unreliable narrator

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Reportedly coined by U.S. literary critic Wayne C. Booth in The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961).


unreliable narrator (plural unreliable narrators)

  1. (literary theory) A narrating character or storyteller in a literary or other artistic work—such as a novel, play, song, or film—who provides inaccurate, misleading, conflicting, or otherwise questionable information to the reader or audience.
    • 1969, Charles A. Watkins, "Chaucer's Sweete Preest," ELH, vol. 36, no. 3 (Sep), p. 463:
      The Priest also places a moral barrier between himself and his tale by establishing himself as an "unreliable narrator" capable of deception and irony.
    • 2000 April 17, Richard Corliss, "A Yuppie's Killer Instinct" (film review of American Psycho), Time (retrieved 27 June 2007):
      Patrick, for all his brutal truth telling, is an unreliable narrator.
    • 2007 Sept. 16, Terrence Rafferty, "Cantabrigian Psycho" (book review of Engleby by Sebastian Faulks), New York Times (retrieved 16 March 2014):
      [F]or the rest of the book Faulks gets to indulge in the unreliable-narrator game of cunning ellipses and selective, gradual revelation.