Oxford Dictionaries announced “post-truth” as its 2016 international Word of the Year. Every year, the Oxford Dictionaries team reviews candidates for word of the year, choosing one that captures the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of that particular year. “Post-truth,” an adjective, is defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
Surprise, surprise! A lot of promises from a Presidential candidate who was known to punctuate his comments with “believe me!” have been quickly dismissed by the President-elect. Kind of like the unreliable narrator in literature.
An unreliable narrator is one whose credibility has been seriously compromised. The term first appears in 1961, in Wayne C. Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction. It’s sometimes immediately evident that a narrator is unreliable with an obviously false or delusional claim. Sometimes the narrator appears as a character whose actions offer clues of unreliability. And sometimes, with great drama, a twist ending to a story reveals the narrator’s unreliability, forcing the reader to reconsider the narrator’s point of view and experience of the story. Finally, there are stories that leave readers wondering about the narrator’s reliability and how the story should be interpreted.
You might recognize unreliable narrators if they are prone to exaggeration or bragging, if they exhibit such mental illness as paranoia or delusions, if they play with truth and expectations, if their view is limited or if they openly misrepresent themselves. Narrators who contradict themselves by memory lapses or lying to other character, or who contradict the reader’s knowledge or logic, are unreliable.
Some notable unreliable narrators you may have encountered include:
• Humbert Humbert (Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov)
• Alex (A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess)
• Unnamed narrator (Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk)
• Patrick Bateman (American Psycho by Brett Easton Ellis)
• Holden Caulfield (The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger)
• Huckleberry Finn (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain)
• Screwtape (The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis)
And then there are the politicians… but that’s another story!