A Study of Unreliability

In A GroveUnreliable narrators have always been a fascination of mine. Along with their unreliability, I also proffer the concept of the unreliability of memories or remembering, which can sometimes be a part of the unreliability of the narrator or an idea that stands alone. I once wrote a novella that concerns itself with four characters, each with a different perspective and personal relationship to an event that happened early one morning. The concept of having a view from each one of them and how it differently affects them is a curious predicament I enjoy exploring.

In Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s 1922 story, “In A Grove,” each section is a different police interview by a witness (and in one case, the perpetrator) of a murder. The individuals provide information to what they saw before, after, or during the death of a young samurai in a secluded bamboo grove (for you film buffs, this story was part of the basis for Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film, Rashōmon).

Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927)

The story, although written over 90 years ago, has a whiff of a more contemporary story. An astute reader could read this short story several times and still find new information, facts that they will now doubt, along with trying to pierce through each character’s testimony. The final section is from the point of view of the murdered samurai via a medium. Having a conduit to “speak” for the dead even further complicates the matter.

Each person who tells their point of view is filtering through their memory and agenda. In some cases, the samurai’s sword is there and sometimes it is not. His wife’s abandoned horse is, in some instances, waiting on the main road, where another testimony claims the horse is absent. By the end of the story, many different conclusions can be made to the frustration of the reader. The story sets out to disorient the reader and weave the multiple truths that have been set forward. Even with the dying man’s own words via the medium, the reader can gather that this is a similar feeling to the experience of trying to solve the story that one just read,

“Then someone crept up to me. I tried to see who it was. But darkness had already been gathering round me…”

As I was finishing up Akutagawa’s masterfully weaved story, I thought of one of my favorite American writers, Ambrose Bierce. Predating “In A Grove” was Bierce’s “The Moonlit Road.” The 1907 short story is similar to “In A Grove” in that it deals with the points of view of different people in relation to a murder. However, the two differ for a few reasons: 1. Like many Bierce stories, there is an element of the supernatural or horror and 2. the testimonies are not necessarily for the same exact moment in time as in the Akutagawa story.

Ambrose Bierce (1842-c.1913)

Each section in “The Moonlit Road” is a statement in first person by someone who is likely affected by the murder of Julia Hetman. The story opens with “I am the most unfortunate of men” and the reader soon finds out that these are the words of the murder victim’s son. He returns from college because of the strangulation death of his mother. She is found by her husband who had crept back into the house after telling a lie about going on a business trip so as he may catch his unfaithful wife in the act. The husband claims to have seen someone fleeing just as he returned to the house.

The statements, at times, can be confusing but are meant to be supped in one sitting. Like “In A Grove,” the reader should consume the entire story at once so they can parse what all of the information means: What the inconstancies are utilized for, who is lying or telling the truth. In one statement, a mysterious man named Caspar Grattan is recounting certain tales that take place at some point in the future. His exact identity is never named but a close reader can piece together who he is and the purpose of his tale.

Like “In A Grove,” the final statement of “The Moonlit Road” is delivered by the murder victim via a medium. Should the reader trust such a recollection? Because of the state of the recently departed Julia Hetman, are her words to be taken at face value?

With both stories and many other unreliable narrators, are their memories distorted either by them intentionally or had misrembering turned their points of view unintentionally sideways? The unreliable narrator(s) can give an interesting perspective on a story. It allows the author to reveal as much or as little information that they deem pertinent at a certain point in the story. Also, the question of why they are unreliable is a quizzical one that only adds to the creative weave that the author has constructed.

Both stories are in the public domain and are available for free in various formats for your convenience: In A Grove by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa and The Moonlit Road by Ambrose Bierce.

This is Number 7 on The [International] Reading List.



  1. I’m on the fence about unreliable narrators. Sometimes, I feel like I’m spending time with someone I shouldn’t be listening to — as in, why would I spend time with someone I don’t trust. It’s a weird feeling, and complicated if the story is good and I’m drawn into it. Perhaps saying it’s “unsettling” is what it feels like, and I guess that’s what an author is getting at. If the unreliable narrator, the writing, the story, etc. are superb, it’s totally worthy it, which is why I’m on the fence about it all.

  2. I could make the argument that almost all first person narrators are inherently unreliable (but then I would babble on and on like a dissertation). I’ve never heard the opinion of someone being on the fence about them but I’m intrigued by your feeling of feeling unsettled while reading them. When done well, an unreliable narrator is a curious creature to me. There are so many reasons to use one and I think POV is a huge point for some writers. These two stories were perfect examples of unreliability used well and for such specific reasons. They both have a sense of “unsettling” that was purposeful by the authors. I think, perhaps, one could be on the fence about it is if an author is using unsuccessful gimmicks that don’t work.

  3. I’ve liked all that I’ve read thus far of Ambrose Bierce’s works, including The Moonlit Road. Vonnegut called his famous “An Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge” the best American short story ever (or something like that). As a fan of Vonnegut, I count that as high praise. I’m fascinated by the mystery surrounding Bierce’s death too and would love to read a biography of him, but there doesn’t seem to be a definitive one out there – Do you know of any?

    I read his short story “The Man and the Snake” as part of my annual short story reading project this year. I’ll share my post on that one if you’re interested: http://bibliophilica.wordpress.com/2013/03/18/he-was-last-heard-from-in-mexico-in-1914/

    I was unaware of Akutagawa until this morning. I’ll have to look into him. I have finally in the past few years begun to read a few Japanese authors – perhaps he should be next…


  4. Unfortunately, I don’t know of a definitive biography of him, which I find strange because, with the exception of his death, his life wasn’t mysterious. He was a well known journalist and author of the time period so I’m sure there are plenty of records and anecdotes about him.

    Thanks for including your link. If you don’t already know, there is a short film from the 1960s of An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge that was shown on the Twilight Zone. I have more info on that and Bierce from an older post: https://acidfreepulp.com/2012/01/12/the-parenticide-club-by-ambrose-bierce/

    I have to admit that my knowledge of Akutagawa and Japanese literature, in general, is embarrassingly minimal but I suggest checking out Feedbooks, which has 2 of his stories for free (public domain).
    Also, one of my favorite blogs, (Multo) Ghost, deals with folklore and a lot of the time she has a bunch of info on Japanese lit as well as other Far East stories.

    Hope this was helpful.

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