Five Books on the Unreliable Narrator

From The Secret History to American Psycho, meet some of literature’s most infamous narrators

Narrators in fiction aren’t always entirely trustworthy. Whether they mean it or not, the unreliable narrator is a cornerstone of psychological thrillers and dark academia alike, because of their ability to misguide a reader and to misconstrue reality.  

Perhaps one of the most famous examples of the unreliable narrator trope is found in Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club. The Narrator is a support-group-crashing insomniac, who after meeting soap salesman Tyler Durden on a nude beach, starts up a club for men to be able to fight one another. Their friendship is weakened by Tyler’s continuing involvement with one Marla Singer, a woman who attends the same support group as our Narrator. Due to the Narrator’s chronic insomnia, his account as well as his relationships with Tyler and Marla, are called into question.

In Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, Amy Dunne mysteriously disappears from her home the day of her anniversary. All signs point to her husband, Nick. At first, Nick is our unreliable narrator as he doesn’t exactly prove he didn’t murder Amy, both trying to hide his growing hatred of his wife and his sordid affair with an ex-student of his. After Amy’s diary is found, with numerous entries detailing Nick as a violent and threatening husband, the police arrest Nick for murder. This diary compared to the present day within the book leaves the reader second guessing everything they read in regards to just what exactly Nick and Amy have both done. 

Piranesi, the titular character of Susanna Clarke’s book of the same name, is another unreliable narrator. At the beginning of the novel, he describes the world he lives in, the House — a fantastical and architecturally impossible labyrinth where he is among a select few still alive. Under advice from his mentor, the Other, Piranesi continues his job observing the winding halls he inhabits, until his world view is shattered by the arrival of a person, 16, he believes has been sent to kill him. When 16 leaves a message that challenges Piranesi’s worldview, both his and the Other’s identity are called into question.

Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is set in a vibrant and prestigious New England college, where our protagonist, Richard Papen, is accepted into a small clique of Ancient Greek students. He idolises his fellow students — all colourful and wonderful and exciting in their own regards — to the point of mythologising them, as he constantly compares his life to that of the Greek myths and legends he’s studying. Richard is not unreliable in the sense that he reveals some sort of grand twist at the end of the novel; rather, due to his infatuation with the clique, his own perception is warped and romanticised. He sees the world through rose-tinted glasses.

Patrick Bateman from Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho is another infamous unreliable narrator. A Wall Street banker, Patrick lives as a shell of a man, concerned only with how he is perceived. His unreliability comes from his psychopathy; after killing a successful colleague of his, Patrick uses his flat as a way of luring and killing even more people. His mind deteriorates as he delves into the realm of depravity, engaging in cannibalism, sexual abuse, torture, and necrophilia. Patrick’s unreliability comes from his severe and untreated mental illness, which helps blur the line between fiction and reality. 

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