We Will Be Fooled Again: The Strange Pleasures of Narrative Trickery

For readers, the pleasures of the unreliable narrator seem to lie primarily in the challenges they offer our critical and interpretive faculties. Can we figure out the narrator's trustworthiness (or lack of it) before the other characters do?
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Nobody likes being lied to in real life, so why do we enjoy being lied to on the page? This question follows from my previous post, in which I try to explain why we take pleasure in fictional exploits that would horrify us if we experienced them firsthand.

This time I want to focus on a specific literary strategy that has been around for a long time but still draws readers like moths to flames: the unreliable narrator. This narrator almost always speaks to us in the first person, meaning she or he tells the story directly in her own voice and from her point of view. Traditionally, such narrators implicitly gain the reader's trust quickly; when Jane Eyre, the title character of Charlotte Brontë's classic Victorian novel from 1847, informs us on page 1 that "I never liked long walks, especially on chilly afternoons," we have no reason to doubt her. Neither do we initially doubt the narrators' words in Wuthering Heights (1847), the equally famous novel by Charlotte's sister Emily. Unlike Jane, however, the more we hear from Mr. Lockwood and then Nelly Dean (whose "narration within a narration" occupies the novel's central chapters), the more we come to wonder whether either of them truly understands the significance of the events they relate.

Nelly Dean, in particular, is a classic unreliable narrator: while initially sympathetic and seemingly objective on the surface, she turns out to have a deeply flawed perspective on the events she is relating. Sometimes, this unreliable point of view is relatively harmless; Lockwood's naiveté, for example, is mostly a product of his snobbery and stupidity, and his frequent failures to understand the full significance of what he observes lead to his confusion more than to ours. Nelly Dean's biases, however, cause her not only to misapprehend what is really happening on the Yorkshire moors, but to intervene several times in the plot in ways that frequently have unforeseen consequences. Nelly thinks she is innocent of meddling in the affairs of Catherine and Heathcliff, but we can read beneath the surface of her words, so to speak, to discover their self-justifying, intrinsically deceptive nature.

Sometimes an unreliable narrator's motives for misrepresenting events turn out to be downright sinister. The unnamed narrator of Edgar Allan Poe's short story The Tell-Tale Heart (1843) works so hard to gain our sympathy from his attention-grabbing opening sentence -- "True! -- Nervous -- very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?" -- that the astute reader begins to question his agenda from the outset. Sure enough, by the story's end we learn that he has indeed committed the grotesque crime for which he is being investigated.

Once you begin looking for them, unreliable narrators are everywhere in literature, from some of Chaucer's pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales to the various characters whose points of view are represented (albeit in the third rather than the first person) in George RR Martin's impressive A Song of Ice and Fire series. Likewise, Sarah Waters' entertaining update of a Gothic haunted-house novel, The Little Stranger (2009), puts its creepy story in the mouth of a sympathetic but dangerously naïve narrator, and even more recently Gillian Flynn's mega-bestseller Gone Girl (2012) features a murderously untrustworthy tale-teller.

The popularity of these recent examples returns me to my initial question: why are we drawn to unreliable narrators? For authors, unreliable narrators present both a challenge and an opportunity -- they must put enough information in their characters' mouths to let readers figure out the plot "behind" the narrative (I discuss the difference between these elements here), without violating the consistency of their assumed perspective. The results need not be limited to fiction -- Robert Browning's dramatic poem "My Last Duchess" (1842), for example, features a masterful unreliable narrator who even speaks in flawless iambic pentameter and ingenious rhyming couplets.

For readers, by contrast, the pleasures of the unreliable narrator seem to lie primarily in the challenges they offer our critical and interpretive faculties. Can we figure out the narrator's trustworthiness (or lack of it) before the other characters do? Can we determine bias and effectively filter true from false information, all while following the story's thread? But these questions in turn raise the question of why we may find it pleasurable to ask them of ourselves at all. As a result, some literary critics have begun drawing on accounts by cognitive theorists, behavioral psychologists, and philosophers to argue that as evolved humans, we not only take an innate pleasure in such cognitive sharpening exercises, but also use them to practice "mind reading" as a social survival skill.

To be honest, I'm not sure how convincing I find this last assertion. Like reading about bad behavior (as opposed to encountering or engaging in it), a large part of the pleasure of negotiating the words and motives of an unreliable fictional narrator derives precisely from the relatively consequence-free nature of the encounter. If we fail to see that we have been deceived by a book, we lose nothing but a bit of pride; getting tricked or hoodwinked in real life, by contrast, can have serious consequences. Still, if I'm simultaneously honing my real-world mind-reading abilities while enjoying a compelling novel, who am I to complain? And if you believe that, I have a bridge to sell you.

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