The Scandal of Fiction


Lost In Translation, Focus Features, 2003

by Ed Simon

What do you think Ishmael’s life is like after the last page of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick? What ultimately happens to that survivor of the ill-fated Pequod? Where does he go, what does he do, how does he end his days? The “scandal of fiction” is that although these questions make sense, they are meaningless.

This is because Ishmael doesn’t actually exist. To inquire about what happens to him is to forget that he has no existential status outside of Melville’s book, no matter how real he may seem while engrossed in the novel. The “reality” of fictional characters is strange, yet despite the innate weirdness of fiction, the impulse to try and guess what “happens” independent of the text itself to characters like Ishmael, Jane Eyre, Holden Caulfield or Nick Caraway remains.

Talking about fictional characters as if they were real people is not uncommon. This isn’t limited to literary fiction, these questions are frequently asked of film as well. What does Bob whisper to Charlotte at the conclusion of Lost in Translation? Is Tony Soprano actually dead? And what exactly was in that mysterious briefcase in Pulp Fiction? But in some ways, the unreality of characters in literature not adapted for the screen is particularly striking, since at least actors and actresses animate television and film characters – the existence of literary characters is all the more strange, since we have no faces with which to associate them. As narrative-obsessed creatures we reflectively fill in the gaps in fictional stories we’ve enjoyed.

If we’re being charitable we can think of these questions as their own form of creative writing where those discussing the books or movies know that the characters aren’t real, but are asking what might happen if they were – a type of fan fiction. Yet often these conversations rhetorically operate as if there were objective answers to these questions, as if the words in a fictional novel somehow corresponded to a reality as tangible and measurable as you and me.

Literature has an innate weirdness in its ability to create mimetic worlds that are completely illusory, and to consistently trick us in how we talk about them. The reason that this is a “scandal” is because every human is aware of the strange qualities of fiction, but for the most part, even in the academic study of literature, it goes unremarked as to how odd it is that we construct artful systems of lies so detailed that we can virtually inhabit them. This raises a multiplicity of questions and implications, important for the literary theorist, the philosopher, and the average reader.

Logic, in particular, has often raised issues concerning the truth-value of fictional statements. In a correspondence theory of truth, a statement is true or false based on if it corresponds to objective reality; statements from fictional worlds are problematic. For example, twentieth century British philosopher Bertrand Russell had difficulty in assigning a truth-value to statements such as “The current King of France is bald.” In Russell’s understanding, this sort of statement was an “improper definite description,” that is it posed particular logical problems, for it made a definite statement about something that was not real (for there is no current King of France, and thus that statement, nor its opposite, is either a true or false). Thus, this sentence from a fictional world would seem to violate the law of the excluded middle, one of the three basic premises of all logical thought. Russell’s solution was complicated, but ultimately he would argue that purely fictional statements have no truth-value.

The Renaissance literary critic Sir Philip Sidney had his own views. In his 1579 An Apology for Poetry, he claimed that a poet “never affirms, and therefore never lies.” For Russell, fictional statements might have semantic meaning, but in that they do not correspond to our actual world they are logically meaningless. For Sidney, it is the meaninglessness of fictional claims that paradoxically makes them “true.” The truth of statements of fact is dependent on how accurately they reflect the real world. The statement: “The mass of an electron is 9.10938356(11)×10−31” is true, but the accuracy of this statement is contingent upon how well we make our measurements, and it may be revised. On the other hand the statement “Sherlock Holmes lives at 221 B Baker Street” will paradoxically be “true” forever, because unlike the statement about electrons, which refers to a real class of objects, Mr. Holmes is very much not real, and thus his “truth” can be a matter of absolute definition.

Interestingly enough, the issue of “worlds” and “multiverses” is most vibrant among the geeky environs of fandom. Witness the incredibly detailed and fascinating “Tommy Westphal Hypothesis” which argues that through interlocking plots and crossover episodes that a massive number of television shows (ranging from The X Files to The Wire) actually take place entirely within the mind of one character from the 80’s medical drama St. Elsewhere. Or examine the baroque complexities of armchair narrative theorists plumbing the depths of the Marvel comic book universe on the Internet.

That the question of Ishmael’s fate logically has no answer, yet semantically makes sense, demonstrates this scandal of fiction. And that people will always ask (and answer!) questions such as these even when a definite conclusion is by definition impossible shows us the spooky power that these illusory worlds have over us in the actual one. Analytical philosophers, and to a lesser extent literary critics, have occasionally confronted this strange state of affairs, that our world is filled with a seemingly infinite variety of illusory ones. But the strangeness of fiction is too often glossed over, and what is needed are more interdisciplinary cosmonauts possibly willing to emulate those fans who analyze the intersecting relationships of fictional universes, where statements are neither true or false, or are rather always both true and false.


About the Author:

Ed Simon is a PhD candidate in English at Lehigh University where he studies seventeenth-century literature and religion. He is a frequent contributor to several different sites, and can be followed at or on Twitter @WithEdSimon.