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The Paradox of Fiction

Updated on August 15, 2013

Anna Karenina

The climatic scene in Tolstoy's work, "Anna Karenina," is the classical example given to illustrate the, "Paradox of Fiction." Why is it that we feel deep melancholy, perhaps even shed a tear, when Anna throws herself under a train at the end of the book. Surely we know that she does not exist and the ravaging of her body by a locomotive was derived from the mind of Tolstoy and yet we are still strongly affected by this narration.

You may, of course, apply this same dilemma to any novel, movie, or television show you like. The three basic premises that constitute the paradox of fiction remain the same.

1. Most people have emotional responses to people and events which they know to be fictitious.

2. Logically, In order to be emotionally provoked we must believe in the real suffering of fictitious characters.

3. By the very definition of fiction, we do not take these events or characters to be real.

It would seem that these three propositions, at least ostensively, are all sound when taken individually and yet when we look at them collectively we quickly see that all three propositions cannot simultaneously be true. If we take propositions 1 and 2 as true it would seem we must jettison propositions 3. If we accept 1 and 3 then then proposition 2 becomes contradictory. And if we assent to propositions 2 and 3 then we must deny proposition 1.

Proposed Solutions

All three propositions that constitute the paradox are vulnerable to criticism.

For example the invalidation of proposition one (Most people feel emotions in response to fiction) has been challenged in various nuanced forms all falling under the name Simulation Theories. These theories contend that what we experience during fictional encounters is not genuine emotion but rather a close emotional simulacrum. For example horror movies may frighten us but viewing one does not cause the kind of post-traumatic stress that would accompany any real such encounter. So these theories call the genuine validity of our emotional responses to fiction into question.

And yet these emotional responses do feel very real in a phenomenological sense. And so another attempt to resolve this paradox involves Thought Theory. These call into question premise 2 (We need true to life events to evoke our emotional repertoire.) Is the actual existence of suffering a necessity for the evocation of empathy? After all even though our specific case of Anna Karenina is fictional there have been people who have undergone tremendous suffering and ended their lives in the same way. Is this simulation of reality enough to remind us of the potential of such a reality and thus spur us toward the need for true emotional release?

Plato, in his, "Poetics" attacked the third proposition (We do not take these events to be real.) He assumed that people had a strong willingness and propensity toward suspending belief during the exhibition of theatre in antiquarian Athens. He felt that people had a need to hone emotional expression and to practice it that was so great that they willingly engaged with tragic plays in a very real way. He termed this need and the emotional rehearsal that fulfilled it Catharsis.

This term has come to be misused slightly in many contexts. It was generally supposed that what he originally meant by Catharsis when he first coined the term was an emotional purging. It is still used in this sense among mental health and medical professionals. More recently re-examinations of the, "Poetics," seem to suggest he meant the word to rather mean an emotion rehearsal, a way by which to learn to truly grieve by fictitious proxy in preparation for real personal tragedy.

These theories involving the suspension of belief are termed realist theories and they have been proposed by others in slightly varying forms. Aesthetic Philosophers viewed this willingness to engage with a full range of emotion as an imperative activity for humans. Another interpretation asserts that while we are engaged with the fiction fully, it ceases to be fiction at times and it is during these times that we find ourselves immersed in a story and prey to the temporary reality with which it presents us.

Summing Up

We often feel somewhat silly at our emotional responses to fiction, because they do defy a strict sense of logic. But our alacrity toward engagement with emotive fiction seems to demonstrate a very human need to leave what can sometimes be a mundane daily existence and revel in the complete emotional spectrum with which we are engendered. Strong emotional responses after all do release endorphins and even if we feel sadness in the immediate response to fictional tragedy the attempt at regaining emotional equilibrium that occurs shortly afterwards can often be accompanied by a mild sense of euphoria. At the very least we discover in retrospect a tangible emotional release and also a significant cognitive relief.


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    • adamschwartz profile image

      adamschwartz 4 years ago from Syracuse NY, USA

      Thanks, I actually wrote my masters dissertation on this topic. So this is A very terse truncated bit of thought on the topic. Perhaps ill go deeper into my research regarding cognitive and affective phenomenology during our engagement with fiction. In a future hub.

    • Marion Reads profile image

      Marion Reads 4 years ago from Canada

      I like your take on this.