What is an unreliable narrator 1

Unreliable narration: A special case of narration in which the reader is given reasons to distrust the narrator and the narrated (cf. Bode 2011, p. 261).


The concept of unreliable narration, which has been an important category within literary studies since its introduction by Wayne C. Booth in 1961 (cf.Nünning 1998, p. 3), is closely linked with two basic assumptions about the logical structure of fictional texts: On the one hand, with the assumption that fictional texts have no claim to reference in the extradiegetic world and, on the other hand, with the understanding that the claims of the narrative authority within Diegesis do have a right to truth and correctness (cf. Martínez and Scheffel 2012, p. 90) .

Gmork also explains the importance of these two basic assumptions to Atreyu when he gave him his own fictional status within the never-ending story within the Neverending story demonstrates:

"Do you know what they're called there?" "No," whispered Atreyu. "Lying!" barked Gmork. [...] After a little while he continued: "What are you there, you ask me? But what are you here? What are you then, you being fantasies? You are dream images, inventions in the realm of poetry, characters in a never-ending story! Do you consider yourself to be reality, little son? Well, here in your world it is you. But if you go through nothingness, then you are no longer. Then you have become unrecognizable. Then you are in another World. There you no longer have any resemblance to yourself. " (End of 1979, p. 142)

The concept of unreliable narration shakes the second of the above-mentioned basic assumptions, in that the reader has justified doubts about the claims of the narrating authority, who is often a homo- or even auto-diegetic narrator (cf.Nünning 1998, p. 3 ), can be drawn (see Bode 2011, p. 261). The assumed privileged status of the narrator as the authority that has credibility with regard to what is being told (cf. Martínez and Scheffel 2012, p. 100) is therefore denied. Concrete contradictions and inconsistencies within the actions or statements by the narrator can be used as evidence of such a form of narration (cf. Nünning 1998, p. 27). On the linguistic level, these discrepancies are often characterized by apostrophic references to the reader, which are used as a means of controlling the reception, or by ellipses, exclamations and repetitions (cf. ibid.).

In addition, two different aspects can be named as internal motivation or rather basic assumptions for the unreliable narration, which culminate in the question of whether the presentation was distorted in retrospect and from the temporal distance or whether it is the perception of the narrative itself that is responsible Point in time of the experience is distorted (cf. Busch 1998, p. 47).

In the first variant, the narrating authority has a reason to tell the events differently than they happened (cf. Bode 2011, p. 269). An example of such narration can be found in the unreliable, intradiegetic narrator Tom Riddle in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. In the form of his magical diary, he apostrophically addresses the intradiegetic reader Harry Potter to tell him about the past events around the Chamber of Secrets and to disguise his own part in them:

"Hello Harry Potter. My name is Tom Riddle." [...] "You don't have to believe my words." (Rowling 1999, pp. 250-251)

In particular, the apostrophic affirmation that Harry does not need to believe Riddle's written words (cf. ibid. P. 250) can be seen as an attempt to control Harry's reception and the reader's reception and to convince him of the truthfulness of the utterances. This is initially crowned with success, so Harry returns from his excursion into the narrated world of Riddle's memory with the following words: "It was Hagrid, Ron. Hagrid opened the Chamber of Secrets fifty years ago." (ibid. p. 257)

Only in the Chamber of Secrets itself does Harry begin to doubt him and his description of the events due to the behavior of the narrator Tom Riddle, who is now more or less in person: "Harry stared at him. Something very strange was going on here ..." ( ibid. p. 318). Finally, he confronts him with just this incredulity:

"Hagrid is my friend," said Harry, his voice trembling now. "And you set him up, didn't you? I thought you made a mistake, but [...]" (ibid. P. 323).

This form of deliberate attempt to deceive and the deliberate distortion of the events to be narrated contrasts with unreliable narration in which the narrator is mentally unable to tell reliably for various reasons (cf. Bode 2011, p. 270). According to Andreas Wicke, such narration characterizes Andreas Steinhöfels Rico, Oskar and the deep shadows. Rico, the autodiegetic narrator, is not able to tell the events and the world around him reliably due to his "giftedness" (cf. Wicke 2012, p. 46). An unreliability that Rico himself admits in his vacation diary:

In addition, I can't always concentrate well when I'm telling something. Most of the time I lose the thread, at least I think it's red, but it could also be green or blue, and that's exactly the problem. (Steinhöfel 2011, p. 11)

In addition to these internal text signals that point to Ricos unreliability as a narrator, Wicke also names references that have more of a text-external reference and thus refer to the discrepancy between Rico's statements and the knowledge of the reader (cf. Wicke 2012, p. 46). In this context, Wicke particularly mentions Rico's attempts to explain concepts that are unknown to him and, in doing so, to place correct statements next to untrue statements (cf. ibid.). Such an example, which, like the other Rico lexicon articles, is typographically separated from the rest of the text and thus demands increased attention, characterizes, for example, Rico's explanations of the terms 'illegal' and 'legal', which are quite important for a detective story:

ILLLEGAL: When you can't do something because it's forbidden. LEGAL means it is allowed, and EGAL means that one only pretends to do something that is forbidden. There is no similar word for pretending that what is permitted is forbidden. REGAL is already occupied. (Steinhöfel 2011, p. 109)

In addition to the "gifted" Rico is also found in Do van Ransts Thin an unreliable narrator. Fee's perception of the events is distorted by her psychological disturbance, which can be seen as a further criterion for unreliable narration (cf. Allrath 1998, p. 64). Fee's description of the events is unreliable not only in relation to herself and her body, but above all in relation to the death of her mother, for which she blames her father's mania for slimness:

"And if that's true. You want everyone to be thin. Just look at mom. She used to be chubby and pretty, but you wanted her to get thin [...] But mom got so skinny that she died so you." Made out with your Lin Jun chan beanstalk. " (van Ranst 2014, pp. 178-179)

In fact, Fee's perception of the events - i.e. the assumption that her mother literally starved to death and her father immediately looked for a new friend afterwards (cf. ibid. P. 91) - determines the entire text. Only at the end does it become clear from the statements of her father and her friends that Fee's telling is not a reliable account:

"Don't start again, Fee!" He whispered. "Mama has been dead for eight years. [...] She died of lung cancer. [...] 'I was alone for seven years," he said. (ibid. p. 179)

Fee's actions, her eating habits, her conversations with a cat, but above all her self-endangering behavior provide initial indications for the reader to distrust Fee and her story in the course of the text.


Primary literature

  • End, Michael: The Neverending Story. Stuttgart / Vienna: Thienemann, 1979.
  • Rowling, J.K .: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Hamburg: Carlsen, 1999.
  • Steinhöfel, Andreas: Rico, Oskar and the deep shadows. Hamburg: Carlsen, 2011.
  • van Ranst, Do: Thin. Hamburg: Carlsen, 2014.

Secondary literature

  • Allrath, Gaby: "But why will you say that I am mad?"Textual signals for the determination of unreliable narration. In: Unreliable Narration: Studies on the theory and practice of implausible narration in English-language narrative literature. Edited by Ansgar Nünning. Trier: WTV, 1998. pp. 59-81.
  • Bode, Christoph: The novel. An introduction. 2nd expanded edition. Tübingen / Basel: Francke, 2011.
  • Busch, Dagmar: Unreliable narration from a narratological point of view: building blocks for a narrative-theoretical analysis grid. In: Unreliable Narration: Studies on the theory and practice of implausible narration in English-language narrative literature. Edited by Ansgar Nünning. Trier: WTV, 1998. pp. 41-58.
  • Martínez, Matías and Scheffel, Michael: Introduction to narrative theory. 9th expanded and updated edition. Munich: Beck, 2012.
  • Nünning, Ansgar: Unreliable Narration as an introduction: Basics of a cognitive-narratological theory and analysis of implausible narration. In: Unreliable Narration: Studies on the theory and practice of implausible narration in English-language narrative literature. Edited by Ansgar Nünning. Trier: WTV, 1998. pp. 3-40.
  • Wicke, Andreas: "Times change, people change, opinions change". Family in Andreas Steinhöfel's Rico, Oskar ... trilogy. In: interjuli 4 (2012) 2. pp. 39-58.

First published: October 13, 2016