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The Unreliable Narrator (10 credit points)

Course Times & Enrolment

This course is currently unavailable.

Course Summary

Wayne C. Booth first identified the difference between a reliable and unreliable narrator as part of his reader-centred approach to critical thinking in the 1960s. The unreliable narrator has, however, been around for a great deal longer than that in literature. We will study a number of examples which explore different categories of unreliable narrator from narrators motivated by a desire to hide the truth to narrators whose memories are fallible to narrators who may or may not exist. Our discussions will turn on how the reader builds a relationship with an unreliable narrator and whether or not our bond of trust with our touchstone in a novel is finally compromised by their unreliability.

Course Details

Content of Course

1. The first detective novel and why no one seems to be able to tell the truth. Text: Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone.

2. Lonely and loveless: living a vicarious life. Text: Zoe Heller, Notes on a Scandal.

3. Elizabeth is missing (or is she?). Text: Emma Healey, Elizabeth is Missing.

4. The Mystery of Mr Kurtz: a modernist approach to narration? Text: Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness.

5. ‘This is how it is with insomnia. Everything is so far away, a copy of a copy of a copy: Tyler Durden and the narratorial alter ego. Text: Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club.

Teaching method(s)

Lectures, seminar-style discussion and small group work.

Learning outcomes

By the end of this course, students should be able to:

  • Discuss texts confidently;

  • Assess literature based, to a certain extent, on their own close reading;

  • Place literature in its historical context;

  • Discuss the various ways in which authors use an unreliable narrator to inject suspense and offer alternative viewpoints on events.


Core Readings


  • Collins, Wilkie., 2008. The Moonstone. Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics.

  • Heller, Zoe., 2009. Notes on a Scandal. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

  • Healey, Emma., 2015. Elizabeth is Missing. London: Harper Collins.

  • Conrad, Joseph., 2008. Heart of Darkness. Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics.

  • Palahniuk, Chuck., 2006. Fight Club. London: Vintage.


  • Mullan, John, 2008. How Novels Work. Oxford: OUP.

  • Booth, Wayne C, 1995. The Rhetoric of Fiction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

  • Olson, Greta, 2003. Reconsidering Unreliability: Fallible and Untrustworthy Narrators.

  • Narrative. 11(1), p. 93.

  • Rabinowitz, Peter J., 1977. Truth in Fiction: A Re-examination of Audiences. Critical

  • Inquiry. 4(1), p. 121.

Class Handouts

Reviews of the novels and articles about them will be produced as handouts.


10 credit courses have one assessment. Normally, the assessment is a 2000 word essay, worth 100% of the total mark, submitted by week 12. To pass, students must achieve a minimum of 40%. There are a small number of exceptions to this model which are identified in the Studying for Credit Guide.

Studying for Credit

If you choose to study for credit you will need to allocate significant time outwith classes for coursework and assessment preparation. Credit points gained from this course can count towards the Certificate of Higher Education.


If you have questions regarding the course or enrolment, please contact COL Reception at Paterson's Land by email or by phone 0131 650 4400.

Student support

If you have a disability, learning difficulty or health condition which may affect your studies, please let us know by ticking the 'specific support needs' box on your course application form. This will allow us to make appropriate adjustments in advance and in accordance with your rights under the Equality Act 2010. For more information please visit the Student Support section of our website.