This is one of my favorite gothic tropes. Often used in horror or mystery, an unreliable narrator is a first-person narrator of a story whose words the reader is not meant to take at face value. The narrator may be deliberately lying or their words may be influenced by unconscious bias or delusions. In the case of gothic fiction, it is most often this last reason that causes many narrators to be considered unreliable.
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James is one of the most famous examples of the unreliable narrator trope. This novella, published in 1898, features a governess who comes to the country home of a mysterious bachelor in order to care for his niece and nephew, Flora and Miles. The governess soon begins to see strange specters around the house and becomes concerned for the safety of the children. The specters are of two deceased servants, one being the narrator’s predecessor as governess, whom the other servants gossip about circumspectly, potentially alluding to sexual misconduct. The governess comes to believe that the children are interacting with and being corrupted by the ghosts, but when she confronts one of the specters in front of Flora and another servant, they both claim not to see it. The story ends in a shocking and confusing manner, leaving the reader totally unsure of what just happened. The great debate surrounding this novella concerns whether there were really ever any ghosts or not. While some still take the tale at face value as a simple ghost story, others claim that the governess is delusional, since no other characters at any point show clear evidence of being able to see the ghosts. In this latter interpretation, the governess is an unreliable narrator, driven mad some say by her own sexual repression. You can read the full text of the story on Project Gutenberg and decide for yourself whether you believe the narrator or not.
Edgar Allan Poe made great use of the unreliable narrator trope, “The Tell-Tale Heart” being one of his prime examples. In this story, the narrator begins by insisting to the reader that he is not mad, which only serves to convince you that he is. It is clear that the reader is not meant to follow the narrator’s dubious logic that acute hearing and a calm demeanor are indications of intact sanity. As the story progresses, the narrator describes his plot to kill the old man with the milky eye, insisting all along that he is as sane as can be. Of course, at the end of the story, the imagined beating of the dead man’s heart is more than the narrator can bear and he drops all pretense of sanity, revealing to the police that he is a killer. In this work of celebrated horror, the unreliability of the narrator is glaringly obvious and serves to reinforce the reader’s perception of his insanity.
Another master of horror, H. P. Lovecraft, also indulged in this literary device. The unreliable narrator trope is especially appropriate for Lovecraft, since the eventual insanity of his narrators is basically a staple in his stories. Most readers recognize Lovecraft’s name from his more famous works like “The Call of Cthulhu” or “The Dunwich Horror,” but I would like to call your attention to a short little story called “The Temple” which I feel exemplifies Lovecraft’s most creative use of the unreliable narrator trope. This story is told from the perspective of a German submarine commander during World War I. These facts alone would have made most American readers wary of the narrator in the years after the war when this story was first published. Lovecraft goes on to make the character extremely unlikable by giving him a condescending attitude presented under the guise of an appreciation for rationality and discipline, which he finds lacking in his companions. Thus, when the narrator makes statements like, “I shot all six men, for it was necessary,” the reader has good reason to question his judgments. Much like the narrator in Poe’s “Tell-Tale Heart,” he is obsessed with presenting himself as sane and rational. This gives Lovecraft the opportunity to play with the trope. The narrator’s biggest fear is becoming the dreaded unreliable narrator, though of course he has been unreliable from the beginning. Ultimately, the narrator does begin to go mad, as Lovecraft’s heroes are wont to do, and acknowledges such in a metafictional moment of self-awareness.
“It is well that the reader accept nothing which follows as objective truth…”
Ultimately, this story is a great study in two different types of unreliable narrators. While the commander actively fights against becoming unreliable due to madness, he is unaware of how his unconscious bias and his need to show himself in the best light affect his reliability from the beginning of the story.
The trope of the unreliable narrator is an indispensable instrument in the gothic toolkit, and serves a variety of purposes. As exemplified in The Turn of the Screw, this tool can be used in the service of horror to build an unnerving sense of uncertainty in the mind of the reader. While ghosts can occasionally be scary, it is often the unknown that is the true horror. On the other hand, unreliability can be used to enhance the characterization of a first-person villain as in “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Temple.” In both of these stories, the narrator must be definitively unreliable in order for the story to be from his perspective while keeping him at a clear moral distance from the reader. Rather than empathizing with the narrator, as one usually does, the reader instead feels more horrified and appalled as the narrator explains his reasons and motivations. In these cases, the juxtaposition of the narration with the truth is jarring. What, after all, could be more horrifying than peering into the mind of a monster and seeing a perception of reality that is totally unaligned with one’s own?
Have you encountered any unreliable narrators in your readings? Read any of the examples mentioned above? What do you think of the narrator in The Turn of the Screw? Share your thoughts on the trope in the comments!