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While an unreliable narrator is someone who is deceiving the reader (or possibly himself), there are plenty of stories where the narrator is truthfully relaying what happened, but does not fully understand the implications, which the reader does understand.

Is there a term for this kind of narrator or story?

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@lew answered this when addressing this question: Is this an example of an unreliable narrator?

From this Wikipedia article

The Naïf: a narrator whose perception is immature or limited through their point of view. Examples of naïves include Huckleberry Finn, Holden Caulfield and Forrest Gump.

  • But the naif (or nieve) narrator does not necessarily imply the ironic part of the question. Nor is it strictly a characteristic of the narration itself the way an unreliable narration is. It is a characteristic of the character and is, strictly speaking, incidental to their role as narrator. – user16226 Apr 14 '17 at 22:56
  • That question actually prompted this question. – Graham Powell Apr 14 '17 at 23:08
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The term 'unreliable narrator' refers to any narrator that, for whatever reason, presents the narrated events in a misleading way.

It does not matter whether the true nature of the events is mis-presented because the narrator actively wishes to hide or distort something, or because the narrator unwittingly misunderstands the events. Moreover, every time a narrator gives their impression of the events, they're actively leading the reader in how they see it. One can argue that most narrators are unreliable, only some are far more than others, and some do it purposefully.

Narrator 1: Julie

Jack put his hand on Sue's shoulder, in a protective way.

"I'll take you home," he said.

She nodded and Norah and I held back giggles. They were so going to be dating after tonight!

Narrator 2: Jack

I put my hand on Sue's shoulder, doing my best to show how strong and capable of protecting her I was even though my knees were shaking.

"I'll take you home," I said, hoping she didn't notice the nervousness in my voice.

She nodded, obviously too nervous to speak, waiting for me to ask her to be my girlfriend. Near the car, Norah and Julie were giggling like retards. The moment Sue said yes to being my girlfriend, I was going to get her the hell away from that dumb crowd.

Narrator 3: Sue

Jack put his hand on my shoulder, heavy and clammy.

"I'll take you home," he said.

I nodded as I didn't know what to say. I'd spent one year sighing after him and now... he seemed so lame and unimpressive! Near the car, Norah and Julie were giggling, having no idea I wasn't interested in Jack anymore! Please, God! Let him not ask me to be his girlfriend.

Narrator 4: Tony

Jack grabbed Sue's shoulder like he was afraid she'd run away.

"I'll take you home," he said.

She nodded, too afraid to refuse him. Near the car, Norah and Julie were giggling as if they had no idea what Jack was really after. But I knew.


In the quick example above, all four narrators are unreliable because they're letting on their personal interpretations, which are tinged with their fears and desires. This is why most first person narrators are actually unreliable, even when they're honestly trying to convey the truth... as they see it.

Naturally, if the narrator is a child or is mentally impaired for a reason (eg. alcohol), then the events narrated cannot be taken at face value.

  • I think an example of the kind of narrator the OP is talking about is the 7-years-old MC of Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane: "I was not sure what I was looking at. My father had Ursula Monkton pressed up against the side of the big fireplace in the far wall. He had his back to me. She did too, her hands pressed against the huge high mantelpiece. He was hugging her from behind. Her midi skirt was hiked up around her waist." The reader understands what's going on, but the OP doesn't have the knowledge to understand. That's if I understand the question correctly. – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Jan 20 at 15:39
  • @Galastel: yeah, I tried to think of something like that for my example too. Having a kid for a narrator offers great possibilites, but my brain was too dead to bring up a useful example. – SC for reinstatement of Monica Jan 20 at 15:44
  • "In the quick example above, all three narrators are unreliable..." Except you have 4 narrator examples. – Cyn says make Monica whole Jan 20 at 19:00
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    @Cyn: thanks for pointing it out. I've fully reviewed the answer and finished a sentence I'd left dangling too. Next time, I'm writing the answer after I have a nap, not before. :P – SC for reinstatement of Monica Jan 20 at 22:07
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I think the closes you are going to come is "narrative irony" or "dramatic irony", but that does not name narrator specifically. I can't think of any case of transmuting this into "Ironic narrator". Actually, that would not work because it would mean a narrator who is being ironic on purpose, whereas what you are describing is a work that has dramatic irony because the audience knows more than the narrator. As such, it is not a characteristic of the narrator per se, but of how the narrator is being used in the telling of the story. The narrator qua narrator is being perfectly straightforward and honest. The novelist is being ironic in choosing a narrator who is not as informed as the audience.

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