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10 of Literature’s Most Unreliable Narrators

It was 55 years ago today that Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial novel Lolita was first published in the US. Nabokov’s remarkable prose is as evocative today as it was in 1958. Facet’s of the author’s great work about a middle-aged lit scholar’s obsession with a 12-year-old girl have been debated since its publication, many arguing the chronology of the tragic events and Humbert Humbert’s fallibility as a narrator. We discuss this, and more of literature’s unreliable narrators, past the break.

Essay Guidelines

Humbert Humbert in Lolita

Lolita contains perhaps the greatest example of the unreliable narrator. The stylistic device is employed so convincingly that readers even questioned Nabokov’s own character, believing he perhaps shared Humbert’s predilection for “nymphets,” which prompted him to write an afterword to dissect the various misconceptions. Just as Humbert claims he toyed with the nurses and doctors when he was institutionalized, he toys with us and makes a persuasive argument for our sympathies — his controlling, mocking, and delusional nature peering through his lyrical narration. But others see Humbert as unflinchingly honest narrator who never denies his reprehensible actions.

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Alex in A Clockwork Orange

It’s clear from the very beginning of Anthony Burgess’ dystopian classic that we cannot fully trust anything Alex tells us. Apart from learning he’s a violent and manipulative sociopath, the story opens with Alex getting drunk at the Korova Milk Bar. This, coupled with Alex’s use of the fictional language Nadsat and the futuristic setting, places us firmly in his world fraught with delusions of grandeur.

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The unnamed narrator in Fight Club

The unnamed narrator in Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club suffers from a wicked case of insomnia, deep depression, and existential blah, which immediately calls his viewpoint into question. Our suspicions deepen when he joins an underground fight club as a form of therapy, a cult-like group that participates in terrorist activities. We’re left wondering about his moral compass. Later, the novel’s big reveal makes us question everything we’ve been told.

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Patrick Bateman in American Psycho

Debauched corporate climbers are immediately suspect. And, psychopaths. (Also see: everything Edgar Allan Poe wrote.)

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Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby

Fitzgerald’s book isn’t a clear-cut case of the narrator not knowing more than the reader. Nick Carraway, the neighbor of mysterious millionaire Jay Gatsby, only knows what the aloof Gatsby reveals to him (not a hell of a lot) and the second-hand stories of other characters, including his “incurably dishonest” girlfriend, Jordan. At the same time, Carraway expresses wishful thinking and claims responsibility for potential inaccuracies during several points during the story. He also claims he’s “inclined to reserve judgments” against the other characters, then proceeds to judge them like gangbusters. Nick’s moral conflict increasingly vexes him, which also alters his judgment.

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Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye

J. D. Salinger’s cynical teenage narrator openly admits he’s “the most terrific liar you ever saw” at the start of the story. His opinions about the world seem skewed by adolescent angst (he’s a precocious protagonist with an immature streak), but Salinger makes us question Caulfield’s stability at the end of the story.

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The many narrators of House of Leaves

The multiple narrators of Mark Z. Danielewski’s novel present a trail of imaginary footnotes and conflicting information for us to sort through. Characters openly admit to their unreliability and mock us for trusting them. The tale isn’t just labyrinthine in content, but also in structure. Did you really expect to find a trustworthy source in a novel that looks like this?

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Huckleberry Finn The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

The young Huck Finn’s naiveté is sometimes refreshing, as his innocent viewpoint offers a fresh perspective on complex issues, but his misinterpretations of events also leaves us questioning things. His inexperience blinds him in certain situations, as in the case of the con artists he travels with (unbeknownst to him) and his conflict over helping slave Jim, which adds to our dilemma.

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Screwtape in The Screwtape Letters

Never trust a demon with a story to tell — though some might argue that it’s the Christian apologetic we can’t trust.

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Nelly and Lockwood in Wuthering Heights

Our two narrators are deceptively unbiased and suffer from a case of knowing too much and too little. Nelly, servant to the Earnshaw and Linton families, appears to be a reliable eyewitness to events, but she’s a storyteller and frequently embellishes things. She also knows the family on an intimate level and is too close to their world in order to see things clearly. At the same time, she uses her knowledge to manipulate and intervene, despite her feigned innocence. Our other narrator, Lockwood, a gentleman renting Thrushcross Grange, learns about the complicated history of the family from Nelly, and therefore often misinterprets events.

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