Unreliable Narrator Definition

Unreliable narrator definition

If we can’t trust the account of the main narrative voice of a novel, we have located an unreliable narrator.

Marta in How To Be A Good Wife is the definition of an unreliable narrator. As we only get her interpretation of the events, we are never quite sure whether to believe what she is telling us. She even hides things from herself.

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General unreliable narrator definition:

1st person narrator

When was the last time you read an unreliable narrator who wasn’t a first person narrator? By nature, we all give flawed versions of our own or other people’s stories. Perhaps it is impossible to give objective accounts of events we have been involved in. We are always tempering the way others see us, and the same is true of an unreliable narrator.

Marta tells the story of the marriage and what she remembers from her own perspective. In fact, she is even more flawed as a narrator, as her mind is untrustworthy in itself, so we are even more uncertain what to believe.

Read more about 1st person narratives

Only one version of events

Because we are only getting the story from one perspective, we only see one version of events. How different would the story of How To Be A Good Wife be if it was Hector’s voice we were hearing? This creates ambiguity, and leaves us wanting more information, which the unreliable narrator is unable to provide.

Only one viewpoint

Marta is only able to tell us about things which she has witnessed. If two characters have a conversation when Marta is not there, she will be unable to pass this information onto us, except if another character tells. This makes the unreliable narrator a difficult technique to master, as the author has a very limited viewpoint.

Recounting the past

Often the unreliable narrator will be in the present, telling a story which has already occurred in the past. Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, Marlow in The Heart of Darkness, Barbara in Notes on a Scandal, Eva Katchadourian in We Need To Talk About Kevin are a few examples of this.

In How To Be A Good Wife, Marta is recounting the present moment to us, and the flashes we receive from her past are as new to her as they are to us.  This makes Marta rather unusual, as even she doesn’t trust her own account of things.

Find out more about 1st person narratives

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