Liars in Literature

Just as suspended NBC (Not Being Candid) anchor Brian Williams should resign or be fired for lying, I’m resigned to and fired up about seeing liars in literature. They’re annoying, but can make for interesting characters. And their fibbing can drive many a plot.

Why do they lie? What are the consequences for them and others? Can lying sometimes be a good thing? I’d be lying if I said this paragraph didn’t contain three questions. 🙂

Fibbers include not only people representing themselves, but also politicians (“Saddam has WMDs!”), corporations (“our dangerous products are safe!”), law enforcement (“that unarmed black man has a gun!”), the media (Brian Williams again), and so on.

One of the most iconic books featuring falsehood-telling people and institutions is George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Indeed, many novels that focus on dystopian societies and dictatorships are all about depicting “The Big Lie” and the citizenry being “sold” a fabricated reality.

Mysteries and detective fiction also rely on lies and misdirection (aka “red herrings”) to create suspense. For instance, the killer “hiding in plain sight” in Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None is certainly not truthful as victims multiply. A.S. Byatt’s more literary mystery Possession contains 19th-century lies and secretiveness that reverberate into the 20th century.

In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, white woman Mayella Ewell lies under oath because she’s scared of her brutal/racist father and can’t publicly admit in 1930s Alabama that she liked black man Tom Robinson. Her false testimony leads to tragedy — with the lie of white superiority creating the climate for what happened.

Lies also send the innocent Edmond Dantes to prison in Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo — and having been framed makes Edmond’s subsequent vengeance as visceral as any in literature.

Of course, lying is practically a prerequisite for married people when they have affairs. Among the countless protagonists in that situation are the title characters in Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, Severine in Emile Zola’s The Beast in Man, Mattie’s husband and father in Anne Lamott’s Blue Shoe, and Dave Raymond in Tom Perrotta’s The Wishbones (Dave is actually engaged, not married, when he cheats in that novel).

Then there are lies told by married characters who want to marry someone else, as is the case with Edward Rochester in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Godfrey Cass in George Eliot’s Silas Marner. Also in Eliot’s novel, Godfrey hides the existence of a daughter, and Silas’ treacherous “friend” William lies in a way that devastates Marner for years.

Some married characters lie by omission about their pasts. For instance, in Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady, the husband of Isabel Archer doesn’t tell her about a relationship he had with someone Isabel knows well (or thought she knew well).

In Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Briony’s accidental and deliberate lies devastate the lives of her older sister Cecilia and the man (Robbie) who Cecilia loves.

Yet another kind of family-related falsehood occurs in M.L. Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans when island residents Isabel and Tom Sherbourne keep a baby who washes up in a boat rather than report the find to authorities. Their claim that “Lucy” is their biological child inevitably gets publicly outed as the lie that it is.

Among the examples of necessary lies is the surgeon in Erich Maria Remarque’s Arch of Triumph using the fake name of Ravic to shield his identity after escaping Nazi Germany for Paris.

In the area of plays, among the most famous liars are Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello and the title character in Moliere’s Tartuffe.

Which liars in literature have you found the most memorable?

Here’s a concluding thought by no means original to me: It’s interesting that Brian Williams seems to be the only prominent person punished for lying about the Iraq War. Not George W. Bush, not Dick Cheney, not Donald Rumsfeld, etc. — all fiction creators extraordinaire with lots of real-life blood on their hands.

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I’m also writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Hillary Clinton, Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in New York City and Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.