A few years ago I wrote an essay on the use of the unreliable narrator in the books American Psycho and The Great Gatsby and, after the usual stress and panic that comes with writing an essay, I actually managed to get a really good grade on it.
The element of using an unreliable narrator to tell a story has always interested me. I’ve always been drawn to the books told in the first person, and it seems it’s also the automatic voice I write in when I begin to write my own stories.
Traditionally, narrators were used to connect the reader to a story, so naturally, these narrators were assumed to be trustworthy and unbiased. But since the 20th century, use of the unreliable narrator has become an increasingly common and popular element in literature and even film.
To some people, perhaps comparing the highly controversial psychological thriller, American Psycho and the captivating American classic, The Great Gatsby seems like a strange, even pointless choice. What do these books really have in common? But ever since I wrote that essay and re-read the books countless more times, I notice more similarities every time. I mean, for a start, despite being vastly different in genre, tone and style, these books are two of my all-time favourites. Because of my love for them, it’s really interesting to me to compare them and perhaps uncover things about them that others never noticed or thought about. Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, set in the ‘roaring twenties’ is a brilliantly manipulative example of how to use an unreliable narrator to subtly…mess with the reader, in simple terms. Nick Caraway, the narrator, seems trustworthy and unbiased towards the story he is telling us and builds our trust as the reader before Fitzgerald reveals he may not actually be that trustworthy after all. Suddenly the reader is forced to examine the events even closer to see if what we are getting is the true picture of the events. Just that aspect in itself and the clever way Fitzgerald uses the element of the unreliable narrator adds another layer to the narrative for the audience, other than just the story and the events themselves.
The narrator obviously is a key aspect in developing our own feelings and opinions for the characters. So when this narrator is unreliable, we also now have to question if the way these characters are being portrayed to us is actually how they are, or how the narrator sees them. Nick is biased; he is intrigued and sympathetic towards Gatsby saying, ‘I could see nothing sinister about him’ despite all the criminal rumours and accusations attributed to Gatsby, and negative and sarcastic towards the Buchanan’s. Nick is not always objective like we may expect a narrator to be, but after all, he is involved in the story and the individual characters live so his opinion of them all will naturally colour his narration.
Fitzgerald uses Nick to add to the realism of the plot. Just like real life, we have our own judgments surrounding people and we may never know if a person is truly what they think they are. We are not so much outsiders looking on in The Great Gatsby but in a way we are Nick himself, seeing through his eyes and ultimately judging even him at the same time.
Ellis’s American Psycho, written more than sixty years after The Great Gatsby, is a more extreme version of the unreliable narrator. The relationship we develop with Manhattan businessman and psychopathic serial killer Patrick Bateman is unfamiliar and puts us in a strange situation where we actually hope what he is telling us is not true. He casually admits, ‘I’m into, oh murders and executions mostly,’ and continues to describe his daily life events and murders in great detail, ‘I spend the afternoon smearing her meat all over the walls, chewing on strips of skin I ripped from her body,’ with hyperbolic and ludicrous language where once again we actually hope he is an unreliable narrator.
Despite the fact we may wish what Bateman is telling us to be untrue, the relationship that we develop with Bateman through the stream of consciousness narrative means we possibly may be actually the only people other than Bateman himself who are aware of what’s happening. The other characters in the book seem complacent, detached where even his supposedly ‘close’ friends mistake him for someone else, ‘Hey, Halberstam,’ and are unbelievably self centred to the point that Bateman’s violent confessions to them of, ‘I like to dissect girls’ get no reaction or attention. Despite our reluctance to believe him, Ellis enables us to develop some form of relationship with him, possibly even a slight sense of sympathy through his charismatic, amusing but overall depressive depiction of the dismal life he calls a ‘living hell.’
The detailed and almost unreadable scenes of sadistic violence in American Psycho means we have to decide what we believe is reality or what is instead Batemans imagined enactment of the hatred and the ‘constant and sharp’ pain he feels for his miserable life. Ellis plays with the line between realism as Fitzgerald does but in different ways, ‘Once inside, after paying fifty dollars for the two of us, I head immediately to the bar,’ and fantasy, ‘lunch at Hubert’s becomes a permanent hallucination in which I find myself dreaming while still awake,’ in a matter of lines. His narration is full of contradictions when he visits an apartment where he murdered two prostitutes, much to his surprise, ‘I don’t….understand,’ he instead finds a ‘real-looking’ estate agent and a spotless home. But what we realise is that despite these contradictory and strange occurrences, this is Bateman’s reality, true or not, ‘Everything outside of this is like some movie I saw once,’ and this delusional and absurd world is the only one he could ever narrate to us.
The context of when both these books were written is scaringly similar in some ways. In The Great Gatsby, the consumerism culture of the 20’s when the book was written just before ‘The Great Depression,’ meant that people were ‘living in the moment,’ and like the characters in the book, selfish and superficial.
American Psycho, set in the 80’s at a time where ‘greed is good’ was a ‘mantra for life’ (From the 1987 film Wall Street) once again links between what events unfold in the book and what was really happening at the time.
Like in The Great Gatsby, the characters are self-absorbed, this time to the very extreme where Ellis dedicates whole chapters to narrate what clothes people are wearing, ‘Owen is wearing a double-breasted silk and linen suit, a cotton shirt and silk tie, all by Joseph Abboud.’ The late 80’s was the height of the Wall Street boom, meaning class divisions were made even larger and the rich were excessively rich, meaning the poor and underprivileged were destitute. Homeless people or ‘bums’ are mentioned from the very beginning of the book, ‘That’s the twenty-fourth one I’ve seen today…let the fucking bitch freeze to death, put her out of her own self-made misery.’ Ellis’s highlight on the homeless and how they are treated is even more contrasted by the importance placed on looks and wealth in the book, “why aren’t you wearing the worsted navy blue blazer with the grey pants?’
A lot of people spend time (for the book and the film) discussing whether Bateman actually committed his crimes or if it was all a part of his delusion. But I don’t think to come to a definite conclusion is the point. Ellis deliberately leaves the truth about Bateman’s crimes open at the end of the book as a reflection that American Psycho is, as one critic claims, ‘a black comedy about the world we all recognise but do not wish to face.’ The crucial moment in the book where he ‘confesses’ to his crimes leads to an anti-climatic end where there is no real recognition of his crimes, ‘my confession meant nothing.’ Despite our relationship with Bateman where we have some sympathy for the man who is ‘disintegrating’ in front of our eyes, the consequences of his crimes being finally recognised would have been almost an escape for not only us but himself, his arrest being his release from his ‘painful’ life where ‘there are no more barriers to cross.’ The novel begins with the words from Dante’s Inferno, “Abandon all hope ye who enter here,” and end with the words, ‘this is not an exit,’ meaning rather chillingly, just like Bateman, we are still left in the books narrative in an unsatisfying, liminal state. Bateman is damned to this life where there is only an ‘idea of Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me,’ and because of this anti-climactic and overall oppressive ending, we are left with a feeling that this novel was more real than we thought.
The use of an unreliable narrator is genius. For someone like me who loves to write and read psychological horror, it’s almost always an element I use or read. Using this element acts as a link to form convincing relationships with the reader and make you feel however the author wants you to, epitomising the term “unreliable” and creating a new style of how readers are connected to the plot and the events that take place. In The Great Gatsby and American Psycho, the unreliable narrator is used to highlight the greed and corruption that was going on in both the 20’s and the 80’s. It is used to embody the zeitgeist and the issues of that time that may well happen again; creating a frightening sense of realism for the reader.
The unreliable narrator is also brilliant at making the reader question what they classify as reality or fantasy within the novel and pushing the boundaries of what the reader is willing to believe. The author can use the unreliable narrator to challenge and question our relationships with the characters where sometimes we even remain in the narrative long after the book is finished.
My love affair with the unreliable narrator continues to grow. Not only does it give you the power to connect with the narrator themselves and enter their twisted world, but it means there is more to think about, more to question, and more to wonder about within the narrative itself. After all, we’re all a little unreliable in life, we lie, sometimes we say nice things about people we don’t like and we say mean things about people we do like. And vice versa. I think it’s just in my nature to like the unreliable, more…intriguing people of the world. I may even be somewhat of an unreliable narrator myself.
-Thanks for reading, please comment below if you also like the element of the unreliable narrator in fiction and also if there are any books with an unreliable narrator you’d think I’d enjoy!
Psycho Cinderella ❤
(This post was written from an unpublished essay I had written a few years ago but I have added and changed some aspects.)