I’ll admit this from the start: I have a pretty difficult time sussing out whether someone is an unreliable narrator. Oftentimes, the only way I know whether someone is an unreliable narrator is if there’s a huge reveal that what they told me actually happened a different way. While other books have unreliable narrators and the subtle hints that that’s so completely fly past me. Sometimes the big reveal makes it so obvious that the narrator is unreliable that I feel like an idiot for not realizing it sooner.
Talking to a friend of mine who is supremely invested in the under-the-hood aspects of stories, I came up with some hints that I could look for to tip me off that the narrator is unreliable before the big reveal. Some of the obvious ones are: How old is this character? Are they abusing drugs/alcohol? Does this character see things in black and white? Is this story in first or third person (with first person being more favorable for unreliability)? Who is disagreeing with this character and why?
It’s also reasonable to assume that every narrator is unreliable to a certain extent, given our tendency toward bias, you know?
My friend also pointed out that we are under no obligation to believe the narrator, but I tend to, because there’s got to be a point to them telling this story and learning that things might not be the way they seem as the character learns it. It’s our choice, though, to believe whether the narrator is telling the objective truth or not, and our reading experience will differ based on how we read it. And most importantly, there’s no one proper way to read any book.
When I was in 12th grade, I was doing an exercise for the AP Lit exam (which I didn’t take, anyway), and I had completely missed the fact that the writer was being sarcastic. As a result of my alternate reading of that passage, my conclusions were marked as wrong by my teacher. I’m obviously still bitter about that because it makes me feel stupid, even though my conclusions based on a sincere reading of the text were perfectly logical.
Part of the value of literature is the different lenses through which we can read something, and how the meaning of the text changes based on that text. How often has a different interpretation of a song made us listen in an entirely different way?