"If you really want to hear about it..." opens Holden Caulfield's narration in J.D. Salinger's The Catcher In The Rye. Yet can we believe a word this self-confessed liar says?
The unreliable narrator is one of the trickiest literary tropes to get right. Get it wrong, and the story is simply too frustrating and falls apart. But when an author gets it right, the pages can't turn fast enough.
A narrator may not have all his wits together, as in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, or his narrative may intentionally confuse, as in Tristram Shandy, but whatever the result, such a device helps us question the act of storytelling itself. In the landscape of modern media, it's never been more important to ask: who is talking, and what are they trying to hide?
Who is your favorite literary liar? Let us know in the comments!
Here's our favorite unreliable narrators from literature:
The Pilgrims in 'The Canterbury Tales'
<em>The Canterbury Tales</em> by Geoffrey Chaucer (late 14th Century) Pilgrims travelling to the shrine of Sir Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral bet on who will tell the best story. The entries make up <em>The Canterbury Tales.</em> The prize, a free meal, inspires embellishments - The Wife of Bath's tale, perhaps most famously, features presumably deliberate misquotations and internal discrepancies.
Book: <em>The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman</em> by Laurence Sterne (1759-1767) In his attempt to tell the story of his life, Tristram Shandy is incapable of telling a chronological narrative. His comical telling weaves and diverges so that he does not reach his own birth until volume III.
<em>The Cask of Amontillado</em> by Edgar Allen Poe (1846) Montresor plans to take revenge on fellow nobleman Fortunato by luring him into a wine celler to taste a cask of wine from Amontillado. The deadly outcome reveals that the narrator has been driven to insane measures by his grudge.
<em>Adventures of Huckleberry Finn</em> by Mark Twain (1884) The boys Huckleberry "Huck" Finn and Jim travel down the Mississippi River in search of freedom. Our narrator Huck is conflicted by the morals imposed on him by society and what he believes is right, leading to a troubled narration. Mark Twain wrote of his masterpiece, "...a book of mine where a sound heart and a deformed conscience come into collision and conscience suffers defeat."(Victor A. Doyno, <em>Writing Huck Finn: Mark Twain's Creative Process</em> (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1991).
<em>The Yellow Wallpaper</em> by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892) The female narrator is confined to a room for three months by her husband due to her mental illness. As her mind deteriorates, she becomes obsessed with the yellow wallpaper that decorates her prison. It is believed that the narrator suffered from postpartum depression, and "treatment" drives her insane.
<em>The Great Gatsby</em> by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925) Nicholas "Nick" Carraway's admiration for Jay Gatsby is mixed in with accounts of witnessing the opulence, pleasure, and speculation that surrounds Gatsby. The tale begins to crumble when he learns more about Gatsby's past.
Dr. James Sheppard
<em>The Murder of Roger Ackroyd</em> by Agatha Christie (1926) Dr. James Sheppard is the assistant to Detective Hercule Poirot in a murder investigation. Through omission, the narrator hides key details, building up to a dramatic twist.
<em>The Catcher in the Rye</em> by J.D. Salinger (1951) The classic story of teenage angst and rebellion begins as Holden leaves for New York City after being expelled from his "phony" prep school. When we finally learn the narrator's location from which he tells his story, it is clear that his troubles are more than that of a typical moody teen.
<em>Lolita</em> by Vladimir Nabokov (1955) Humbert Humbert is a middle-aged professor of literature who lusts after 12-year old Lolita throughout the novel. He tells his story in such a way to justify his pedophilia, which often convinces readers to sympathize with his acts.
<em>One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest </em>by Ken Kesey (1962) Narrador Chief Bromden tells his story from a mental hospital, where he as been living since the end of WWII. Although he has feigned some of his symptoms, events from his past lead him to sink into depression, and be diagnosed as schizophrenic.
<em>American Psycho</em> by Bret Easton Ellis (1991) Patrick Bateman is a Wall Street business man by day and a serial killer by night. Ellis's stream-of-consciousness narrative tells the story in present tense.
<em>Fight Club</em> by Chuck Palahniuk (1996) The unnamed narrator is struggling with insomnia, and joins Tyler Durden's underground Fight Club for psychotherapy. We learn that the narrator suffers from a lot more than sleep deprivation, calling his whole tale into question.
<em>Life of Pi</em> by Yann Martel (2001) <em>Life of Pi</em> is the fantastical story of Piscine "Pi" Patel's survival after being shipwrecked to a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. The story's animal characters and dramatic twists leave us unsure what is real.
<em>We Need To Talk About Kevin</em> by Lionel Shriver (2003) Shriver's work is made up of a series of letters from Eva to her husband as she tries to come to terms with the murders committed by her son Kevin. We never have proof of Kevin's actions, and we are not sure if it is Eva or Kevin who is the more disturbed.
Yunior de Las Casas
<em>The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao</em> by Juno Díaz (2007) Díaz's tale weaves Dominican history with hard-core nerd references to tell the story of Oscar de Leon, an obese Dominican boy growing up in Patterson, NJ. At first we are lead to believe that the narrator is omniscient, but when the identity of the narrator is revealed, we start to question the validity of his tale.
Nick and Amy Dunne
Book: <em>Gone Girl</em> by Gillian Flynn (2012) Amy and Nick have a troubled marriage, and both of them have witheld information from each other - and the reader. The omissions keep us guessing over who is responsible for Amy's disappearance.
<em>Sweet Tooth</em> by Ian McEwan (2012) Serena Frome's affair with her professor at Cambridge leads to a job at M15. While serving her country, Serena is involved in a operation to combat Communism by using a writer without his knowledge. The layers of storytelling in this novel make us question who is actually telling the story.