From Goth Girl to Gone Girl: Unreliable Narrators in Literature

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Where do you turn when you can’t trust your own mind? In The Widow’s House, a couple moves into a deteriorating estate in the Hudson Valley, hoping to revitalize their marriage and careers. However, shortly after moving in, the wife, Clare, begins having visions of strangers walking their property and she starts to hear wailing. Could the house be haunted, or is it all in Clare’s mind? Author Carol Goodman took inspiration from gothic novels when crafting this thrilling tale, and here she shares how unreliable gothic narrators are still influencing characters and novels today.

Reader, beware: spoilers ahead.

Unreliable narrators are all the rage, from the prevaricating Amy in Gone Girl to the inebriated Rachel in The Girl on the Train to the semi-amnesiac Leonora in Ruth Ware’s In a Dark, Dark Wood. When these women aren’t flat-out lying, their versions of the truth are compromised by alcohol, trauma, or just a very vivid imagination. Why are we so drawn to these alt-truthers? Is it something about our particular times? Or has the unreliable woman always been with us?

It’s tempting to look to gothic literature for answers. Our modern imperiled (or seemingly imperiled) female protagonists calls to mind the gothic novels of Ann Radcliffe and her heirs. From Emily St. Aubert, the heroine of Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, who is kept prisoner in an Italian castle, to the narrator of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper who is confined to a room with bad interior decorating, these women have to sort out the mysteries of their situations to find the truth. Jane Eyre has to find out who’s in the attic. The second Mrs. de Winter has to figure out what happened to her predecessor, Rebecca.

Trapped in a duplicitous world, is it any wonder that they retreat into their own versions of reality? Jane Eyre admits to opening “my inward ear to a tale that never ended—a tale my imagination created, and narrated continuously.” The narrator of The Yellow Wallpaper begins to see figures in the walls. The second Mrs. de Winter is so insecure (maybe because she doesn’t get a name!) she believes Mrs. Danvers’ version of the truth and misreads her husband’s feelings about his dead wife.

The modern psychological thriller is filled with such perversions of reality. Rachel in The Girl on the Train gives into her husband’s version of her drunken behavior because “After a while … you don’t ask what happened, you just say you’re sorry.” The narrator of Ruth Ware’s The Woman in Cabin 10, doubts her own perceptions after hearing someone thrown overboard in the night: “Maybe he’s right, the nasty little voice in my head whispered.” Only Amy in Gone Girl is impervious to doubt, and that makes her (spoiler alert) the most unreliable narrator of the unreliables—a woman who has turned the tables on the gaslighting male to create her own truth.

So why are we drawn to the unreliable narrator? Because the world is harder and harder to parse these days and we need to see how it’s done? Because we need a reminder to see past dissimulation and seek the truth? Whatever the reason, the gothic tradition with its unreliable narrator is likely here to stay. “A truism of critical commentary,” writes critical commentator Patricia Murphy, “holds that the gothic emerges in literature during times of cultural anxiety.” Welcome to the new goth.

Carol Goodman is the critically acclaimed author of fourteen novels, including The Lake of Dead Languages and The Seduction of Water, which won the 2003 Hammett Prize. Her books have been translated into sixteen languages. She lives in the Hudson Valley with her family, and teaches writing and literature at the New School and SUNY New Paltz.


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