I’ve always had something of a love/hate relationship with the unreliable narrators of literature. You know who I’m talking about: the Humbert Humberts and Patrick Batemans, Holden Caulfields and Mrs. de Winters of the fictional world — the voices of great fiction who, for one reason or another, have demonstrated themselves to be seriously untrustworthy or wholly compromised in their storytelling abilities. And for better or for worse, from one page to the next, they’ll keep you guessing.
That, I suppose, is what I love about the unreliable narrator. Theirs is a fictional world inside of a fictional world; their stories are imperfect and unobjective to the core. And while you can’t trust the unreliable narrator’s story as the one that’s true (whatever that means, anyway) for many unreliable narrators, it simply doesn’t matter — their truth is the only truth that counts and (while a dangerous premise in the real — ahem, “post-fact” — world) that’s really what I come to fiction for in the first place: to be entirely absorbed in somebody else’s narrative, unobjective as it may be. That’s not to say readers don’t have to watch out for some unreliable narrators — they do. The Humbert Humberts of literature (and of reality, for that matter) should be well guarded against. The Patrick Batemans should be watchfully sidestepped. But others — Yann Martel’s Pi Patel, for example, or Emma Donoghue’s Jack — these are characters whose unique, though unobjective, truths are the stories readers want to hear.
Here are nine fictional narrators who readers don’t care are unreliable. (Oh, and a quick PSA: this list is filled with (unalerted) spoilers, so if any of these reads are still languishing in your TBR pile, proceed with caution.)
Amy Dunne from ‘Gone Girl’ by Gillian Flynn
Nicknamed “Evil Amy” for good reason, Amy Dunne is perhaps the most deliciously conniving of all of fiction’s unreliable narrators — at least recently. She flipped the script on domestic thrillers so thoroughly, that I don’t even care if readers can’t believe a word she says (or writes in her journal, for that matter.) She is one tricky woman, and I am happy to follow her down her own rabbit hole any day of the week. Would I give “Evil Amy” the same pass if she was a man, you might be wondering. Good question. Which is why I invite you to proceed to…
Nick Dunne from ‘Gone Girl’ by Gillian Flynn
I also don’t think it matters that Nick Dunne can't really be trusted either — though he's perhaps a degree or two more reliable than his wife, Amy. In fact, I think it’s essential that he can't be trusted (if he could, Amy’s narrative would be far less compelling, amirite?) These two are a match made in unreliable narrator heaven.
Rachel Watson from ‘The Girl on the Train’ by Paula Hawkins
Moving right along, this psychological thriller was referred to as “the next Gone Girl” when it first landed on bookstore shelves — although, I don’t know that there will ever be another Amy Dunne quite like the original. Rachel Watson’s unreliability is far less conniving (and deliberate) than “Evil Amy’s”, though I’m a sucker for a an unreliable narrator whose unreliability is a mystery even to themselves.
"Pi" Patel from ‘The Life of Pi’ by Yann Martel
Pi Patel is, by far, my favorite of the unreliable narrators — and don’t even pretend I’m the only reader who believed he was actually living in a lifeboat with a tiger up until the very end. I have great faith in my feline friends. What I love about Pi is that the reader is entirely superfluous to his narrative — he told his story for (and to) himself first. He’s kind of the ultimate example of: “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.”
Briony Tallis from ‘Atonement’ by Ian McEwan
Readers will be quick to write Briony Tallis off as nearly as evil as our Dunne couple above — after all, she falsely accuses a fellow character of rape. And don’t get me wrong: That’s not good at all. But Briony’s struggle is one all writers can relate to, to varying degrees: She is so utterly caught in the crosshairs of her very own story that she believes (if only temporarily) that she is telling the truth. What writer among us hasn’t gotten similarly consumed by their own writing? And, to her credit, she spends the rest of her life atoning for the fallout of an enormously overactive imagination.
Jack from ‘Room’ by Emma Donoghue
Five-year-old Jack joins the ranks of unreliable narrator for the simple fact that he has never ventured outside the room he and his mother have been held captive in for his entire life — and his mother has led him to believe that their room is all there is to the world. Quite frankly, this fact makes Jake more reliable — if only as an expert on what it means to be held captive in a single room for your entire life.
The Unnamed Woman from ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Per the same reasoning that readers find Emma Donoghue’s Jack an unreliable narrator, the unnamed woman at the center of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story, The Yellow Wallpaper, is considered unreliable as well: she spends her days in compulsory bed rest in the nursery of a summer home rented for her by her husband, growing more and more stir crazy by the day, until she is convinced a woman is living in the wallpaper and must be set free. It doesn’t take a genius to see the metaphor here.
Chief Bromden from ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest’ by Ken Kesey
Chief Bromden, the narrator of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, fools everyone into thinking he’s a deaf mute — I'd argue, thereby making him not an unreliable narrator, but the most reliable narrator. Though documenting his own journey back into wellness, he also bears witness to the egregiously inhuman conditions faced by his fellow wards in a way that few other residents of the hospital could.
Mrs. de Winter from ‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier
Mrs. de Winter (the second) is a tricky character — in part due to her own mysterious past and untrustworthiness, and also in part because she seems to be taken for a ride just as much as readers are. Her narrative is unreliable because she herself has been lied to. You can't really blame her for that, right...?