who’s drinking a lot or perhaps she’s had a head injury. Sometimes it’s an injury that has caused her impairment. And that should be our big clue, but that you admitted that you usually still don’t get the clue, and I’m in the same boat, and it’s just such a credit to those authors to be able to make that work. I also think it’s a credit to us as readers that we really want that ride. So we’re willing to suspend that disbelief a little bit and go on the journey.
SarahYeah, and I think that’s exactly it, Brook. I think generally audiences are trusting. Like we want to believe that what we’re reading is the truth and we enter into a contract I think with the author to suspend our disbelief rather than to be searching for those hints that things might not be as they’re being portrayed. And I can think of one book that I’ve read where it was very clear from the beginning that the narrator was unreliable. Um, and you know, I thought “this this doesn’t work because I know that this is.” But the author turned it around and there was even more unreliability that I wasn’t expecting and so it actually worked out really, really well. And I was pleased that I read the whole book. But you know, I can’t think if there’s any other examples that I’ve read where it’s been obvious to me that this person isn’t what they’re sharing is not what’s actually what’s going on.
BrookThese stories are a reason, maybe a good reminder to finish that book. Because sometimes it’s the big twist at the end that is the payoff. And so your comment was really good because you thought you knew where that book was going and maybe that it was kind of a tired plot and then you were happily surprised. And I think that’s something that an unreliable narrator story does. For a long time sometimes you’re just thinking you’re watching this person’s day to day life and it’s can get rather dull like “Ok, here she is. She’s getting drunk again and going to work and so poorly managing her life.” But you have to wait until that point where all the other pieces fall into place and the story pays off.
SarahSo I just want to pick up on something that you just mentioned that the narrator is female. Because a lot of the examples that I can think of unreliable narrators are female narrators. And you know again going back to the number of books with women or girl, you know that that’s a signal that the that the narrator is going to be female. I’ve read a couple of books where the unreliable narrator has been male and it almost comes as more of a surprise. But when I put on my feminist hat for a moment, I wonder if audiences, because of the association with feminine or female unreliable narrators, I wonder if audiences haven’t been primed to question the female point of view.
BrookYeah, I have thought of this as well and it reminds me of maybe in the Victorian era where “she’s got the vapors. She’s hysterical,” and I think that there is a common, recurring trend to kind of paint women in that light. I also believe that it plays on the fact that the market for these books are women and so it’s easy for us to put ourselves in in that person’s shoes. Perhaps easier because I don’t feel like this is like a genre that’s really focused on being marketed towards men. So, I think we’ve got a little bit of both. You know we could look at it from two different ways. But I will agree. I recently read a book where the narrator was male and everything got tipped on its head at the end and I’m not even going to say the title because it would be a spoiler in and of itself. But I agree, I almost felt more shocked because it was a guy. And then I had to really question myself, well what makes a man more trustworthy as a narrator? So, some deep thoughts after reading.
SarahAnd just, you know to your comment that the audience is typically female. You know I think most of the books that I can think of that have unreliable narrators fall into that domestic thriller category that we talked about in our domestic thriller episode. It’s a story that you can very easily imagine you or someone you know leading a similar life to what is being portrayed in this book. And maybe that’s part of the appeal as well, right? And it maybe kind of goes back to our “what would you do?” question that we’ve asked in the past.
BrookWe do see male unreliable narrators in the larger cast books where, I’m thinking of maybe Lucy Foley’s The Guest List or One By One by Ruth Ware. You’ve got a group of people so you’ve got multiple point of view and you don’t know who to trust. It’s very likely that more than one of them that’s telling this story is unreliable in some way. So you do all genders being represented there. But that’s a different kind of story and different kind of experience because you’re not just living out that one narrator’s telling of the story.
SarahYeah, that’s a great point because when you’re reading The Guest List, you know that someone in this cast of characters, at least one of them is up to no good. Part of the enjoyment of reading that is trying to figure out, “okay, whose side of the story can I trust?” And maybe you can’t trust any of them, right? Usually they’ve all got a secret that they’re trying to keep. Do you find the shock or the surprise when you’re in that one character’s head, if it’s a single narrator for the book, do you find that that shock or the surprise with the big reveal. Do you find that satisfying?
BrookI don’t know if I would use the word satisfying as much as kind of a little bit of a thrill. When I think about that book that that shall remain unnamed, I literally stood in my kitchen with my mouth gaping open and I just had to like stand there like I was that in shock that author got me that good, but it was so much fun. It was an audiobook I was listening to and I instantly wanted to just start over again and see all the all the pieces and points that I had missed along the way.
SarahI have to say I really admire when an author evokes that, as you say, that thrill that comes with that big reveal, right? There’s something about reading a book where it’s got girl or woman in the title and you know that, “okay, this is going to be an unreliable narrator.” But it’s almost better when you have no idea that that’s coming, because I imagine that the title of that book—you said it was a male narrator, right? So wouldn’t have been woman or girl I’m thinking in the in the title. So, you wouldn’t have even had that clue that you were in for such a treat.
BrookExactly. Yeah and that’s a really good point and back to our comment about the feminist perspective on this, wouldn’t it be funny if we had The Guy on the Train? I mean it just doesn’t even work. The Man in the Window?
SarahEither of those titles would evoke more of a romance, I would think.
BrookOh my goodness. Yes.
SarahMaybe it’s just me but like that’s what I would expect from that from that title.
BrookI love it.
SarahWe’ve both talked about how we tend to miss those cues that this book is going to have a big reveal, have an unreliable narrator. What do you think makes those stories work? I don’t think there’s a bigger signal to a reader than “hey there’s going to be something that you’re not expecting in this book” than having girl or woman in the title and people are still “hey, that twist was such a shocker.”
BrookI loved that you said that we make a contract and I think that’s completely true like when you begin a book, you as a reader, you buy in. You know you’re like “okay I’m going to go along with this and go along on the ride.” But I wonder if there’s also some deeper things that we really enjoy about this because you know Ruth Ware writes a lot of her books have some level of unreliable narrator in there and I read an article and she a quote by her is “we are all unreliable narrators.” And I wonder if there’s some you know human nature in there because we all have our own filter. You know we all if you and I sat through the same event and then we retold it to our friends, we would have two different stories. And so it’s very like the narrative device is very real life. We’re all going to tell the story with our own perceptions and our own life experiences. So maybe that’s part of what makes it so satisfying in the end. I don’t know.
SarahNo I think that I think that’s it, Brook. I think you’re right, that as you say we all interpret things. We all have our own interpretation of events and so when we’re reading something, whether it’s multiple point of view with multiple narrators, it becomes very clear there that there’s different perceptions of what’s going on. But even with a single narrator, yeah, you get that. I think that’s a really good point.
BrookI was thinking about the way our memories fade and they get kind of jumbled up and our memories contort to the way we wanted it to be or sometimes opposite. Sometimes they contort to you know the worst-case scenario of that of that event and so that that plays a part the way our memories work in these types of stories too.
SarahYeah I mean I don’t trust my memory.
BrookThe more years that pass the less I trust my memories.
SarahSo I looked up some articles to see lists of books with unreliable narrators and yeah, it’s a bit of a funny thing to list because if you know that the narrator is unreliable does that take away some of the enjoyment of the book? Rebecca was on a couple of those lists and I don’t know. I guess you could consider that narrator to be naïve. But I don’t know if I would put Rebecca on that list of unreliable narrators.
BrookYeah, that one surprised me too. I think you’re right; it must fall into that naive character. You know, I did some of the same looking around and they were also referencing Forrest Gump, which would have been a naive narrator and then Michael Scott from The Office. It was a surprising example. But I get it because his perspective is not accurate and as the audience we know that like right off the bat right? “Ok, this guy is not going to be telling things the way that they truly are,” but I had never thought about an unreliable narrator in a comedy situation, so that was kind of a fun thing to think about.
SarahAnd that’s a good point. Unreliable narration is not limited to mystery. We’ve been talking about mysteries. But Fight Club is not a mystery but certainly there’s unreliable narrator. And the film The Sixth Sense as well. I think you could say that was an unreliable narrator, but I guess it was naive right? Because he didn’t realize what was going on.
BrookYeah, there was not a deliberate or intentional trick to the reader.
SarahThanks, Brook. I think this has been a really great conversation talking about unreliable narrators and some of the favorite book experiences that I’ve had recently.
BrookYeah, this has been great, Sarah. And like so many of our topics, I assume that we will probably return to it at some point. But for today, everyone, thank you for joining us on Clued in Mystery. I’m Brook.
SarahAnd I’m Sarah. And we both love mystery.