Unreliable Narrator

Saronik asks Chad about narrators in fiction, and life, who cannot be trusted – their quirks, productive unreliabilities, their effect on present politics, the works! We talk around Wayne C. Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction.

Chad Hegelmeyer is a postdoc in English at NYU. His current project is sunbathing while reading Hannah Arendt. The Capybara stands, proudly, in place of Chad.



narrator, unreliable narrator, read, author, unreliable, irony, implied, humbert, text, story, narration, form, question, tricky, norms, people, worldview, literary, literature, chad

Saronik  00:50

So we are here today with Chad Hegelmeyer, and Chad is going to tell us all about the unreliable narrator. But before that, we want to hear from Chad about Chad.

Chad 01:00

Yeah. I am Chad Hegelmeyer. I recently graduated from the PhD. program at NYU in English and I’m going to be starting as a postdoc there in September. My field is 20th-century and contemporary American literature. And my dissertation was about fact-checking in literature. So we might see some ways in which this, the topic of the unreliable narrator, is somewhat related to the idea of fact-checking.

Saronik  01:29

Yeah, I mean, so we have talked about your work previously. And for people who are listening, Chad and I, we shared an office space at one time, so… 




Brilliant. I’m just gonna jump right ahead and ask you: what the heck is an unreliable narrator?

Chad 01:48

Yeah. So actually, when I was talking to Kim, about being a guest on your great show, I wasn’t even sure if an unreliable narrator would be a good topic because it’s not really a “high theory” term, although it is definitely a literary theoretical term. But it’s also one of those terms that I think a lot of people think they know what it means. It seems obvious that it’s just a narrator that you don’t trust, but it’s actually a little more, like, subtly complicated than that. So…

Saronik  02:14

I mean, it is a really sort of a, when I grade my students papers it is a really popular idea even amongst my students, they see unreliable narrators as something that they can bank on sort of.

Chad 02:27

Yeah, I found that to be the case, too. It’s like actually one of those popularized literary terms, right? But yeah, it has this quite specific meaning and even though it seems like a concept that must have existed in literature, maybe since the beginning of time, as a term it wasn’t coined until 1961 in the US, so it has this, like, specific history in literary criticism as well that we can get into. But so, like, to give a really basic definition, an unreliable narrator, what it originally meant was a narrator whose perspective or worldview is implied by the text to diverge from the author’s. So the unreliable narrator is one that the texts wants us to read as wrong in some way, whether that’s factually wrong or morally wrong or philosophically wrong, and the standard by which we judge the wrongness or unreliability of the narrator, is by what we as readers perceive to be the author’s worldview, values, or norms based on the text that we’re reading.

Saronik  03:27

Right. So you have, like, you create, like, the very easy equation between, like an equation of authenticity between author and text.




So it’s sort of it’s, like, it fits, that this was thought of in the 60s. I think I would say that no, that’s bullshit.

Chad 03:52

Yeah, I mean, it’s this moment after–we don’t have to get too far into this–but it’s this moment after New Criticism when people are thinking more rhetorically about literary texts. And so they’re becoming, you know, we start getting these conversations about the death of the author and implied authors and things like that. So, so, so yeah, I mean, one of the reasons that the unreliable narrator is a really tricky topic or concept is that it relies on this idea of an implied author, which we can get into more in a second.

Saronik  04:23

Sorry, I mean, I distracted you so can you just give us the coinage now?

Chad 04:27

Yeah, yeah, let’s jump into it. So um, it’s coined by Wayne C. Booth in his 1961 book, The Rhetoric of Fiction. And, I mean, one–so before we jump into this, do, like, should we define “narrator” a little bit? I think even “narrator” it’s, like…

Saronik  04:48

[???], sit down and figure out what the narrator is.

Chad 04:52

I mean, I’ll–I can do this very quickly, because you know, even the narrator can be a tricky concept. We don’t want to get it too tricky since we’re going to get tricky with the unreliable unreliability part in a second. I think that the easiest way of distinguishing or of defining a narrator is to go back to Plato and, like, the classical distinction between two modes of representation, drama and narrative. So it’s the difference between directly showing a story and indirectly telling or reporting a story. So in drama, you know, you have, like, you think of a play or a movie, you have figures that you’re watching act out the story, but in the narrative, someone is telling you that story. It’s coming from one person, that person is the source or mediator of the story. And that is the narrator right? The figure or the instance within the text that is the source and mediator of the story. So Gerard Genette, the famous narratologist will say that the narrator is the answer to the question, Who speaks or who is speaking when I read this text?

Saronik  05:51

I don’t remember teaching the concept of the narrator in this way, but this sort of dramaturgical explanation really helps. I’m going to ask you my next question, because I think that will help you sort of sink your teeth into the unreliability bit, which is: how do we use an unreliable narrator?

Chad 06:10

Yes. So this is sort of a tricky question for the unreliable narrator because I think that it’s such a specifically literary concept, right? So you’re only really going to use it when you’re reading literature. But it’s interesting because Wayne Booth does sort of describe the unreliable narrator as both a feature of a text and a kind of mode of reading that it prompts or that it insights. This is what he says–this is reading from his book, The Rhetoric of Fiction, “for lack of better terms, I have called a narrator reliable when he speaks for or acts in accordance with the norms of the work, which is to say the implied author’s norms are unreliable when he does not.” So we use the unreliable narrator when we try to make distinctions between what the narrator is telling us and what we presumed to be norms or values of the author as implied by the text itself.

Saronik  07:06

Right, I mean, yes, it originates in the criticism, but obviously has sort of massive, massive repercussions in rhetoric writ large. 




And so yeah, I mean, if we can sort of pivot towards that…

Chad 07:21

For sure. I mean, so a key feature of–a key rhetorical feature–of the unreliable narrator is irony. So Booth has this really fascinating passage where he describes the point of the unreliable narrator being to help the reader and the implied author collude against the narrator. So I’ll just read what he says because it’s great: “Irony is always in part a device for excluding, as well as for including, and those who are included those who happen to have the necessary information to grasp the irony cannot but derive at least a part of their pleasure from a sense that others are excluded. In the irony with which we are concerned the speaker is himself the butt of the ironic point”–the speaker being the narrator– “the author and reader are secretly in collusion behind the narrator’s back agreeing upon the standard by which he has found wanting.” So it’s a pleasurable thing supposedly according to Booth where we judge the narrator, with the author where we’re in the know where we’re sort of in the same position as the author with respect to this unknowing, or fallible or unreliable narrator.

Saronik  08:29

This is, like, this is really interesting. We just like this sort of idea of agreement or consensus between author and reader in order to sort of scapegoat the narrator. And that is something or sort of the maneuvering that way in order to produce irony is something that is sort of the mainstay of much of Twitter right now. 

Chad 8:53

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, so, I do want to make an important distinction here, because, you know, it’s kind of tempting to say that, you know, for instance, like Donald Trump is an unreliable narrator or, you know, someone else that we’re politically suspicious of is an unreliable narrator. But that’s not really the case, right? It’s not the case, or rather I should just say, like, Donald Trump is just someone whose speech we can’t trust, right? Which is different from an unreliable narrator, which is the assumption of a narrator who expresses beliefs or professes things that you actually do not, right? So in a way, it’s a bit like an extended form of sarcasm, where you’re adopting this mask that says the opposite of what you actually, yourself, believe to be the case.

Saronik  09:34

Yeah. So my last question is–and I’m really, really excited about what your answer to this question is–how will the unreliable narrator save the world? I bet you’ve never been asked this question before.

Chad 09:50

No, I definitely haven’t. I mean, I think my first inclination is to say it won’t. I mean, I think there’s even a question about whether the unreliable narrator is actually making the world a worse place, right? Like, one thing we could ask ourselves is whether the pleasure we gained from colluding with the implied author against the narrator is an ethical one, or, like, one that we should be partaking in, you know, but I think it is a way to explore or to have access to certain viewpoints or worldviews that might be really difficult to assess and judge and access otherwise, so I mean, using Lolita as a good example, Humbert Humbert, for anyone who hasn’t read Lolita, Humbert Humbert is the narrator and he is a pedophile who serially rapes a young girl over the course of like a year in the novel. And it’s awful because it’s written from his point of view and he claims many times that this is basically, like, you know, a straightforward love story. And it’s even more disturbing because the way Nabokov writes Humbert Humbert narration, it’s sometimes genuinely beautiful, insightful, and profound. And of course at the same time, it’s horrifying, monstrous, and despicable. So, I think an example like this can show the ways in which unreliable narration goes to some of the mysteries of cognition and awareness, you know, like how can a person know or understand one thing so well and be so wrong about something else? And it also addresses lots of questions about, like, to what extent or whether we can pull apart aesthetic form and ideological content. I think it also gets to the heart of this desire for there to be some kind of, like, moral judgment in our narration and stories. I think we live in an age now where we kind of don’t want our stories to have, like, these overt or obvious moral dimensions, but we also do, right? I think that the unreliable narrator gets particularly tricky in moments where people feel like there are multiple claims on reality, right? Where, like, reality feels fragmented or difficult to understand. And there seems to be these like competing understandings of what’s going on. Because in those cases, you can get unreliable narrators where like some people read straightforwardly and literally and other people read an unreliable narrator, right? I mean, this seems to be going, this seems to be what’s going on when, you know, two people read a Breitbart article and one goes away horrified and one goes away being like, yeah, that was the truth, and historical moments like that. I think it’s true that the unreliable narrative becomes a very tricky, tricky form of satire, right, or irony to employ. Often–not always, but often–extreme forms of unreliable narration are meant to shock readers, right? So you know, think of Humbert Humbert in Lolita, or even for a slightly more recent example, the narrator Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, who’s an extreme sadist. And we’re not supposed to read that book as like a fun romp through torture and cannibalism, right? We’re supposed to read it as, like, horrifying and disturbing. So I think in moments of extreme political or social divisiveness, you do sort of need a more extreme or more blatant form of unreliable narration If you want it to be read if you want to guarantee that it’s read that way. Yeah, it’s a subtle technique, right? And so when subtlety is not really the moment like it is right now in our political culture, it can be difficult to employ.

Saronik  13:25

Okay, thank you so much Chad. Thank you. for talking to us about the unreliable narrator. 


Of course. Thank you for having me.

Kim 13:34

And thank you for listening to High Theory.

Saronik  13:38

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Kim 13:49

Eoghan Quinn composes our theme music and Kim Adams and Saronik Bosu edit our audio. We hope you have a highly theoretical day.

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