Within the extensive history of unreliable narrators in literature, there have been none more grimy or unreliable than the one in Edgar Allen Poe’s gothic short story, “The Tell-Tale Heart.” The old man’s filmy vulture eye troubles the narrator, who stresses his sanity to readers, while simultaneously detailing himself killing, dismembering and burying the old man underneath the floor boards.
When the police arrive, he begins to hear a thumping emanating from the floorboards, which he believes to be the old man’s heart. The sound grows louder and louder, until he can bear it no longer and confesses to the crime.
Poe’s protagonist is a classic case of a unreliable narrator. Unreliable narrators are, expectedly, narrators whose perspectives are not to be trusted, whether it’s due to mental instability, intentional manipulation or misunderstanding. Interestingly enough, there is no such thing as a completely reliable narrator. Whenever people relive a memory, they unknowingly are experiencing their own interpretation and bias of the event or situation — not a carbon copy of what actually happened.
Despite this, there is a difference between being unaware whether someone’s dress is red or purple and being unaware you murdered your lover. Of course, the latter makes for a much more compelling story.
Although the unreliable narrator trope is used in all genres, it helps create the intrigue that is often featured in psychological thrillers and mysteries. Based on my wealth of reading experience, here are six of the most fascinating novels featuring unreliable narrators.
1. “Gone Girl”
Gillian Flynn’s highly-praised thriller is known for its unreliable narrators. Amy Dunne has gone missing, while her husband, Nick Dunne, is the primary suspect.
The story is told from both husband and wife’s viewpoints (and further exacerbated by a fake diary one of the characters keeps), causing readers to get whiplash over who is more credible, and more importantly, which character readers are supposed to side with.
The Dunnes break the fourth wall as well, fighting for readers’ loyalty as bitter divorced parents would.
“Room” is Emma Donoghue’s touching novel about a mother and son who are held captive in a room. For 5-year-old Jack, “room” is all he’s ever known, until his Ma informs him there is a whole world out there.
As the sole narrator, Jack doesn’t have any ulterior motives and is a typical child considering his situation, but his age and naïve perspective make him an unreliable narrator.
3. “Girl on the Train”
Often compared to “Gone Girl,” Paula Hawkins’ psychological thriller focuses on Rachel — an alcoholic who, on her daily train ride, passes her ex-husband’s house where he lives with his new wife, Anna. Rachel also lives vicariously through Megan and her husband, who both live a few houses over from Rachel’s ex. One day, Rachel witnesses an unusual occurrence that changes everything.
Rachel, Anna and Megan narrate the novel. However, it is Rachel’s altered state and proclivity to blackouts that reinforce her as an unreliable narrator. Even when Rachel appears to be telling the truth, the fact that her life is in shambles doesn’t exactly help her case.
4. “The Other Mother”
Carol Goodman’s most recent novel was inspired by classic gothic novels and sees main character Daphne taking on an archivist job for a reclusive author in order to escape her life. Daphne, who recently gave birth to her daughter Chlöe, suffers from postpartum depression. Her life seems grim until she meets Laurel, whose daughter is also named Chlöe. The duo form a bond and not before long start to mirror each other, in terms of both personality and appearance.
The novel has three narrators, all of whom appear unreliable. Goodman — who is no stranger to utilizing the plot device of unreliable narrators — keeps readers guessing about if and why Daphne is a reliable narrator. Is she mentally unstable? Plotting something sinister? Or is it something else entirely?
Speaking of women named Daphne, author Daphne Du Maurier’s classic gothic thriller tells the tale of a young maid-turned-bride who arrives at her husband Mr. de Winter’s massive estate, Manderly. His new bride is drawn to the lingering presence of his previous wife, Rebecca — despite her being dead.
Much like in Donoghue’s “Room,” the narrator is unreliable due to her own ignorance. The new world she is thrust into is incredibly different from the life she has known thus far as an orphaned lady’s maid.
6. “Sometimes I Lie”
Alice Feeney’s debut novel warns readers of the narrator’s untrustworthiness immediately with a hook that reads: “My name is Amber Reynolds. There are three things you should know about me. 1. I’m in a coma. 2. My husband doesn’t love me anymore. 3. Sometimes I lie.”
The novel alternates between the present, the past — before the coma-inducing accident — and old diary entries. As with “Gone Girl,” the diary entries coerce the reader into thinking they understand the character, a useful technique in books featuring unreliable narrators.
Like the narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” Amber recognizes her own lack of credibility. Aside from her habit of lying, her comatose state means she is naturally unable to see or correctly interpret everything going on around her.
Unreliable narrators can frustrate readers, but when written well and armed with a valid reason for not being dependable, they make readers think and question everything they know, which is a successful way to keep them in suspense.