Inside the Mind of the Unreliable Narrator
Create interdisciplinary connections and promote high-level inferences by studying unreliable narrators.
By Elijah Ammen
I still remember the first time I read "The Tell-Tale Heart" and realized that I was listening to the unreliable narration of someone who was clearly insane. Since then, I have always enjoyed stories where (as one of my college professors was fond of saying) you see "crazy from the inside out."
Academically, there's a reason why unreliable narration is an important and rigorous concept for readers. Young readers are often great at comprehension, or even giving their analysis or opinion. However, they don't look beyond the face value of the story. Stories with unreliable narrators force the reader to sift through the details, questioning the very reality of what is happening. That tricky gray area of inferences moves readers to a higher level of interpretation and analysis.
Discern the Difference Between Source Types
From an interdisciplinary perspective, this is an extension of evaluating sources. While primary sources are typically more reliable, they often contain bias. Today's generation has quicker access to more information than any other time in history, yet they often don't have the discernment to evaluate those sources. Have your class first discern the difference between a primary and secondary source and then evaluate eyewitness accounts, like in this lesson that uses eyewitness accounts from the Chicago Fire.
Once you have established the concept of reliability with nonfiction texts, students have the background knowledge to connect that concept to fiction. Start by explicitly teaching unreliable narration with a short text (you can use these guiding questions and activities on Edgar Allen Poe and Ambrose Bierce). Once your class has seen a clear example, they are ready for more subtlety. Choose either a short or long text as the basis of your literature circles. Because of the ambiguity of many details, the narrator's level of unreliability is debatable. Try a fishbowl discussion and model a debate on whether or not a narrator is reliable.
Once you have these systems in place, it's a matter of reading as much as you can. Here is a brief (non-exhaustive) list of short and long texts with some degree of unreliable narrators:
- Edgar Allen Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado," "The Tell-Tale Heart," "The Fall of the House of Usher," and "The Raven" (along with many more) are prime examples of unreliable and clearly disturbed narrators.
- Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" is a clear picture of a descent into madness as the narrator slowly loses touch with reality. The cryptic ending would be a great class debate about what really happened.
- Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is a heart-breaking short story that is unreliable not as much in the voice of the narrator as in the structure of the narrator's thoughts. There are several key context clues that signal the twist ending and give hints about the narrator's unreliability.
- The Arabian Nights stories are narrated by different characters who often have selfish motives. In the overarching narrative, the narrator's choice of stories often reflect how she is trying to persuade the king from executing her.
- In The Canterbury Tales, each pilgrim is a complex character with different reasons for being on the road, and each story, exaggeration, and lie they tell characterizes them. Use indirect characterization to create character profiles for each person based on the way they tell their story.
- The Heart of Darkness is told from Charles Marlow's perspective, which is framed by his cultural background and colors his analysis of everything around him. Discuss how Marlow's point of view is seen in his description and critique of his environment and the choices he makes.
- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn does not have the insanity of many other unreliable narrators, but the young and often naive mind of Huck Finn affects his view of people. Compare and contrast Huck's view of people with their true natures.
- Wuthering Heights follows the classic tradition of extended letters and narration of remembering past events, which inherently causes issues with reliability.
- The Catcher in the Rye is often misunderstood as a book that glorifies a young man's rebellion against the world, when it is really an insightful vocalization of humanity's struggle with authenticity and hypocrisy, where ultimately the mirror of critique is held up to the narrator. Holden's revelation at the end of the book makes a second reading necessary, because his reliability is called into question.
- The Life of Pi seems like a straightforward, though fantastic story until the twist ending calls Pi's story into question. This hotly debated ending is deliberately left open-ended, which makes for a perfect class debate.
- The Great Gatsby has subtler tones of unreliability, since it is more in what Nick Carraway waits to reveal, rather than being up front. This builds suspense, but also calls Nick's truthfulness into question.
- One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is definitely for mature classes, but it is a personal favorite of mine when it comes to unreliable narrators. In a completely different structure than the Oscar-winning movie, the book is narrated by an inmate whose vivid hallucinations and extreme paranoia create a kaleidoscope of reality and leave the reader torn about whether to believe him or not.