In every form of fictional narrative, the concept of the identity manoeuvring the story, although essential to a meaningful understanding of the work, is deeply entangled in a weave of complex connotations. More often than not, the ambiguous confines between the creator’s intention, their storytelling devices and the reader’s perception, makes the process of clearly evaluating the various components and mechanisms of narration exceedingly hard. In this complex discourse around the credibility and objectiveness of the tale, one of the most fascinating and scrutinized figures is undeniably that of the 'unreliable narrator'.
Before delving into the mechanism of unreliable narration, it is fundamental to specify that in fictional and literary analysis, there are mainly three well-established notable figures taking an active part in the narration: the author, the narrator and the implied author.
Firstly, the author, intended as the real person behind the artistic work, is the creator that forged the story in real life. As the actual entity that gave birth to the product, this figure is necessary on an epistemological level but is completely external from the diegetic happenings of the story.
The narrator, even though they might not always be overtly present, is the entity recounting the story. Whether it be in first, second or third person, they are the speaker of consciousness that engenders, frames or relates the events of the narration. They could be entirely embedded in the world they describe, either as an active character or as an observer; they could be retelling the events from a distant perspective in the future or they could even be omniscient and barely signal their own presence, but they are the voice disclosing the tale to the audience.
In 1961, Wayne C. Booth's book, The Rhetoric of Fiction, offers the definition of another theoretical figure; this being, a middle-ground imaginary entity between the author and the text, is the implied author. The implied author is the fictionalized persona the audience perceives to be the source of the story, as an imagined personality standing behind the work. The implied author’s values, ideas and characteristics, as much as their will, voice and personality are wholly inferred by readers from the text. They are to be distinguished from the author as, in fact, they’re not real but an imaginary construct; yet, they are also to be separated from the narrator because, differently from the narrator, the implied author stands at a remove from the narrative voice.
Given these premises, the commonly agreed upon definition of an unreliable narrator is that they are a narrator whose believability is compromised. Even though they are the character disclosing the tale, their account of the story is, for some reason, either partial, skewed, unclear or equivocal. It can be a deliberate choice on their part, as they might be lying for personal reasons or just for their own amusement; it can be an unwilling consequence of either their immaturity, their mental state or their unconventional moral alignment; or it can consist of a nuanced combination of cognizant decisions and subconscious suppressed emotions, but the core characteristic of an unreliable narrator is their narrative untrustworthiness.
How does the idea of an unreliable narrator translate in visual storytelling? In a visual product of any kind, while the author is comprised of whoever created the work, the implied author is none other than the camera itself. The audiences perception of the narration is entirely dependent on the images shown, the dialogues heard, the actors communicative force, and the camera is a sort of all-seeing eye that has the unique and irrevocable power to show the substantial core of the story.
In visual culture the narrator, when present, in a similar fashion to that of any literary work, is the character disclosing the tale, either from a distant, omniscient perspective, from a partially or entirely involved stand-point or even as a meta-cinematic figure talking with and looking directly at the audience as events unfold.
A compelling example, in visual fiction, of an unreliable narrator and all the complex implications it entails, is surely that of the TV show Euphoria.
In Euphoria, the audience is immediately faced with a first-person foregrounded intradiegetic narrator in the guise of Rue Bennet, the seventeen years-old protagonist. The framing of the show's narration is immediately shown to be personal as in the very beginning of the first episode Rue's voice, leading the spectator into the story, discloses her own individual background, including her childhood experiences, her mental problems and her severe drug addiction. Her voice-over instantly makes the listener privy to her own intimate inner thoughts, imbuing the tale with evident subjectivity. The perfect alignment between her narration and the images shown, however, creates an illusion of objectivity, making it hard to distinguish between the narrator and the implied author.
As the story moves further and Rue recounts events she herself admits she has not directly seen, her apparent omniscience further consolidates the audience's unconscious trust towards her narration. Her monologue quickly becomes an essential part of the narrative conundrum, as it is often a device for the spectator to connect the pieces of the story or a useful extradiegetic description that serves as an insight into the mind or past of the other characters. Rue's role as a narrator, similarly to the chorus in ancient Greek plays, is to frame the narrative and explain to the audience all the facets of the tale that are not rendered obvious by the mimetic or dramatic act. Serving as a mediator between the story and the spectator, she performs discursive acts, narrating past events, reflecting on the nature of humanity or providing a commentary on the character’s actions and motivations. Because of this multifaceted mode of narration, Rue's voice, as the main guiding force of the tale, is perceived to be the crux to fully comprehending the story and is rarely deemed to be fickle, untrustworthy or deceitful.
One of the main clues that a narrator is unreliable comes, commonly, from the narrator itself, through an accumulation of remarks relating to the self, such as admitted inconsistencies in reliability, comments on their own cognitive limitations or memory gaps, or plain-clear admissions of their own untrustworthiness. Rue is, in fact, the very first one to warn the audience that her judgment is skewed, as in the first episode she herself states, plainly and clearly, that she is “not always the most reliable narrator”. This happens immediately after the camera turns upside down in following Rue’s own drug-induced haze and, in effectively distorting what is known and accepted to be a credible depiction of reality, stands to suggest that the line between an objective eye and Rue’s point of view is, to say the least, dubious and opaque. When this happens, however, the audience’s instinct is mostly to gloss over the declaration, mainly because Rue is the one leading the story and at that starting point the thrill of following the tale is far too intense to focus on any subtle hint of questionable narration. Furthermore, the alignment between the implied author as the camera and Rue’s voice as the narrator is apparently so definite that it seems acceptable to allow vague technical discrepancies in the artistic visual work.
Another commonly utilized suggestion of the presence of an unreliable narrator is when other characters are employed as a sounding board as, in their dialogues and remarks, they subtly or overtly suggest the possible inaccuracy or instability of the narrator’s recounting. The first hint of this specific technique is presented, albeit vaguely, in the second episode of the first season, when Lexi Howard, Rue’s childhood friend, accuses Rue of changing the version of reality as she pleases in order to gain the kind of empathy she needs in that moment, in a way that, as Lexi tells her, makes it seem like she has a “split personality disorder”. This directly connects to the most obvious and clear assertion that another character, Fezco, makes a few episodes down the line. In response to Rue’s apology for how she treated him during a withdrawal crisis, he tells Rue that she shouldn’t worry, mainly because he doesn’t believe anything a drug addict says; whether it be positive or negative, and he goes on to explain that an addict’s statements are flimsy, twisted and unreliable, as they are entirely based on the substance dependence. Fezco’s speech is emblematic and impactful not only because at that point in the show he has been portrayed as someone who mostly speaks the truth and deeply and honestly cares about Rue, but because, as a drug dealer, he might be the one person who knows better than anyone how addiction affects people's words. This declaration is, however, still part of an intradiegetic dialogue and as such, despite its credibility, it is not enough for the audience to fully ascribe to the idea of Rue’s voice being fallible.
The definite and indisputable shatter of the illusion of reliability happens, as it usually does, the moment the audience is exposed to the evident contradiction between the story and the narrative discourse. In the special episode dedicated to Rue, between the first and second season, as she is talking in a diner with Ali, her sponsor and mentor; Rue recounts how her relationship with Jules Vaughn unfolded. She narrates events the viewers have been shown early in the first season, but as she says she and Jules thought about getting a lip tattoo and Ali asks her if they actually did do it, Rue reluctantly answers that it didn’t truly occur and that they just merely talked about it. At this point the spectator realizes that the scene of them getting the tattoo, which was framed as part of a series of real events, never truly happened, and that finally signals how unreliable of a narrator Rue truly is. This specific scene is a crucial turning point because it fractures the audience's unconscious reliance towards the implied author's alleged objectivity, as what was portrayed as a fact is revealed to be a product of the narrator’s imagination.
After this, Rue’s narration is no longer under the pretence of being even remotely objective. In the second season, as her drug addiction gets increasingly worse, her narration mode becomes not only progressively less structured, but almost entirely focused on any other character but herself. The audience is patently told, by Rue herself through a meta-sequence, of the manners in which a drug addict lies and shifts attention in order to keep indulging in the substance abuse. This scene serves as a sort of not-so-subtle indication that the narration’s deviation is a willing and intended choice. Moreover, at the end of the fourth episode of the second season, as Rue is in a deeply altered state, and for the first time she is not able to conclude a sentence in her voice-over narration, another voice, Jules’, intervenes in order for the episode extradiegetic discourse to end. The fact that Rue’s physical and psychological state can lead to huge alterations in the perceived unfolding of the event is of a significant nature. It means that not only she is the entity controlling the story and therefore none of the images shown can be attested to be entirely objective; but also that the narration’s steadiness can be violently jolted and altered at any point. To render Rue’s all-encompassing power additionally evident, further into the second season she overtly refuses to speak about two characters she is resentful towards, effectively robbing the audience of the possibility of knowing what is happening in their life.
Rue’s unreliability as a narrator is, at the end of the second season, blatantly clear. Her voice is the one leading the audience through the story, and she is the essential, light-shining guide into not only the convoluted sequences of events, but also the psyche of most, if not all, the other characters. But how is her narration to be trusted, given all the clues about her unreliability? Are events truly happening the way she describes, are the other characters genuinely the way they’re portrayed? In substance, in the presence of an unreliable narrator, where does a spectator draw the line between objective and unbiased reality, emotionally altered recounting and blunt and outright lies? At this point of the show’s progression it is not clear where Rue stands in terms of reliability, as it is still uncertain precisely who she’s reporting the story to or what stage in her life (or, possibly, after-life) she’s in when doing so, but the murky boundaries of her credibility are undoubtedly part of what makes the figure of an unreliable narrator so captivating.
Booth W.C. (1983), The Rhetoric of Fiction (Second Edition), Chicago: The Chicago Press.
Currie, G. (1995), Unreliability Refigured: Narrative in Literature and Film, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 53 (1), 19-29. https://bit.ly/3LgE1k0
Richardson, B. (1988), Point of View in Drama: Diegetic Monologue, Unreliable Narrators, and the Author's Voice on Stage, Comparative Drama, Vol 22 (3), 193-214. https://bit.ly/3rI8UpK
Levinson, S. (2019). Euphoria. [Photo] Retrieved from https://bit.ly/38ih15w
Levinson, S. (2019). Euphoria. [Photo] Retrieved from https://bit.ly/3xPM6rR
Levinson, S. (2019). Euphoria. [Photo] Retrieved from https://bit.ly/3L6mivn
Levinson, S. (2019). Euphoria. [Photo] https://bit.ly/3EFKi60
Levinson, S. (2019). Euphoria. [Photo] https://bit.ly/3MxdwqJ
Levinson, S. (2019). Euphoria. [Photo] https://bit.ly/3rOs2SU
Levinson, S. (2019). Euphoria. [Photo] Retrieved from https://bit.ly/3kaXbf7
Levinson, S. (2019). Euphoria. [Photo] Retrieved from https://bit.ly/3vF9ANN