Tag Archives: unreliable narrator

On Unreliable Narrators

(Savage Minds is pleased to run this essay by guest blogger Sienna R. Craig as part of our Writers’ Workshop series. Sienna is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Dartmouth College. In addition to her 2012 book Healing Elements: Efficacy and the Social Ecologies of Tibetan Medicine, she is also author of the lush ethnographic memoir Horses Like Lightning: A Story of Passage Through the Himalayas.)

The idea of a decision is a decision.

We build arguments around impermanence

But are not the sort of people to admit

To inconstancies.

—Tsering Wangmo Dhompa, from In the Absent Everyday

I have been thinking a lot about the idea of the “unreliable narrator” these days, and what it might mean for us ethnographers, careful raconteurs of others’ stories, intertwined as they are with our own. The idea of the unreliable narrator emerges in literature, theatre, and film as a tool of craft that plays with senses of credibility or believability, sometimes to trick the reader or the audience, other times to push the boundaries of a genre or challenge the cognitive strategies a reader might employ to make sense of the story she is being told. Although unreliable narrators may materialize through a third person frame, they are most commonly first person renderings. In the most facile sense, an unreliable narrator is biased, makes mistakes, lacks self-awareness, tells lies not of substance but of form. The device can also be used in a revelatory vein: to twist an expected ending, to demand that readers reconsider a point of view, to leave an audience wondering. Like our anthropological propensity to classify, literary theorists have done the same for the interlocutors of our imaginations. Types of unreliable narrators include the Madman, the Clown, and the Naif, to name a few. Others posit that the unreliable narrator as a device is best understood to fall along a spectrum of fallibility, beginning with the contours of trust and ending with specters of capriciousness (Olson 2003). This is the shape of a character as she defies the expectations of a reader, who then may well pass judgment on this scripted self. Continue reading