There is no such thing as a Reliable Narrator

A recent issue of the London Review of Books contained a fascinating review of Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, sequel to her Man Booker Prize-winning novel Wolf Hall. One of the questions addressed in Colin Burrow’s review (which can be read here if you’re a subscriber) is that of whether Mantel is overly charitable in her depiction of Thomas Cromwell as a man with thoroughly modern sensibilities:

The crude question ‘Does this mean that he could have felt as much and as finely as he does in this book?’ still needs to be asked. The novel’s present-tense mode of narrative, focalised through a single principal character, has an intrinsic problem. It would be almost impossible to write this kind of fiction and make the central character a brute, since so much depends upon what he or she notices and feels, on sensitivity. If a fiction represents the sensorium of one character’s feelings, then an inert or insensitive sensorium would probably generate inert fiction.

To my mind, this is pretty much spot on. While I have not read Bring Up the Bodies, I have read Wolfe Hall and Mantel’s depiction of Tudor England is so fragrant and atmospheric that it simply could not have been filtered through the mind of a character who saw the world purely in terms of fights, political conquests or scientific problems in need of a solution. In order for Mantel to portray Tudor England as a place full of colour and contrast, she needed a central character who would be alive to those elements of his world. Had Cromwell been a brute, then he would have attended to brutish things and our impression of the Tudor England would have been immeasurably more brutish as a result.

This got me thinking… people often talk about characters in very instrumental terms, portraying them either as psychological riddles in need of decoding or as means of capturing the reader’s empathy and using that connection to immerse them in the world of the novel.  Indeed, people often talk about the possibility of novels having ‘unreliable narrators’ in the sense that some fact about the narrator might shed some doubt on his or her version of the facts and thereby encourage readers to infer some previously hidden truth about the events described in the novel. The problem with the concept of the ‘unreliable narrator’ is that it assumes that there can be a ‘reliable’ narrator but I do not see how this could possibly be.

When each of us walk into a room, our attentions are drawn to different things dependent upon our perceptual capacity, our life experience, our personality, our interests and our mood. Two people can walk into exactly the same room and their minds will turn to very different matters: One will notice a social rival and begin speculating about how they can confront and humiliate them while another will begin to internally enthuse about the style of dress and the quality of the food. In this case both narrators are, strictly speaking, unreliable as the picture they give of a particular situation is incomplete and slanted… but how else are we to perceive the world except through our eyes, our experiences and our personalities?

A little while ago, I wrote about Jo Walton’s Hugo Award-nominated novel Among Others (2011) and commented on how cold and emotionally detached the world of that novel felt to me. Given that, much like Wolf Hall, Among Others focuses upon the life and experiences of one particular character, I inferred that much of the coldness of the world came from the fact that the book’s narrator was some kind of psychopath:

The work whose tone and setting most closely match that of Among Others is Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game (1985) as Mor is not only isolated and alienated but also intensely calculating in her relationships with other people. There are scenes where Mor discusses purchasing buns for other girls on the understanding that this will get them to buy her buns in return that echo with the same sociopathic lack of humanity as the scenes in which Ender ponders murdering or brutalising a bully in order to set an example.

Among Others and Ender’s Game are perfect examples of the kind of book that Burrow speculates must exist: They are emotionally inert because their central characters are themselves emotionally inert. The same can be said of Steve McQueen’s second film Shame (2011), which is cold, austere and minimalistic because its central character lives a life that is just as uncluttered as his elegantly-designed Manhattan apartment.

The ‘take home’ point from all of this is that characters are not solely defined by the things they think or the things they do, they are also defined by the things they pay attention to. Any novel that uses first-person narration or clings closely to a third-person viewpoint character must necessarily be read as that character’s subjective impression of the world they inhabit. While all of us share the same physical world, we live our lives in subjective universes built to suit our preferences. The art of great writing lies not just in making a character or a world that seems realistic, but in exploring the way in which the world makes the character and the character makes their own world.


  1. I’m not sure I wholly agree. It’s a conceit of fiction that we, in most cases, accept a character’s perspective as an accurate and truthful perspective. Of course in reality it’s a conceit so artificial the characters might as well be talking unicorns, but it’s a conceit that most people accept (don’t even consider).

    So what a character perceives may say nothing about their subjective nature, because the author hasn’t addressed that issue but rather has ellided it. One of the central challenges for me of modernism though is accepting this inherent subjectivity, the impossibility of reliability. Modernism of course doesn’t sell, and continues to be brushed aside as a historical movement rather than an ever present challenge to the illusion of the infallible authorial/narratorial voice.


  2. One might ask what we mean by “reliable narrator”, given that each of us observes different aspects about any given situation. What is it that we are relying on the narrator to do?

    If we’re not limiting the term “unreliable” to mean only “presenting an internally inconsistent or incoherent narrative” and are instead expanding it to mean “omitting, distorting, or falsifying aspects of the scene”, what standard do we use to determine what’s REALLY going on in the story, the reality of which we cannot rely upon the narrator to relate? It almost seems as though I would call a narrator unreliable if, when present in a situation, I cannot rely upon him to observe and relate the same things I would observe were I in the narrator’s position. The reliability of the narrator then becomes a function of the sensibilities and sensitivities of the reader, and indeed any attempt to come to grips with the meaning of reliability in this context must involve the individual reader.

    This is also getting at where we draw the line between truth and falsehood, and how much truth is sufficient. It reminds me of a passage by Douglas Adams in which a man under the influence of some advanced truth serum is instructed to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and actually begins to do so…which is of course deeply disturbing to his audience, and his account continues long after everyone has left the courtroom, and indeed sealed him permanently inside.

    I’ve been meaning to read Faulkner’s The Sound and The Fury, in which one of the narrators is autistic. He’s extremely “unreliable” from the perspective of the typical reader, but also possesses uncanny perceptive abilities beyond what would be expected for most people in his situation. I suspect I can’t rely on Faulkner to accurately convey the experience of an autistic person anyway, but I have to admire the attempt.

    I don’t know of any good examples of this off the top of my head, but imagine a “factual” account written by an author who is preternaturally aware of the nonverbal behaviors of others, in which the author/narrator describes the subtleties of these behaviors at length, beyond the capability of most people to decode them. The meaningful interactions that this narrator perceives would be ones that would be invisible to most readers, but which nonetheless convey truths about the situation. This wouldn’t go over very well I presume, but it would be a result of the failings of the unreliable reader.


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