A politics of ‘unreliable narrators’

By Jennifer Gilmore
April 3, 2013

An unreliable narrator cannot be trusted.

He comes in many guises. There is the delusional unreliable narrator, like Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, unaware of how the reader and the other characters perceive him. There is the mad narrator, as in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. There are the unreliable narrators who lie to themselves to make the unreality appear real. Middle-aged professor Humbert Humbert in Lolita famously lies to the jury and to himself,  believing his sexual affair with the drastically under-aged Lolita is not criminal. Yet Vladimir Nabokov, the author, gives a wink to  the reader: We know the protagonist is not being honest with himself.

These characters are coming undone — the reader slowly notices fissures in their thinking, which clue us in that  these narrators  are  living in an alternative universe. Then there is the more subtle unreliable. Nick Carraway, who narrates The Great Gatsby, is not to be trusted because of the way he chooses to tell his story. From the first word he is hiding the real story from the reader.

As with most linear storylines, the narrator knows far more than the reader, and Carraway’s is no different.  From the first word, he is hiding the story of Jay Gatsby, a notorious unreliable, from the reader — the way Gatsby holds his identity from Nick.

Unreliables in the 20th century have become scary, baleful. They reach far beyond the page: They pass legislation; they determine budgets, dole out or cut benefits. The Democrats and the Republicans each have their own narratives.

But how do we, as readers, as citizens, understand what is real, and not the alternative reality the narrators— the politicians — want us to believe? Where is the truth?

It can often depend on who is listening. Think of GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s speech at a fundraiser, where he claimed 47 percent of Americans didn’t pay taxes and he would never convince those 47 percent to take “personal responsibility” for their lives. He was talking to a select group, with a specific point of view. Romney’s narration shifted from the alternative reality of his campaign promises, like restoring Obama’s Medicare cuts, to the reality of his point of view

Consider the current deep divide over gun regulations, revealed by the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, last December.  Following that massacre of children, President Barack Obama formed a Gun Violence Task Force and Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) introduced a  bill to ban assault weapons.

The National Rifle Association responded Monday with The National School Shield Initiative, which would  place armed guards in every school. For safety, they claimed.  But of course what it means is more guns and allows us to believe the old mantra that it was a person not a gun that killed 20 first-graders. Are these narrators lying to themselves or to their audience? Because, in reality, people pull the trigger, but the guns do the killing.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has just come out against the senators who plan on voting against universal background checks for gun registrations. He has pledged $12 million of his own money in advertising to support the Feinstein bill.  Yet $12 million in ads is not really that substantial an amount when spread out across many states and many markets.  Bloomberg is not being entirely straight with his audience either, as this seems more of a warning of what is to come this fall.

Bloomberg already knows the story, a la Nick in Gatsby, but the narrative arc has not yet been revealed.

The NRA’s reaction has been a predictable  promise to wage a national campaign against these efforts.  The head of the NRA has said, in regard to Bloomberg’s pledge: “He can’t buy America.” And now the dialogue has gone far afield — it is no longer only about guns.

Is reality the incident itself? Is the “outdated” 2nd Amendment the reality?

Let’s examine another horrific incident — the natural disaster, Hurricane Sandy.  New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Republican, saw the reality of the destruction, and so cozied up to Obama to get what he needed for his constituents, though he may have realized it could affect the national election. The reality of the devastation was clear and for this single moment, Christie did not play politics. For a moment, he became a reliable narrator.

That moment, however, was an anomaly. Because the GOP is stuck in an alternate reality where health insurance creates job loss, and unemployment benefits are for the lazy. If we listened to the GOP uncritically, we would believe that the financial crisis rests on the government-subsidized shoulders of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and the Federal Reserve’s low interest rates. There would be no Wall Street to blame; no banks and lending institutions, no hedge funds at fault.

If we were to listen to only one narration — the Republican one, say — we would believe health care reform was socialism. We would believe what happens to women’s bodies is something that, as the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee showed when an all-male panel testified during a hearing about contraceptive coverage, is decided by men.

Where does the truth lie and more, who is the voice of the truth? There is no one winking at the reader here, no author to let us know that this is all a game of shifting points of view.

Can a first-person narrator ever really tell the truth?  The very nature of the point of view is a subjective one.

Insane, delusional or just plain liars, unreliable narrator s do not tell the truth, no matter the reality.  But what is a lie when the world of the book or that of the political arena is not always based on truth? And how many times do we hear that lie before we know that this narrator is not to be trusted?


PHOTO (Insert A): Tobey Maguire (L) plays Nick Carraway in the coming movie of “The Great Gatsby” starring Leonardo DiCaprio (center) as Jay Gatsby,  Carey Mulligan (R) as Daisy Buchanan and Joel Edgerton (far R) as Tom Buchanan. CREDIT: Warner Bros. Pictures

PHOTO (Insert B): New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg at the White House in Washington February 27, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

PHOTO (Insert C): House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) (R) listens as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) speaks at the White House in Washington April 6, 2011. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst


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An amusing story, the author managed to do the very thing himself that the article was itself trying to point out as a flaw in news reporting..Making her no different than those he is criticizing.

Posted by plcombs | Report as abusive

plcombs, be specific. Also, the author is a women.

Fact-checking by readers is the only answer in nonfiction to be assured of who to believe, and and we have to do it every time one of the politicos opens their mouth. A track record is only as reliable as the last statement.

Posted by LesMoor | Report as abusive

From Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof:


“What’s that smell in this room? Didn’t you notice it, Brick? Didn’t you notice a powerful and obnoxious odor of mendacity in this room?… There ain’t nothin’ more powerful than the odor of mendacity… You can smell it. It smells like death.”

What else is new?

Posted by Glassworld | Report as abusive

Truth is multiple and very often hard to find. It is easier to assume that everyone has an agenda and to ask Cui bono?

Posted by frdp | Report as abusive

Yes, that’s where this commentary goes wrong. Truth can be hard to discern; lies are much easier to spot. I recommend Sissela Bok’s book, still as relevant as ever:

Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life

Posted by BunkMcNulty | Report as abusive