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.

Popular Right Now

To The Teacher Who Was So Much More

Thank you for everything

I think it's fair to say that most people remember at least one teacher who had a lasting impact on them. I have been incredibly lucky to have several teachers who I will never forget, but one individual takes the cake. So here's to you: thank you for all you have done.

Thank you for teaching me lessons not just in the textbook.

Although you taught a great lecture, class was never just limited to the contents of the course. Debates and somewhat heated conversations would arise between classmates over politics and course material, and you always encouraged open discussion. You embraced the idea of always having an opinion, and always making it be heard, because why waste your voice? You taught me to fight for things I believed in, and to hold my ground in an argument. You taught me to always think of others before doing and speaking. You showed me the power of kindness. Thank you for all the important lessons that may not have been included in the curriculum.

Thank you for believing in me.

Especially in my senior year, you believed in me when other teachers didn't. You showed me just what I could accomplish with a positive and strong attitude. Your unwavering support kept me going, especially when I melted into a puddle of tears weekly in your office. You listened to my stupid complaints, understood my overwhelming stress-induced breakdowns, and told me it was going to be okay. Thank you for always being there for me.

Thank you for inspiring me.

You are the epitome of a role model. Not only are you intelligent and respected, but you have a heart of gold and emit beautiful light where ever you go. You showed me that service to others should not be looked at as a chore, but something to enjoy and find yourself in. And I have found myself in giving back to people, thanks to your spark. Thank you for showing me, and so many students, just how incredible one person can be.

Thank you for changing my life.

Without you, I truly would not be where I am today. As cliche as it sounds, you had such a remarkable impact on me and my outlook on life. Just about a year has passed since my graduation, and I'm grateful to still keep in touch. I hope you understand the impact you have made on me, and on so many other students. You are amazing, and I thank you for all you have done.

Cover Image Credit: Amy Aroune

Related Content

Connect with a generation
of new voices.

We are students, thinkers, influencers, and communities sharing our ideas with the world. Join our platform to create and discover content that actually matters to you.

Learn more Start Creating

Studying the LSAT and Working Full Time

How to make room for advancing your future while maintaining the present.


Working full time and studying for the LSAT proves a delicate tightrope that many people grapple to tread. If you find yourself in such a situation, then some good news is on the horizon as many have juggled the requirements of both aspects seamlessly in the past. Today we take a look at what these individuals did and how you too can effectively balance the scales without leaning too much to one side or the other.

Starting early

Having a full-time job leaves little morsels of time to work with and often the best approach entails beginning early so that the collective total makes up constructive study hours in the long run. As a general rule of thumb for the working class, start a minimum of 4 but preferably 6 months to the date of the test. Science dictates that there are half a dozen intellectual and quality hours per day and with a demanding job breathing down your neck, you can only set aside about a third of that for productive LSAT test prep. With 3 months being the measure of ideal study time for a full-time student, you'll need double that period to be sufficiently up to par.

Maximizing your mornings

Studying in the evenings after a grueling and intellectually draining day at work is as good as reading blank textbooks. It's highly unlikely you'll be able to grasp complex concepts at this time, so start your mornings early so that you can devote this extra time when you are at your mental pinnacle to unraveling especially challenging topics. Evening study times should only be for refresher LSAT prep or going through light subject matters requiring little intellectual initiative. For those who hit their stride at night, take some time to unwind and complete your chores before getting down to business well before bedtime.

Taking some time off

All work and no play does indeed make Jack a dull boy and going back and forth between work and study is a sure-fire recipe for disaster. So take some time off of work every now and then, preferably during weekdays- you can ask for a day off every fortnight or so- as weekends are a prime study period free of work obligations. Such breaks reduce fatigue, better study performance and increase the capacity for information retention.

Prioritizing study

Given the scarce oasis of free time in your busy schedule, you cannot afford to miss even a single session and this commitment is important in spreading out the burden so that it is not overwhelming as you approach the finish line. Be sure to have a clear schedule in place and even set reminders/alarms to help enforce your timetable. If it's unavoidable to miss a single session, set aside a makeup as soon as possible.

Last but not least, have a strong finish. Once you are approaching the home run i.e. about 2 or 3 weeks to the test, take this time off to shift your focus solely to the test. The last month can make or break your LSAT test prep and it'll be hard to concentrate on working whilst focusing completely on the test.

Related Content

Facebook Comments