Unreliable Narrator - A Literary Essay Sample

Published: 2022-04-20
Unreliable Narrator - A Literary Essay Sample
Type of paper:  Essay
Categories:  Edgar Allan Poe The Yellow Wallpaper
Pages: 6
Wordcount: 1502 words
13 min read


An unreliable narrator is a character that misleads their audience in giving out their stories as a result of their intentions or state of mind. The aim of the narrator may be predetermined to conceal the real events of the story. The story given is inconclusive and cannot be trusted by the audience. Sometimes, the narrator intends to hide the truth, protect someone, get away with something or they may be acting out of lack of proper mindset. Often narrations by crazy people cannot be relied on since they are not in the right state of mind. Sometimes narrators in short stories cannot be relied on since the characters give stories that are inconclusive and suspicious of their reliability. A good example is the tell-tale heart by Edgar Allan Poe, in a groove by Ryunosuke Akutagawa and the yellow wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The narrators in these stories have credibility issues in the way they give their accounts. A narrator does not necessarily tell a lie but they use their knowledge to conceal information and offer misjudgment according to the target audience. In narrations that are unreliable, it is hard for the audience to determine the manner in which to interpret the story. Ultimately, the above three mentioned stories have unreliable narrators which proved it difficult in interpreting the stories.

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The Tell-Tale Heart by Egar Allan Poe

This is the story of a character that killed an old man whom they used to live within the same story. The intention of the narrator in explaining the occurrence of the events and how the murder occurred seems is to prove that he was not crazy. The narrator describes how he organized and planned for a long time on how to kill the man. He insists that he was in healthy and clear mind when he did it. The narrator says, "Listen! Listen and I will tell you how it happened. You will see, you will hear how healthy my mind is." (Edgar 64). The narrator goes on to explain how he planned and executed the murder. In addition to that, he goes on to explain how he even concealed the killing. The narrator in this story is evidence that he is unreliable; the things he describes and the narration of events show that he is not in the right mind. He even confirms that he was ill at the start of the narrative. This is a proof that the narrator cannot be trusted. His story has no sense of truth in it and the audience cannot believe the intentions of the narrator.

The narrator in the tell-tale heart is unreliable because he has mental problems. He says that he had been very ill and the illness had made him stronger. (Edgar 64). It is ironical how the illness can make someone strong and improve their hearing senses. The narrator even goes on to say that he can hear calls from heaven and hell. This is a proof that the narration given is a story of a madman. In his description of how he planned the murder, it lives various questioned unanswered. The character in the story says he used to wake up every night to wait for the old man to open up his eye. He thought that he was killing the eye and not the man. He says "...Always the eye was closed, so it was impossible for me to do the work. For it was not the old man I felt I had to kill; it was the eye, his Evil Eye" (Edgar 65). The story has a lot of contradictions and this makes hard to trust the narrator. However, the reliability of a story can be determined from the perspective of individuals. Ultimately, there is no conclusive determination of what the intention of the narration in this story is all about. As the story is told, it is indisputable that the narrator is unreliable since he is mentally ill.

In A Grove by Ryunosuke Akutagawa

In a grove is a story of seven accounts given by different narrators on a murder crime that had taken place. The first four accounts are narrations by witnesses who are not directly tied to the murder. However, there are those who make judgments and raises questions about the credibility of their narrations. On the other hand, the last three accounts are told by the victim of murder through a medium, his wife and the arrested person suspected to have committed the crime. However, the three claim to have committed the killings which shows their unreliability in the narrations since they seem to conceal the truth. At the same time, the police officer also is unreliable since he makes a judgment that seems to suit his intentions of arrest. He wants to prove that he made the right arrest which makes him an unreliable narrator in this investigation. The only person who seems to give facts is the woodcutter who found the body but he has no clue of how it would have occurred. On the other hand, the priest is less involved since he only saw the couple on a previous day and could not make out of what had transpired later. The mother in law is, however, trying to protect the reputation of her daughter despite not knowing what happened. This makes her an unreliable narrator in the murder story too due to her naivety. Ultimately, the story has unreliable narrators and it makes it hard for the narrator to make out the intentions of the writer of the story to its audience.

The thief in the story claims that he had killed the husband because the wife had asked him to either kill the husband or himself. He even says that he had given the husband an opportunity to save himself by fighting with him. He says happily, "I untied him and told him to cross swords with me" (Akutagawa 6). As the woodcutter said, there was no evidence of a fight at the place. He also said there was no sword in the area. On the other hand, the wife claims to have taken her husband's life using her hand knife. Finally, the husband through a medium claims to commit suicide. However, no sword was found at the scene. It is clear that these three narrators are lying on who murdered the husband. Their intentions for lying are unclear to the audience. In summary, the characters tell different occurrences in a single crime that they were all present which makes them unreliable narrators since they are lying to cover up for something.

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

This is the story of a woman who is separated from the real world as part of her treatment. After giving birth, the narrator was misdiagnosed and recommended for a cure rest by her husband (Gilman 131). She was taken upcountry and locked in a nursery room. The nursery room has grilled windows and the bed is wired to the floor. The narrator is prohibited from communicating with anyone outside the house; additionally, she loses contact with her born child. It is clear the narrator's condition deteriorates each day but the husband is too busy to notice. At the same time, the narrator seems not have control over her life. She is an obedient wife who does not question any decision her husband makes. It makes it clear that the story cannot be trusted by the reader since she has no right mind to tell it. She has no freedom to determine what is right or wrong.

The narrator results to be mad when she starts to see images on the yellow wallpaper. She sees the picture of a woman who is locked away and struggles to get free. She does not comprehend that the woman is symbolism of what she wants herself. She tears down the yellow wallpaper to free the woman (Gilman 140). It is clear that the narrator is not in clear mind and this makes his narration lose credibility to the reader. She is a woman without freedom to decide on her life. Also, she appears to have lost her mind when she starts crawling on the floor and refuses to be taken home as the story comes to an end. In summary, the narrator of the story is not in the right mind; the narration is of a character who cannot decide on their own.


As discussed above, the three stories have unreliable narrators. It is evident that an unreliable narrator is someone who tells a story that cannot be trusted due to their state of mind, unclear intentions and naivety. In the three stories, the narrators cannot be trusted since the reader cannot adequately interpret the accounts due to the narrator's state of mind. The events in the stories show how each narrator's credibility can be disputed by the audience. In conclusion, the reliability of a narration depends on the narrator and their perception of truth in their stories.

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