There Is No Such Thing As A Reliable Narrator, But Does It Matter?

There Is No Such Thing As A Reliable Narrator, But Does It Matter?

Narrators can be and almost always are unreliable, and regardless, we love so many of them. If you don't believe me, look a little longer the next time you look in the mirror.


I once heard an urban legend from my English teacher: Salman Rushdie, the famous British Indian novelist and essayist that authored The Satanic Verses, once sat in one of her classes. He raised his hand and told the class that "there is no such thing as a reliable narrator."

The idea of reliable narration arises in many works of literature and many stories. Until we are given reason otherwise, when reading a work, we usually have to believe that a narrator is trustworthy and credible until we are given reason otherwise. A "reliable narrator" is defined as someone who is accurate and impartial, so by contrast, an unreliable narrator is untrustworthy. Salman Rushdie, even enjoys deliberately making unreliable narrators because they are "a way of telling the reader to maintain a healthy distrust."

And not every unreliable narrator has a debilitating mental illness or is on drugs. In fact, few are. There is no such thing as a reliable narrator because every narrator has a self-interested agenda to sway their audience. There is no such thing as a reliable narrator because every narrator has been molded by their circumstances and experiences, and their retelling of events is often distorted by past circumstances and experiences. Every narrator wants you to trust them. Every narrator wants you to believe them.

So am I a reliable narrator? No! Absolutely not. I, too, have certain political biases, personal values and beliefs that make me a poor and unobjective re-teller of events. Often, I will seek out humor in my stories, and that leads me, whether subconsciously or consciously, to distort or omit certain details essential to the truth so the story flows better. In each and every one of my stories, writings, or articles, I am not an unreliable narrator because I want you to trust me. I want you to believe me, and I want you to be on my side, even if I don't consciously acknowledge it. Those tendencies make me inherently as unreliable as the next narrator.

Then, however, there is also the question of intent. Are narrators intentionally being untrustworthy and unreliable? Most of the time, they aren't. People who retell false, vivid memories rarely intend to be untruthful. They retell those memories because they believe them, and are confident that they happen. But perhaps that Very few people consciously try to manipulate and sway the opinions of others. The best narrators and manipulators do it subconsciously, without even trying, and that makes it confusing for all of us as their audience. Should we be more skeptical of the narrators who are the most compelling, as well as the most convincing?

Whether you agree or don't agree with the idea of unreliable narration, a fundamental fact to keep in mind is that we all have motivation behind writing what we write and telling the stories we tell. That means that what makes us unreliable isn't completely our Achilles heels: we have to believe a story or idea is worth telling. Something we write about has to be meaningful enough for it to be on our minds.

And that begs a deeper question, too: how much do we really crave trustworthiness and reliability? How much do we crave honesty in our stories, rather than wanting interesting and compelling stories for us ourselves to share? We look for comforting lies, not inconvenient and complex truths. It's in our nature, so what can we do about it?

First, it is very few people's roles in societies to be truth-finders and fact-finders. Most of the time, it's not our jobs. We have different roles, and sometimes it's important to believe narrators of stories no matter how untruthful they may be. I once wrote that it's more important to be kind than to be right, and I stand by that fully in standing by any narrator, regardless of what underlying self-interested motives they may have. I believe we ask the wrong question when we ask whether a narrator is reliable or unreliable, because in doing so, we also become reliable readers. Then, we have to tackle the question of why we're unreliable readers or listeners of a story, when it becomes our job to find the truth and how a narrator may have distorted the story.

In asking the question of whether a narrator is reliable or unreliable, I think we miss the point. A first person narration will always be about the narrator, and less so about the events being narrated. Psychologists and therapists care little about verifying their patients' accounts of what actually happened. They care about their emotions and how they feel, and in this view, perhaps we as a society can do better. We are not truth-finders, not judges of reliability, nor gods. We are human beings in community and in relation to each other. Focusing more on the narrator more than the events is how most of us can strengthen those bonds.

In psychology, the Rashomon effect, also known as the Kurosawa effect, refers to when one event is given contradictory interpretations by many different people involved. The term originated from a 1950 Japanese film, Rashomon , where a murder is described differently by four different witnesses. but each witness describes their version of events in such a compelling way that the audience believes all of them. The effect is not because any of the witnesses are lying: they happen because each of the witnesses has personal experiences, expectations, and biases that determine how they interpret what happened. Each witness has a different truth, and each should be believed accordingly. And that's not something we only see in the witnesses of a 1950 Japanese film: we are all subject to the Rashomon effect, and as such, we are all unreliable narrators.

Every truth has mutiple realities. The best of the unreliable narrators are the ones we trust and believe the most. Narrators can be and almost always are unreliable, and regardless, we love so many of them. If you don't believe me, look a little longer the next time you look in the mirror.

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What Nobody Is Going To Tell You About Freshman Year

What no one will tell you about your first step to adulthood.

Attending college for the first time is a time filled with high expectations, excitement, nerves, and a lot of hope for the future.

If you were anything like me, you were lucky enough to get accepted into your dream school with a lot of high hopes about the upcoming year. I couldn't wait to move into my freshman dorm, no matter how little or crappy it might have been, I was undoubtedly excited. The year was fresh (literally) and I couldn't wait to start living a college lifestyle and meet the people I was going to be friends with for the next four years of my life and hopefully even longer. I had never been so excited about going back-to-school shoppingand started packing and preparing for the move weeks in advance.

I had this image in my head of what freshman year was going to be like and it looked a lot like something you would see on an ABC Family or MTV show rather than what the reality of freshman year really was. I would be sitting here lying to you if I told you my freshman year was the best year of my life and to expect to have a year full of parties and fun with no responsibilities. The fact of the matter is, freshman year is your first real step into adulthood. It is your first unsheltered, uncensored, version of the real world that your parents (for the most part) have no control over. While this truly is an exciting thing, if you're not prepared for it freshman year can be a lot more stressful than expected.

I wish someone told me that the people I met the first week of school weren't going to be my best friends the whole year and not to take it to heart when they stop talking to you. You meet SO many people your first few weeks of school and you want to be friends with literally all of them. But in college, unlike high school, you probably won't see those same people every day so maintaining relationships takes a lot more work than before. To be honest, you may forget what it was like to actually make a new friend, especially if you were friends with the same people all through high school.

I wish someone told me that my study habits in high school absolutely will not hold up in college. When you were told to “read the text" in high school for homework, you wrote “no homework" in your planner for that day. Reading your text book in high school was actually laughed at in most situations and if you didn't have an end of the year freak out about where your text books were, you were doing it wrong.R ead your textbooks, every page, every chapter. Write everything down, from notes to homework, it's all important.

I wish someone told me the “freshman 15" was absolutely not a myth. Despite the fact that I spent countless nights in our campus gym, the freshman 15 was still gained and stayed. I couldn't tell you why or how this happens, but expect to gain a few pounds your first year of college. Whether it's from all of the campus cookies you couldn't have passed your final without or from all the delicious new food options, expect to be a few pounds heavier when returning home for Thanksgiving. And most importantly, know that you don't look any different despite how you feel, and know that this will most likely happen to everyone.

I wish someone told me that it's OK to say no to people. After you get to know your hall mates and become closer with the people you've met your first few weeks of college, you quickly learn that there is always something going on. Learn that you don't have to agree to attend everything someone invites you to. If you need to stay home and study, speak up. Don't just say yes to please someone or because you feel like you will lose that person as a friend if you say no. Learn to put you and your needs first, and if someone judges you because you decided to study rather than go out, so be it. You're here to learn not to socialize. It's OK to decline peoples offers.

I wish someone told me to go to class no matter how tired I was. Fun fact about college: you don't technically have to go to class if you don't want to. But for the sake of your grades, please go to class. You only get the chance to learn the material once, and you will be tested on the lecture material whether you were there or not. One tired day may cost you a good grade in the class, no joke. Go to every class you can and take detailed notes. (Tip: you can usually take pictures of the slides/diagrams as well, it helps a lot.)

I wish someone told me that only my true friends from high school will remain my friends in college. Losing contact with high school friends is a given in college. Even the people you swore were your closest friends may forget about you in the craziness of freshman year. The good news is you are at a school with thousands of people looking to make new friends and they will fill the empty spaces that old ones left.

I wish someone told me to be careful at parties. Although it is very rare something bad happens, it is true that parties aren't the safest place. Especially for the freshmen, it's easy to just go to the party that everyone else is going to without knowing anything about the place or who is going to be there. Look out for your friends and stay together. Navigating a college town at night is scary and can be dangerous. Know where you are going beforehand and always have a way home. Don't always trust people you have just met and never leave a cup unattended.

I wish someone told me my grades aren't going to be as great in college as they were in high school. Expect your GPA to drop at least half a point, usually. You're going to have a lot of distractions in college and a lot less structure in your schedule. Keeping a balance truly is a difficult task and your grades aren't going to always be what you want them to be. You will learn the perfect combination to keep your grades and yourself happy. Give it some time and don't beat yourself up if you get a C in a class or two. You have three years to make up for it.

I wish someone told me that getting homesick is completely normal. The first few spells of homesickness I had scared me to death. I was afraid that if I was homesick it meant that I didn't like the school I was at or that something was wrong or missing. This is usually not the case even though it may feel that way at times. You're going to miss home no matter how much you wished your way out of it from day one. Home is what is familiar to you and what you know and it's easy to crave that when you're somewhere completely different. Don't let it get the best of you and just know that a call home will fix anything and everything. Don't be afraid to call your parents and friends from home. They miss you, too.

I wish someone told me that you only get one freshman year at the college of your dreams so live it up and learn your lessons. Have the time of your life, make all of the friends you can, join clubs and organizations you're passionate about, get involved on your campus and in your community, and take nothing for granted. You only get to do college once (if all goes well) and you're paying to be here and get an education. Make the most of every situation and learn about yourself and the people around you. There is so much to be done and so much to learn in your four years here but especially the first. Make the most of it and don't forget your morals or who you are!

Cover Image Credit: Cailin Austin

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Why It Is Okay To Withdraw From A Course You Are Doing Bad In

Not every class is easy.


College is not meant to be hard and there will be classes that you know nothing about. The goal of a course is for you to learn. If you simply can not grasp the topic that is being discussed in class, you can ALWAYS get help. Campuses offer a lot of help like tutoring or even going to the professor for help on assignments.

There may come a point where even help can not even help you learn what the course is about. At that point, your best bet would be to withdraw from the course. A lot of students struggle with coming to the concept that they may have to do this. To help myself, I made a list that consisted of pros and cons.

The list of cons, although very short, consisted of: having to take another course that would make up for the missing credits, and the people in my class knowing that I quit.

I eliminated that last con with my list of pros: having more time on my hand to focus on my other classes, I would still be a full time student, an online class may be easier for me to learn in, it is better to have a W on my transcript instead of an F, and failing could seriously drop my GPA.

Now that I have withdrawn from the course that was taking so much of my time, I finally feel free and am doing better in my other courses. To conclude, it is never wrong to withdraw from a course and there are many reasons why it is not wrong. If you feel as though you are struggling, do what you need to do for yourself.

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