Unreliable narrator: A narrator who, intentionally or unintentionally, fails to provide an accurate report of events or situations and whose credibility is therefore compromised. Unreliability may result from a wide range of causes, such as innocence or immaturity, lack of information, mental disabilities or other impairments, bias or prejudice, or deliberate lying. Authors using unreliable narrators generally provide the reader with sufficient information to assess the narrator’s reliability and correct misinterpretations; some, however, leave the narrator’s reliability open to question.
EXAMPLES: Charlie Marlow in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) and Lord Jim (1900); Nick Carraway in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925). Examples of unreliable narrators whose fallibility is not revealed to the reader or audience until late in the narrative include the easily deceived John Dowell in Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier (1927) and Verbal Kint, who spins an elaborate web of deception in the film The Usual Suspects (1995) to conceal his identity as the ruthless criminal mastermind Keyser Söze.
Contemporary examples of unreliable narrators include the unnamed narrator of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club (1996; adapted to film 1999), who suffers from multiple personality disorder; Leonard, the memory-impaired protagonist of the movie Memento (2001); and Nick and Amy Dunne, a husband and wife who intentionally keep us in the dark for the first half of Gillian Flynn’s thriller Gone Girl (2012; adapted to film 2014).