The Unreliable Narrator

Any Human HeartTwice yesterday I found myself thinking about the unreliable narrator, that irritating and yet fascinating storyteller whose word you can just never quite trust.  It started while I was discussing a short story, The Fishing-Boat Picture by Alan Sillitoe, with a friend over morning coffee.  It was one that I used with first year undergraduates to introduce the concept of a writer deliberately misleading the reader at least on a first or surface reading.  The thing about Sillitoe’s narrator, Harry, is that it isn’t just the reader he is misleading but also himself because to acknowledge the truth would mean reassessing his own nature and the part that he played in the downfall of his marriage. By the end of the story, if you’ve caught on to what Sillitoe is doing, you know more of the truth of his life than he does – possibly.  What does Harry realise in that last moment?

Then, last night, I started William Boyd’s novel, Any Human Heart, which is our Monday Reading Group’s choice for January.  Within a matter of pages it’s clear that I’m not going to be able to trust Logan as a narrator. Here he is, telling me that when he set out to write his journal,

I’m sure I vowed to tell the truth, the whole truth, etc, etc, and I think these pages will bear me out in that endeavour. I have sometimes behaved well and I have sometimes behaved less than well – but I have resisted all attempts to present myself in a better light.

Well, come on, how can I possibly believe a word he says after that protestation?  I haven’t got very far yet with the novel but it does strike me that there may be a double layer of deception going on here, given that it is presented as if these journals have been edited by a third party, but I shall have to wait and see where that notion takes me.

This brought to mind a book that the same group read last year, Julian Barnes’ magnificent The Sense of an Ending. I seemed to spend the entire meeting insisting that I could trust a word that Tony said, partly because, as he continually pointed out, memory is not reliable and therefore while we might think we are giving an accurate account of events we are almost certainly embellishing or re-ordering to some extant, but also because I thought he protested too much and was using the capricious nature of memory as an excuse behind which to hide his deliberate rearrangement of past happenings.

So, three separate narrators on whom I cannot rely and what then caught my attention is that they are all men.  Now I promise you, I am not trying to be sexist here, but when I tried to think of female narrators that I could not trust I was stumped.  This may be, of course, a lack of breadth of reading on my part, but I would be really interested to know if any of you have come across women being used by a writer in this way.  Surely there must be some.

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20 thoughts on “The Unreliable Narrator

  1. I suppose I tend to think that all first person narrators are unreliable (unless one is reading a certain kind of chick-lit) because that personal perspective is always partial and subjective. The question, I suppose, is the extent to which we are opened up to what’s partial and subjective, and the extent to which we are asked to regard it as truth. Men, for all the dishonesty that peppers their narratives, are also very bad at covering their traces (Andre Gide was the author who sprang to mind reading your post, and his confessional recits). I think some of Simone de Beauvoir’s women definitely fall into the category of fooling themselves, but then she had an ontological theory to prove, so…. And you remind me I have Any Human Heart to read – lovely! I’m sure I will enjoy that one, and hope you do, too!

    1. This is why I think Harry is so interesting because he really isn’t aware of what he’s doing until his final awful cry. But Logan and Tony are different. I’m sure they are being deliberately deceptive but it would still be possible for the reader to miss it. The de Beauvoir is interesting and I know that I haven’t read enough of here work, so I must add something to the list. I’m sure you’ll enjoy Any Human Heart. I came to Boyd late and so while I know his more recent novels I’m still catching up on his earlier books. It’s fascinating to see what has changed and what remained the same.

  2. Happy New Year!

    Boyd’s book sounds fascinating. I’ve meant to read him for years; maybe this will be the book I try. And I am trying to come up with some female narrators for you: I recently read Caitlin R. Kiernan’s beautifully-written but badly organized urban fantasy novel, The Drowning Girl, and her narrator is a schizophrenic who admittedly is unsure about her meetings with a werewolf and mermaid.

    Since I can’t think of another unreliable female narrator, you must be on to something!

    1. I haven’t read ‘The Drowning Girl’. Do you know from the beginning that she is schizophrenic? If so, presumably you are alerted to the fact that you can’t trust what she tells you. That’s yet another type of unreliable narrator. I wonder if anyone has done any search on the different rationales behind the deceit?

      I like Boyd’s work but I think he has gradually become more populist as he’s gone on. ‘Restless’ might be a good way in.

  3. Oh I can think of unreliable female narrators. The protagonist of Code Name Verity and the protagonist of that book Liar Liar that had the hoopla over the cover art, though those are both from YA novels. I know! Merricat from We Have Always Lived in the Castle. July from Andrea Levy’s The Long Song. The heroine whose name I can’t remember from that Alina Bronsky book about the mean grandmother.

    1. You relieve me, Jenny. Ideally didn’t want it to be the case that there were no unreliable female narrators. I don’t know any of the books you’ve mentioned so I shall be glad when our libraries open again tomorrow and I can go and investigate. Thank you.

  4. I ended up quite enthralled with Any Human Heart, though it took a while to grow on me. That’s an interesting question about unreliable female narrators. The one that comes to mind for me right away is Lucy Snowe in Charlotte Bronte’s Villette — a much darker and twistier novel than Jane Eyre.

    1. And one I’ve always had trouble with to the extent that it had slipped my mind, but of course you’re right. I’ve got further on with the Boyd since I wrote and I’m finding it very interesting indeed. I didn’t really come to his work until ‘Restless’ was such a success but I can see I’m going to want to go back and read his earlier novels bit by bit. Are there any others you would particularly recommend?

  5. I love unreliable narrators and so should check out the Boyd novel. I have an example of an unreliable female narrator in mind, but I’m in a bind because if I tell you the book, it might spoil it. Sometimes the pleasure comes from figuring out — whether it’s slowly or all at once — that a narrator you thought was reliable really isn’t. I can definitely second the recommendation of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, though. A great book!

    1. So that is now definitely on my list.

      Yes, I can see the point about not wanting to tell me the title under the circumstances. I think with the Boyd and the Barnes you pretty much cotton on to what’s happening straight away but there are definitely those stories (and the Sillitoe is one of them) where it is the figuring out that matters.

    1. I’m glad it’s not just me, Colleen. I am ashamed to admit that I haven’t read any Welty so a recommendation is a good place to start. Thank you.

  6. Human Heart was one of the best novels I read in 2011 and it restored my faith in Boyd who I felt had gone off the boil somewhat in recent years. His earlier novels are much stronger IMHO. Try Brazzaville Beach or The Ice Cream War

    1. Yes, I think you’re probably right. I’ve read the last two and given his reputation I was expecting rather more. The further I get into ‘Any Human Heart’ the more I am impressed by it. I think I have a copy of ‘Brazzaville Beach’ somewhere, I’ll look it out. Thank you.

  7. I’m so glad you’re enjoying Any Human Heart, Alex. It’s certainly one of our favourites. I also enjoyed ‘Ordinary Thunderstorms’. For some reason, I really identified with the protagonist in that one and couldn’t stop worrying about what became of him.

    With regards to your question, what about the older woman narrator in Zoe Heller’s ‘Notes on a Scandal’? Very creepy!

      1. Yes, now that is a good example. More like Harry from ‘The Fishing-Boat Picture’ than any of the others, deceiving himself as much as the reader.

    1. Ah, now there’s a book I meant to read and somehow never got round to. I think I might suggest it as our September Book Group read when we see the film as well as reading the book. Thanks, Karen.

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