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The Unreliable Narrator (10 credit points)

Course Times & Enrolment

Wednesdays from 25th September 2019 (Code LI269-101) Wednesdays from
25th September 2019 11:10am - 1:00pm • (10 classes)
G38, Paterson's Land, Holyrood Campus • Tutor: Anya Clayworth BA (Hons) PhD
This course is now closed for enrolments

Course Summary

Students on this course will read five novels which utilise the device of an unreliable narrator. We will explore the different kinds of unreliability represented by these narrators, unreliability by obfuscation, by lying or by bias for which they cannot account.

Through mini-lectures and seminar discussion, students will explore narration and the other stylistic characteristics of the novels. In this way, they will develop skills in close reading, critical analysis, using and interpreting secondary reading and writing an academic piece of work. Students will engage with the texts through excerpts for close reading, chosen by the tutor, in a supportive tutorial atmosphere.

Through our reading of Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone we shall explore the use of an unreliable narrator within a detective story context and discuss how the differing motivations of Collins’ multiple narrators affect their ability to give an accurate account of events. Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal will open up the question of unreliability based on personal perspective and evaluate the extent to which the narrator Barbara is able to present events with an objective point of view. Emma Healey’s Elizabeth is Missing will allow us to discuss the limitations of memory as our narrator suffers from some form of memory loss. What is unclear is whether anyone is actually missing or whether the narrator just can’t remember. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a classic of the unreliable narrator as the teller of the tale, Marlowe seeks to explain a complex series of events he can little understand himself. Our final novel is Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club in which it is unclear whether the narrator’s version of events is driven by his insomnia and his mental health and whether the charismatic Tyler is something quite different than he appears. Throughout the course we shall be discussing the unreliable narrator in theoretical context and exploring its relationship to the historical and cultural concerns of the time.

Course Details

Content of Course

Week 1 and Week 2: The first detective novel and why no one seems to be able to tell the truth.

Text: Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone

Week 3 and Week 4: Lonely and loveless: living a vicarious life.

Text: Zoe Heller, Notes on a Scandal

Week 5 and Week 6: Elizabeth is missing (or is she?).

Text: Emma Healey, Elizabeth is Missing

Week 7 and Week 8: The Mystery of Mr Kurtz: a modernist approach to narration? Text: Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

Week 9 and Week 10: ‘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.

Web Sources

To be discussed in class.

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.