American Psycho

10 Least Reliable Narrators in Fiction

The term unreliable narrator was coined in 1961 by Wayne C. Booth in The Rhetoric of Fiction: a narrator whose credibility has been seriously compromised. Narrators can be unreliable in a variety of different ways: narrators purposefully hiding essential truths without technically lying, child narrators whose inexperience impairs their judgement, or narrators whose delusion is so engrained in their consciousness that can’t tell the truth because they themselves don’t know it.


Here’s a list of ten of our favorite novels featuring unreliable narrators:


1. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov


Lolita French Movie Poster

Image Via Pascal Olivier


Humbert Humbert, the main character and narrator of Lolita, paints his memoir in a way that tries to justify his fixation on young girls and his sexual relationship with twelve-year-old Dolores Haze. One of the best examples of an unreliable narrator, Humbert is such a well written character that readers questioned whether or not Humbert’s sexual deviancy was Nabokov’s as well (it’s not). 


2. The Catcher in the Rye by  J. D. Salinger


Catcher in the Rye

Image Via Amazon


Holden Caulfield openly admits he’s “the most terrific liar you ever saw” at the beginning of the novel. Believe him.


3. Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk


Brad Pitt and Ed Norton in Fight Club

Image Via Oscar Favorite


Our unnamed narrator, colloquially “Jack”, is a depressed insomniac (not so) slowly spiraling down the drain of reality. By the time we understand that the reality Jack exists in isn’t necessarily his own, we can’t help but double back and revisit moments to find carefully placed clues.


4. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis


American Psycho gif

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Wealthy, young, attractive, psychopathic. And just a reminder, we never did find out if Patrick Bateman killed and butchered those people.


5. House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski


House of Leaves

Image Via Goodreads


Between multiple narrators, a trail of footnotes and endlessly conflicting information, characters admitting their unreliability and laughing at us for trusting them, and the text itself a labyrinth, House of Leaves is designed to confuse and isolate the reader in a cloud of suspicion.


6. The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis


The Screwtape Letters

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The narrator is literally a demon. 


7. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë


Wuthering Heights PBS Adaptation

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One of two narrators, housekeeper Nelly seems like a reliable witness, but girl loves to exaggerate and embellish. It doesn’t help that Nelly is the other narrator Lockwood’s only source for information on the family within Wuthering Heights or that Lockwood often misinterprets events. 


8. Atonement: A Novel by Ian McEwan


Briony from Atonement

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Set in a British manor house on the cusp of World War II, thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis sees but doesn’t understand her older sister Cecilia’s relationship with groundsman Robbie. When Briony sees her cousin Lola’s rape, she falsely accuses Robbie. Despite her age, the police believe Briony due to her high social standing. The novel follows the fallout from 1935 to “present day” in 1999, where a seventy-seven year old Briony is still searching for atonement.


9. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz


A Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Image Via Amazon


The main narrator, Yunior de las Casas, tells the story of Oscar de Leon (nicknamed Oscar Wao) and his family, despite describing details only Oscar and his family could have known. The somehow omniscient Yunior provides analysis and commentary for the events even through the footnotes, which give additional character development.


10. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon


The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime

Image Via Goodreads


While never explicitly stated in the text, the book’s blurb describes narrator Christopher Boone as having Asperger syndrome. The first person perspective coupled with Christopher’s difficulty interpreting the world around him creates an air of mystery which only adds to the actual mystery – the curious incident of the dog in the night time. 


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