One of my favourite tropes in media is that of the unreliable narrator. Typically, a tacit agreement is made with any piece of media before you enter it—that the narrator is telling you the truth of what is happening or has happened. This implicit trust in the narrator is shaken up in the case of the unreliable one. The trope allows for a truer representation of reality where no one person’s perception of events is truly infallible.
An unreliable narrator’s ‘version’ of events is, in essence, either untrue or incomplete. There may be multiple reasons for this, but I think they can be grouped under three main categories.
This is when the narrator is being deceived in some way either by their own mind or by other people. Hence, they do not perceive the truth of what’s happening. They truly believe that they are experiencing the truth and communicate the same to the readers/viewers. Examples: The Yellow Wallpaper, A Tale of Two Sisters.
The Yellow Wallpaper is a short story written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. I read it first during high school and was absolutely fascinated by how much could be said with so few words. You can finish reading this story in less than half an hour probably, but it stays with you for much longer. Madness can mean so many different things.
A Tale of Two Sisters is a Korean horror movie. Watching it during college with my roommate was an unforgettable experience. Halfway through the movie, we pushed the laptop to one corner of the bed and moved to the diagonal opposite end to be as far away from it as possible, all the while being unable to stop watching. I’m still not sure if it is a psychological or supernatural horror movie.
An unreliable narrator may also wish to hide their actions or intentions and actively deceive the readers for reasons either malicious or otherwise. The key element is that they are very much aware that their version is not a true account of events. Examples: Malice, John Dies at the End.
Higashino Keigo has a few truly mind-blowing novels. Malice is not really in my top three favourites, but it is still one of the best books I’ve read that utilise the unreliable narrator trope brilliantly. This is basically how I read the book:
First half: Hmm, I see where this is going.
Around the middle: Ah, I knew this was coming. Wait, there’s still so many pages left?
Second half: I did not see that coming at all.
John Dies at the End by narrator-author David Wong is an absolute romp, completely unlike any other piece of media on this list. You’ll either love it or be positively repulsed by it. It is chock full of unreliable narrators. Why even the title is misleading. It probably should be John Dies at the End of His Life or something to that effect.
The Rashomon effect:
Though it is effectively a trope of its own, there is some overlap with the unreliable narrator. Here, there are typically multiple narrators in a story. Each person’s version of events is unreliable solely because they do not know the whole picture and are only talking about their individual experiences. The payoff of putting together all those narratives and seeing the ‘true’ picture is really rewarding. The Rashomon effect is called so because it is inspired by the Japanese movie of the same name which employs this trope. Examples: Hoodwinked!, Five Little Pigs.
Hoodwinked! is a hilarious animated adaptation of Red Riding Hood. I adore retellings of fairy tales and myths, and this is one of my favourite adaptations of all time. We get to see the ‘true’ story unfold through the incomplete stories of Red, her granny, the woodsman, and the wolf.
Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie, also dabbled in the Rashomon effect in a Poirot mystery, Five Little Pigs. Quite unlike the usual mysteries, Poirot solves a sixteen-year-old murder by examining accounts of the same event by five different people. As always with Christie, it is fun to keep an eye out for details that don’t match up and attempt to solve the mystery before Poirot.
The trope of an unreliable narrator can be both satisfying and frustrating. Satisfying when it all adds up and the mystery is wrapped up with a bow and presented at the end. Extremely frustrating when you’re left with a vague sense of being out of sync with reality. What really happened? What’s the truth?
What is truth?
2 Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2563640
5 Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3225956