Unreliable narration

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Unreliable narration is a special form of narration in which the reliability (i.e. mostly: the truth or appropriateness) of the narrator's statements about the narrated world is questioned by the recipient (reader, listener, viewer, etc.). Narratives that use this method often use a homodiegetic narrator (a narrator figure who is part of the narrated world), but sometimes also a heterodiegetic narrator. From a historical perspective, unreliable narration is a typical stylistic feature of the novels and narratives of Romanticism . It also appears more frequently in postmodern novels .

Conceptualization proposals

Introductory explanations

According to narrative conventions, statements of a narrator have priority over statements of a character, provided that the character and narrative report contradict one another. For example, if Don Quixote claims that he sees giants but the narrator has previously explained that Don Quixote is standing in front of windmills, the reader will usually believe the narrator and not the character. On the other hand, in the case of an unreliable narrator, his statements about the narrated world must, at least in part, be assessed as incorrect. The privileged claim to truth that the narrator ›usually‹ has to be restricted here. The unreliability of the narrator may be disclosed at the beginning of history or at the end by an unexpected turn ( twist out). The communication between author and reader is doubled here into an explicit and an implicit message, similar to irony . The unreliable narrator thus conveys the explicit message, while the (implicit) author, bypassing the narrator, conveys the implicit and actually intended message.

The motivations of the narrator for the unreliable storytelling can be psychological disorders, biases or ignorance, but also the conscious attempt to deceive the reader.

The coining of the term by Wayne C. Booth and subsequent criticism

Although this type of storytelling can be found already in ancient Roman literature ( True Stories , Lucian , 180, or Metamorphoses , Apuleius to 170), the term was first used in 1961 by the American literary critic Wayne C. Booth in the literary critical and narrative theoretical discussion introduced:

"I have called a narrator reliable when he speaks for or acts in accordance with the norms of the work (which is to say the implied author's norms), unreliable when he does not."

"I have called a narrator reliable if he speaks for the norms of the work or acts according to them (i.e. the norms of the implicit author), unreliable if not."

- Booth : Rhetoric of Fiction , p. 158 f.

Booth's coining of the term criticize newer narratological approaches mainly because of their lack of definition and their reference to the also controversial concept of the implicit author , who is neither identical with the narrator nor the author, but occupies an intermediate position. According to the proponents of this theory, this implicit author communicates what is actually meant by the narrator to the (implicit) reader, which is what creates the double communication. If, on the other hand, one denies - as is often the case in contemporary narratological research - that the authority of the "implied author" can be operationalized in literary studies, Booth's definition of the unreliable narrator is also useless.

Cognitive theories

While the theoretical offers in the wake of Booth analyze (un) reliability as a manifest property of the narrative discourse or the narrative itself, cognitive approaches understand the ascription of (un) reliability as a rationalization strategy of a (real, non-implicit) reader who discovers contradictions, Incoherences or stylistic peculiarities (for example, a first-person narrator who makes extensive use of hyperbolas , interjections or excessive declarations of truth) naturalizes, i.e. dissolves and makes understandable, that he classifies the narrator himself as unreliable. Alternatively, inconsistencies can sometimes also be caused by reference to the negligence of the (real) author (prominent example: Kleist's The Engagement in St. Domingo , the protagonist of which is first Gustav, later August - which in research was mostly viewed as a mere faux pas by the author) or to be explained on generic specifics. Only the interplay of textual unreliability signals and the reader's interpretation methods allows the cognitive approach to appropriately grasp the phenomenon of 'unreliability': 'That means that a narrator is not' implausible 'per se, but that it is a determination of the That can vary greatly historically, culturally and ultimately even individually. "

Pragmatic theories

In contrast to its cognitive competitors, pragmatic approaches that understand unreliability as a violation of clearly identifiable maxims of rational communication circumvent the allegation of relativism, which emphasizes the scientific uselessness of an analytical category, which, according to its historical-cultural variability, is possibly subject to almost arbitrary ascriptions. If, for example, a narrator makes his ›conversation pieces‹ more informative than necessary, speaks unclearly or ambiguously or reports completely irrelevant in the respective context, and this is not done with the intention of triggering an implicature (as might be the case with an ironic narrator, for example) , it must be viewed as unreliable. So it not only violates the maxims of conversation , but also the principle of cooperation , compliance with which is just as binding for narrators of fictional stories as it is for factual narration in everyday contexts, because here too the 'tellability' of a story must first be proven. Disregarding the principle of cooperation, on the other hand, undermines the whole point of narration by preventing a coherent, 'narrative' story and provoking nothing on the reader's side but a helpless “So what?”.


Martinez and Scheffel distinguish three types of the unreliable narrator:

Theoretically unreliable narration

While the mimetic , i.e. descriptive, statements of the narrator, which describe what is the case in the fictional world, may be considered true, his theoretical utterances, his evaluations, judgments of taste, ethical comments, etc. are to be understood as unreliable. In Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus, for example, the story of the demonic composer Adrian Leverkühn is presented by the humanistic first-person narrator Dr. phil. Serenus Zeitblom mediates. The philosophical and moral dimension of his description evidently eludes himself. We can therefore believe his statements about the course of history, but not his assessment and evaluation.

Mimetic sometimes unreliable narration

Here, both the mimetic and the theoretical statements can be wrong or misleading. One example is the novel Between nine and nine by Leo Perutz . He tells of a Viennese student who jumps from the roof of a house while fleeing the police at nine o'clock in the morning and thus saves himself. He wanders through Vienna, survives some critical persecution situations and is then arrested by the police around nine o'clock in the evening. Here he tries to save himself again by jumping off the roof, but does not survive this jump. When the cops find him, it's still nine in the morning, and it turns out that the whole story between the first and the second jump was the dying student's imagination. The told time is not twelve hours, but only a few minutes. The reader accepts this retrospective reinterpretation because otherwise there would be an indissoluble contradiction between the main part and the end of the novel.

Mimetically undecidable narration

In contrast to the other two examples, in mimetically undecidable narration there is no stable and clearly definable narrated world behind the narrator's speech. Thus, in relation to this world, it is not possible to decide which statements of the narrator are to be distinguished as unreliable. Modern and postmodern texts in particular dissolve this fixed point of reference, so that the impression of unreliability is not only partially and temporarily created, but can apply to the entire text. A fundamental undecidability arises as to what is actually the case in the narrated world. A classic example of this type of storytelling apply the nouveaux romans of Alain Robbe-Grillet . However, while in Robbe-Grillet scenes are strung together and not commented or filtered by a perceptive consciousness (external focalization ), extreme, internal focalization can also be part of the mimetically undecidable narration. An example of this is the novel As It Is by Samuel Beckett . It consists of fragmentary sentences and parts of sentences that can no longer even be put together to form a stream of consciousness . It is not structured by the logic of an action, but by repetitions of certain names, events and topics; a stable and clearly narrated world cannot be reconstructed.






  • 1961: Wayne C. Booth: Rhetoric of Fiction. University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1961.
  • 1981: Félix Martínez-Bonati : Fictive Discourse and the Structures of Literature. A Phenomenological Approach . Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London 1981.
  • 1981: Tamar Yacobi: Fictional Reliability as a Communicative Problem. Poetics Today 2, 1981, pp. 113-126.
  • 1998: Ansgar Nünning (Ed.): Unreliable narration: Studies on the theory and practice of implausible narration in English-language narrative literature. WVT - Wissenschaftlicher Verlag, Trier 1998, ISBN 3-88476-316-4 .
  • 1999: Matías Martínez , Michael Scheffel : Introduction to narrative theory. 9th, extended edition, Beck, Munich 2012 (first edition 1999), ISBN 978-3-406-47130-8 .
  • 2000: Dorrit Cohn: Discordant Narration. Style 34, 2000, pp. 307-316.
  • 2004: Dieter Meindl: (Un) reliable Narration from a Pronominal Perspective . In: The Dynamics of Narrative Form: Studies in Anglo-American Narratology. Walter de Gruyter, Berlin 2004.
  • 2005: Ansgar Nünning: Reconceptualizing Unreliable Narration: Synthesizing Cognitive and Rhetorical Approaches. In: James Phelan, Peter J. Rabinowitz (Eds.): A Companion to Narrative Theory. (= Blackwell Companions to Literature and Culture , Volume 33) Blackwell, Oxford 2005, pp. 89-107.
  • 2005: Fabienne Liptay , Yvonne Wolf (eds.): What's wrong now? Unreliable storytelling in literature and film. edition text + kritik , Munich 2005, ISBN 978-3-88377-795-5 .
  • 2006: Jörg Helbig (Ed.): "Camera doesn't lie": varieties of narrative unreliability in film . WVT - Wissenschaftlicher Verlag, Trier 2006, ISBN 978-3-88476-842-6 (= Focal point , Volume 4).
  • 2006: Monika Fludernik : Narrative theory, an introduction. 4th edition, Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt 2013 (first edition 2006 as an introduction to narrative theory ), ISBN 978-3-534-29920-1 .
  • 2006: Theresa Heyd : Understanding and handling unreliable narratives. In: Semiotica 162, 2006, pp. 217-243.
  • 2008: Tom Kindt : Unreliable storytelling and literary modernity. Niemeyer, Tübingen 2008, ISBN 978-3-484-18184-7 (= Studies on German Literature , Volume 184, also dissertation Uni Hamburg 2001).
  • 2009: Susanne Kaul, Jean-Pierre Palmier, Timo Skrandies (eds.): Storytelling in film. Unreliability - audiovisuality - music. Transcript, Bielefeld 2009, ISBN 978-3-8376-1134-2 (= media - culture - analysis , volume 6).
  • 2010: Michaela Krützen : Dramaturgies of the film. Hollywood with a difference. Fischer, Frankfurt am Main 2010, ISBN 978-3-10-040503-6 , pp. 159-201.
  • 2011: Poul Behrendt, Per Krogh Hansen: The Fifth Mode of Representation: Ambiguous Voices in Unreliable Third Person Narration. In: Strange voices in narrative fiction . Per Krogh Hansen, Stefan Iversen, Henrik Skov Nielsen and Rolf Reitan, De Gruyter, Berlin 2011, ISBN 978-3-11-026857-7 ( table of contents ), pp. 219-251.
  • 2014: Jean-Pierre Palmier: Felt Stories. Undecidable storytelling and emotional experience. Fink , Munich 2014, ISBN 978-3-7705-5581-9 .
  • 2015: Bernd Leiendecker: "They Only See What They Want to See". History of unreliable narration in feature films , Schüren , Marburg 2015, ISBN 978-3-89472-908-0 (= Marburg writings on media research , volume 55, also dissertation at the University of Bochum ).

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. See for example Ansgar Nünning: Renaissance of an anthropomorphized passe-partout or obituary for a literary-critical phantom? , Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für Literaturwissenschaft and Geistesgeschichte , Vol. 67 (1993), pp. 1-25.
  2. See Ansgar Nünning: Reconceptualizing Unreliable Narration: Synthesizing Cognitive and Rhetorical Approaches. In: James Phelan, Peter J. Rabinowitz (Eds.): A Companion to Narrative Theory . (Blackwell Companions to Literature and Culture, Vol. 33) Blackwell, Oxford 2005, pp. 89-107 and Tamar Yacobi: Fictional Reliability as a Communicative Problem. Poetics Today 2, 1981, pp. 113-126.
  3. Tamar Yacobi differentiates between four naturalization strategies: ›genetic‹, ›generic‹, ›existential‹, ›functional‹ and ›perspectival‹, cf. Tamar Yacobi: Fictional Reliability as a Communicative Problem. Poetics Today 2, 1981, pp. 113-126.
  4. Ansgar Nünning: Unreliable Narration for an Introduction. Basics of a cognitive-narratological theory and analysis of implausible narration. In: Ansgar Nünning (Ed.): Unreliable narration: Studies on the theory and practice of untrustworthy narration in English-language narrative literature. Knowledge Verlag, Trier 1998, pp. 3–39, here p. 25.
  5. Cf. Theresa Heyd: Understanding and handling unreliable narratives. Semiotica 162, 2006, pp. 217-243; Tom Kindt: Unreliable storytelling and literary modernity. (Studies on German Literature, Vol. 184), Niemeyer, Tübingen 2008.
  6. Cf. Theresa Heyd: Understanding and handling unreliable narratives. Semiotica 162, 2006, p. 224.
  7. Matias Martinez, Michael Scheffel: Introduction to the narrative theory. 6th edition, Beck, Munich 2006.
  8. Niels Werber: Krachts Pikareske. Fiber country, reread . In: Journal of Literary Studies and Linguistics . tape 44 , no. 3 , September 1, 2014, ISSN  0049-8653 , p. 119–129 , doi : 10.1007 / BF03379987 ( springer.com [accessed January 12, 2018]).
  9. Natalia Stagl: Muse and Antimuse. The poetics of Vladimir Nabokov . Böhlau, Cologne / Weimar / Vienna 2006, p. 139.
  10. Jeremy Parish: Dissecting Final Fantasy VII, Part 5 - An RPG Gets Existential With Its Central Question: "Who Am I?" In: USgamer. Retrieved March 27, 2017 (American English).