In a recent discussion in on online course about How to Read a Novel, someone suggested that Winston Smith in Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four is an unreliable narrator. L. Kip Wheeler's glossary of "Literary Terms and Defnitions" defines unreliable narrator as

An imaginary storyteller or character who describes what he witnesses with surface accuracy, but misinterpets those events because of faulty perception, personal bias, or limited understanding. Often the writer or poet creating such an unreliable narrator leaves clues so that readers will perceive the unreliablity and question the interpretations offered. Examples of unreliable narrators arguably include "Geoffrey the pilgrim" in the Canterbury Tales , the character of Forest Gump in the movie of the same name, and possibly Wilson in "The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber."

(Wikipedia has an article about the concept of unreliable narrator, with a list of examples.)

As a narrator, Winston Smith does not appear to be intent on hiding certain facts from the reader, so in what way can he be considered as an unreliable narrator? Or is he reliable after all?

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    "faulty perception, personal bias, or limited understanding" - would limited knowledge of the world around him qualify for this? Everything outside of Winston's immediate surroundings seems pretty uncertain, thanks to the Ministry of (obscuring the) Truth. Do Eurasia and Eastasia even exist? Is the war real, or just a way to stir patriotic feeling and loyalty to the state? How much autonomy do the different parts of Oceania have?
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Jul 26, 2018 at 13:39
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    @Randal'Thor Exactly. How broad or narrow is the definition of "unreliable narrator"? Does it also cover limited knowledge due to factors that are entirely outside of the character's control and that would have the same effect on everyone who isn't a member of the Inner Party?
    – Tsundoku
    Commented Jul 26, 2018 at 13:44

1 Answer 1


Winston is the only character whose point of view we have access to in the novel, a necessary precursor for the potential of an unreliable narrator. After all, without an external perspective, we can never be sure what he's not telling us, nor whether the context in which he presents the information is accurate.

Take, for example, the way he blames himself for his mother's fate. He tells Julia:

Do you know, that until this moment I believed I had murdered my mother?

Until this point, his mother has only appeared in hazy recollections and in bizarre dreams in which she (and his sister) are trapped in a pit while he is at the top.

Later in the story, it is implied that she was taken by the party because she refused to conform to their ideals. However, the lack of detail makes it difficult to be certain. It seems plausible that Winston may be hiding something, perhaps downplaying or omitting his own role in the eventual fate of his family.

You can apply a similar thought process to other characters. Syme, for example, seems to exhibit a level of intelligence that Winston enjoys but which he clearly perceives as a potential threat to the party. Syme later disappears, and we are given no further detail. Has Syme been taken by the party apparatus, or has Winston reported him? Did he, in fact, even exist, or is he an invention of Winston's terrified mind? Without external validation, we cannot be certain.

Likewise, we are asked to take at face value Winston's feeling that he is rare, perhaps even unique, in his free thinking. He regularly judges those around him as brainwashed partisans, unthinking victims of the party's propaganda. It never seems to occur to him that just as he is terrified of revealing his opinions and secrets, everyone else might be in the same position.

One could make a similar argument, perhaps, about any novel which is narrated by a single character and which contains any loose ends. Winston, however, has potential motivations to be unreliable. His conditioning under the totalitarian state will have primed him to keep secrets. The stress of his existence in such an awful world may have driven him mad.

The biggest reason we might suspect Winston's reliability, though, is made clear at the conclusion of the novel. - spoiler ...

Winston is brainwashed by the party and learns to love Big Brother

... meaning we can no longer be certain of the accuracy of anything he has said, in the entire novel.


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