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David Gallop CAN FICTION BE STRANGER THAN TRUTH? AN ARISTOTELIAN ANSWER Truth is proverbially stranger than fiction. But the truth in this saying is itself a strange one. For we should expect the opposite. Our imaginations, unfettered by the constraints of fact, may dream up possible worlds that are stranger than our actual world. The actual world is mundane almost by definition, whereas in fiction we may suit our fancy; and our fancy may wander into keys remote from the C major of ordinary life. So the proverb remains a paradox. In this article I shall challenge the idea that fiction can be stranger than truth. The "Aristotelian" answer to my title question will therefore be a negative one. There are, to be sure, fictional worlds for which an affirmative answer will seem obviously true. The worlds of Homer, the brothers Grimm, Lewis Carroll, Kurt Vonnegut, or Stanislaw Lem, to name only a few, are stranger than our own world in various ways, and may illuminate it by their very strangeness. Nevertheless, there remains a level on which fiction should not be stranger than truth, but owes conformity to the factual discourse it imitates. I wish to explore this conformity, to suggest an underlying rationale for it, and in doing so, to defend one sort of answer to some literary questions. Let us start from one ofthe most famous dicta in the Poetics.1 Tragedy, according to Aristotle, is "a representation of an action which is complete , whole and ofa certain magnitude. ... By 'whole' I mean possessing a beginning, middle and end" (1450b24—27). Much the same is said of epic: its plot structures "should concern an action which is unitary and complete (with beginning, middle, and end), so that, as with a living creature, the single and entire structure may yield the pleasure which belongs to it" (1459al9-21). Philosophy and Literature, © 1991, 15: 1-18 2 Philosophy and Literature With these texts in mind, let us ask the following questions: Is it acceptable for a work of fiction to contain more than one ending? If so, under what conditions? If not, why not? These questions have bothered me since I first read a novel celebrated for its multiple endings, The French Lieutenant's Woman, by the English writerJohn Fowles.2 The last third of that novel struck me as strangely disappointing, and I have recendy been trying to unearth the reasons for my discontent. If I have found them, I hope they will throw light upon the nature of fiction more generally, and so breathe fresh life into some old ideas that have deep Aristotelian roots. In the age of the postmodernist novel these ideas may seem merely naive, and my efforts to refurbish them may, for some, betray an antediluvian innocence of narrative theory. I have no interest in setting back the clock ofcriticism. But the mere fact that a plain novel-reader of the late twentieth century should find Aristotle's ideas about fiction confirmed in his own experience of it may illustrate their extraordinary resilience. At the very least I hope they will emerge as something more than quaint historical curiosities. The French Lieutenant's Woman is set in the mid-Victorian England of 1867, mainly in Lyme Regis and London. The narrative contains two curious points ofbifurcation. In chapters 43^44, Fowles brings the story of his hero, Charles Smithson, to "a thoroughly traditional ending" (p. 339). Charles marries Ernestina Freeman, the rich but rather ordinary young woman to whom he has been betrothed, while the extraordinary Sarah Woodruff, the mysterious object of his passion, is abandoned: "He thought of [Sarah] not, of course, as an alternative to Ernestina; nor as someone he might, had he chosen, have married instead. That would never have been possible" (p. 333). And Sarah "never troubled Charles again in person, however long she may have lingered in his memory" (p. 337). His marriage to Ernestina and its sequel are briefly sketched, and the tale is wound up. But then, chapter 45 opens by explaining that "although all I have described in the last two chapters happened, it did not happen in quite the way you may have been...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 1-18
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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