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?