By Ariell Cacciola
Unreliable narrators run rampant throughout literature, compelling us toward them and their often-twisted tales even as we question every word and action. To me, they are the most fascinating of narrators. Note that their unreliability might not be obvious at first, like Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye. Sometimes their reliability is suspect from the onset. Take the unnamed narrator in It Happened in Boston?,who, bent on meeting God so he can destroy him, has as the opening lines, “Lately I have come to feel that the pigeons are spying on me. What other explanation can there be?”
The reasons for telling a story through the eyes of an unreliable narrator include introducing a twist in the plot, re-evaluating the point of view, suggesting mental stability, and exposing bias, among a limitless number of other reasons.
The most utilized unreliable narrators are those that purposefully withhold information, usually to startle us once the realization is revealed. Who we first believe to be the poisoner in Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle ends up not being so and the actual dreadfulness in Herman Koch’s The Dinner isn’t fully revealed until the veil of polite conversation is lifted.
In 2013, the Crime Writers Association judged Agatha Christie’s 1926 novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd as the best crime novel ever written. The murder itself is unremarkable, but that isn’t where the brilliance lies. Christie proffers Dr. James Sheppard as our trusty guide. Presenting the formidable doctor as a filter for information, the reader must assume that as a medical man, he relies solely on facts and what he puts forward is accurate and unbiased. The novel ends with one of the biggest plot twists in modern crime writing: that trustworthy and principled doctor was the dastard all along!
A few years before the release of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Japanese short story writer Ryūnosuke Akutagawa wrote his most famous work, “In a Grove” (later to become the basis for Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film, Rashōmon). The story is divided into seven sections, each a first person account of a samurai’s murder. The first three provide witnessed accounts of the aftermath. With the arrival of each new testimony, old information is verified or not. The samurai’s sword is sometimes there and sometimes absent; an abandoned horse on the main road is described by one but ignored by another. We even read the confession of the murderer, whose own rendition of the crime is much different than the samurai’s surviving wife, who was also in the grove. The final section comes to us through a medium as the words of the murdered man. We assume that this should be the most accurate of the view points, but beware: Akutagawa is complicating everything even further by rendering the story through a channel whose intentions are not even known. The story begs to be re-read several times; with each new reading I wonder what I missed or whose tale is closest to the truth. Nothing is made sufficiently clear in this fragmented story.
But unreliability goes back further still. In James Hogg’s 1824 novel The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, we are presented with one of literature’s most dastardly and compelling characters. Initially published anonymously, Hogg’s novel begins in 1687 with information collected by an unnamed editor almost two centuries removed about a sensationalized fratricide. The editor’s narrative is inherently flawed, because everything presented is hearsay. When we move to the second narrative, that of the justified sinner named Robert, things begin to spiral. A religious man who believes in predestination, Robert meets a mysterious stranger who has a striking resemblance to himself. Or is it a resemblance to his brother? He’s never quite sure. With enough prodding, the stranger successfully talks Robert into a murder spree, including murdering his own brother. Robert is also accused of other wrongdoings, but he swears he’s pious and knows nothing of this. His strange friend appears sometimes and the details of his providence are minimal. When confronted, Robert realizes that he’s losing time and feels as if he doesn’t sleep at night. Others even comment that Robert and his friend bear a striking resemblance to one another.
Can we take Robert’s narrative at face value? Certainly not. Both framing narratives suffer from grand unreliability that require the reader to doubt the information. The editor’s section has me questioning what crimes have actually happened and, with Robert, he’s leaving behind a manuscript with the intent to have it published. Is he trying to fool us into believing him or is it just a cover for a criminal madman?
In Rachel Ingalls’ Mrs. Caliban, I find pleasure in believing that the froglike aquaman who begins an affair with housewife Dotty Caliban exists. Mrs. Caliban is stuck in a difficult marriage with a philandering husband. Her young son has died and she also suffered a miscarriage. One day, she hears a radio broadcast about an escaped creature. No one else hears the broadcast, but throughout, Ingalls has you doubting what’s what. All details are concrete and the best novels of the fantastic are those rooted in reality. We know the frogman’s appearance is a manifestation of Mrs. Caliban’s unhappiness, but the unreliability comes from a small aside from a neighbor, the groceries being eaten, and more news reports, which others start to acknowledge. When the frogman doesn’t return from the sea is it because he’s gone or that he never was there to begin with?
I maintain that the most fascinating narrators are the unreliable. Unreliable narrators are there to tease us, to make us question what is actually happening. At times, they sidestep definitive outcomes and fiddle with our understanding. Often, their mental state is questioned and their intentions are sometimes never fully revealed. They keep us on our toes as they unravel plots and keep our curiosity piqued to the very last page.
Ariell Cacciola holds an MFA in Fiction from Columbia University and is finishing her first novel. Her writing has appeared in various magazines, journals, and anthologies. For more information, she can be found at ariellcacciola.com and acidfreepulp.com, where she writes about books, literature, and other writerly musings.
Image: James Hogg – The Ettrick Shepherd. Lithographed from an original Portrait in the possession of his widow by Schenck & McFarlane, Edinburgh, © 2012 Charles Rogers, public domain.