Unreliable Narrators in Classic Literature
By Megan Powell, Magali Prel, Natasha Smith and Mia Walby
Classic literature is riddled with unreliable narrators who give their subjective view of a story. These novels leave us – the readers – wondering how the story would change if narrated by another character. Many authors have used unreliable narrators in their works who deliberately withhold information or lie when recounting a story to engage the reader on a deeper level as this technique encourages readers to come to their own conclusions, knowing that the narrator’s point of view cannot be trusted. So, dive into these classics, and consider how it would affect the story if the author had released the same novel from another character’s perspective.
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
(trigger warning: sexual abuse)
Lolita is a novel written by Vladimir Nabokov which was first published in 1955. Since the day it was published, Lolita has been perceived as a controversial novel due to it being mistakenly thought of as a love story instead of a disturbing narrative about a predator’s mind and manipulation. Narrated through the perspective of the predator himself, Humbert Humbert, the story describes how he becomes obsessed with twelve-year-old Dolores Haze. This novel is especially important when discussing unreliable narrators as, without objective hindsight, one can easily become sympathetic with the evils Humbert Humbert commits due to the flowery language and emotional appeals he uses. This novel forces the reader to break identification with the narrator.
His unreliability as a narrator is ironically commented on by Humbert Humbert himself when he states that he is “sensational [but with] incomplete and unorthodox memory.” However, the emotional language used by the narrator throughout the novel is clearly an attempt to make the reader feel empathy for him. Nabokov recognised this, himself stating that “Humbert Humbert is a vain and cruel wretch who manages to appear touching.” (The Paris Review).
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby explores themes of love, fate and wealth in 1920s New York. The subtle unreliable narration from Nick Carraway, Gatsby’s new neighbour, makes it difficult for the reader to completely trust the events which occur, given that he arguably allows his close relationship and admiration of Gatsby to form biased opinions. The novel is told only from Nick’s perspective and, therefore, we must trust in Nick that the statements he makes about others’ feelings are honest and true. Whilst Nick claims he is “one of the few honest people” he ever knew and was brought up to reserve all judgments, we encounter a man who judges each character with arrogance at times – judgments which are founded on his subjective opinions that brand Tom and Daisy as “careless” people. Additionally, the fact that Nick was the only friend to attend Gatsby’s funeral perhaps shows how his narration was clouded, emphasising his potential tendency to elevate Gatsby far higher than he deserved, since the readers have to wonder why no one else would show up for one of the most prominent men in Long Island.
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
Holden Caulfield is a polarising narrator. While he is now praised with cries on Tiktok from various creators of “he’s just like me for real,” others continue to denounce him as a whining hypocrite, a fabricator lacking self-awareness – and inherently unreliable. Yet, in spite of his judgmental posturing, Holden remains a compelling, if divisive, figure regardless. Featuring a protagonist who is aware that, with his inevitable transition from adolescence to adulthood, he stands to lose something, The Catcher in the Rye is a narrative of the continued trauma Holden wrestles with in the wake of his unresolved grief. Through Holden’s fervent desire to be the catcher in the rye and to preserve the innocence of children, Salinger shows Holden’s desire to shield them from the same difficulties he’s endured – but hasn’t yet healed from. He might be unreliable, but he’s ultimately sympathetic. We all know what it’s like to be sixteen and to view the world through angst-tinted glasses, for everyone and everything to feel “phony.” He is as unreliable as all teenagers are – and this is part of his relatability and continuing resonance as a narrator.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë begins with narration from Mr. Lockwood. His narrative appears numerous times throughout the novel as he poses as an outsider to the history and turmoil that surrounds both estates of Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. The latter of which is where Lockwood finds residence, and maid Nelly Dean. As Nelly reveals the secrets of the Earnshaw family and the Linton’s, the narrative shifts, giving Nelly’s voice sole focus throughout the bulk of the novel. It is Nelly who can be seen as the unreliable narrator in this classic favourite. She was a maid at both estates and a close confidant, observer and caretaker of Heathcliff, Catherine and Hareton. Her relationships with the children follow an emotional and passionate path, thus allowing the reader to unpick her reserved judgements and decide whether her narrative comes from a place of bias or personal opinion.