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Fictional Truths

Tony Milligan tells a story about the idea of implied truths in fiction.

“I knew it wouldn’t work.”

“Teething troubles my friend. A few adjustments here and there, and all shall be well.”

“Where are we anyway?”

Little Dorrit.

“Let me get this straight. Instead of travelling back into the heady atmosphere of 19th century England, your contraption…”

“…my time machine, if you don’t mind.”

“…your contraption and/or time machine and/or heap of junk, has landed us in the middle of a Dickens novel?”

“I take exception to your choice of words, but you are in essence correct.”

“How did that happen?”

Mismatch looks down uneasily and mumbles some unconvincing words about time lines and the unpredictability of complex transit systems. Aware that his words are missing their mark, he lapses into silence. The routine is familiar. You know Mismatch of old. This time things will be different; this time you won’t soothe his injured pride. He has landed you in the proverbial soup. But you will be steadfast and resolute.

You: “Never mind. At least it looks like London.”

Mismatch: “Yes, very graphic isn’t it?”

“And you are dressed for the occasion.”

“Elegance is never out of place.”

“I say, over there, isn’t that whatsisname?” you exclaim.

“Arthur Clennam... yes, I believe it is. He’ll probably be off to meet Little Dorrit on Southwark Bridge.”

“Now I remember. In the novel she tells him not to give her father any more money; apparently she can’t bear for Clennam to think of him as a beggar. She’s in love with Clennam but he has no idea. Sad really.”

“Exactly. But it does end well...”

“So, let me get this straight. In this world, everything that Dickens happens to say in the novel holds true. If Dickens claims that p is the case in Little Dorrit, then all other things being equal – and given that he doesn’t, for example, contradict himself – then p really is true in this world.”

“Just so. But only because he writes in the third person.”

“What?” you ask in surprise.

Mismatch: “Well, suppose he happened to write like Iris Murdoch, using a first person narrator. Why should we trust anything he said? His narrator might be deluded, or no better informed than the rest of us. Just be thankful that we ended up here. In The Black Prince, Murdoch adds postscripts saying that the narrator has been telling a goodly number of porkies [lies]. It’s all very messy and uncertain, and bad for the digestion. At least with Little Dorrit we are in a world with determinate truths. The ground is solid beneath our feet, because whatever Dickens says about this world is true about it.”

You: “But we are here, and Dickens doesn’t mention us.”

Mismatch tips his hat to a passing stranger. She acknowledges the gesture with a restrained smile. Mismatch replies, “Just think of yourself as a non-participating viewer. Mind you, best not to be too conspicuous. Besides, you’ll find lots of things are true in Little Dorrit world that Dickens doesn’t mention.”

“Like what?”

“Well, truths about this world will include truths about that brickwork over there, and about the number of cobbles in this street, and the number of dead fish in the Thames today.”

“I’m not a good traveller. Let’s stick to the bricks and cobbles.”

“My point is that Dickens has conjured up a rich world – a much fuller world than he has explicitly described.”

“How does that work?”

“As well as the truths he explicitly states, there will also be various truths which are logically and pragmatically implied by what he writes.”

“Come again?”

“We know, for instance, that Arthur Clennan has a vocabulary of more than five words. Dickens doesn’t tell us this, and we don’t need him to do so. We can work it out on the basis of what he writes: we can add up the words he uses. Furthermore, some truths are conversationally or pragmatically implied by what he writes. There are obvious things, such as each character has only one head and the normal number of fingers on each hand. Where the assumption of normality is not the case, it is customary for authors to make it known. Normality is a default state of affairs that is implied until it is explicitly cancelled.”

“That all sounds a bit Gricean to me,” you say smugly.

“A bit what?”

“Never mind. Do carry on.”

“Some less obvious things are also pragmatically implied. For example, we are told about Arthur Clennan’s unhappy childhood; not much, but just enough. We know that he returns from working abroad for the family business, and that he is a good and kind but rather disappointed man. When his rival for the love of a young woman…”

“…Henry Gowan…”

“…just so, Henry Gowan. When Gowan confides in Arthur that he, Gowan, is also ‘a disappointed man’, this admission highlights his own shallowness. Arthur is the one with real cause for complaint. Dickens implies, but he doesn’t state, that the sadness which darkened Arthur’s childhood has never left him. During all those years the author tells us little or nothing about, years passed over in relative silence, the sadness was still there. Arthur’s achievement is to have borne the sorrow without any burning resentment. These truths are never set out in so many words, but they are implied by what is written.”

“I suppose works like Bleak House, Hard Times, and Little Dorrit, and maybe one or two others, also put the author’s social conscience on show. As you would say, they pragmatically imply various claims about early-Victorian England.”

“I think we can say as much. Dickens’ explicit statements carry intra-textual and extra-textual pragmatic implications... they imply that some things are true in Little Dorrit, and they also imply that various things are true in the Dickensian world beyond the text.”

“…always assuming that there is a world beyond the text.”

“Quite. But let’s not play that particular game.”

“What about the brickwork and the cobbles?” you ask. “Nothing he says in any obvious way implies that this street has a definite number of cobbles, or that the brickwork over there should be just that shade.”

“Nice isn’t it? Victorian craftsmanship.”

“What, if anything, determines the truth about these issues?”

“It’s complicated...”


“You may not like my answer.”

“I think I can bear the disappointment.”

“Well, are we to believe that it is true in Little Dorrit that London is to the south of Glasgow, even though their relative locations are never explicitly mentioned?”

“I suppose so.”

“Yet Dickens doesn’t mention it. In fact, it is pragmatically implied that everything in the world is as it actually is, or rather is as it was at the time when the novel was written and set, except for the additions and subtractions necessary to make room for the fictional characters and the plot. Some Real World facts are cancelled, but not very many. That’s why the number of cobbles in this street and the shade of bricks over in that wall are determinate. There are just the same number of cobbles here as there were in the real London street where the present scene is set.”

“And what if the street or the wall is imaginary? What if it has no real correlate?”

“In that case, I suppose it will have a statistically normal number of cobbles, and a normal colour for bricks in a London wall of that size, date and composition.”

“Let me get this right. Everything here is as London was, with a bit added, and perhaps a bit taken away: what was true of London at the time Dickens wrote is true in Little Dorrit, and what was true of elsewhere at that same time is true of elsewhere in Little Dorrit.”

“Indeed,” Mismatch concurs.

“…so if we were to leave London, we wouldn’t find this world suddenly ending at the edge of what Dickens describes, because the default implication is that everything that was true then is true here, even if Dickens doesn’t mention it?”

“We needn’t leave London. We could go to Battersea,” Mismatch responds eagerly.

You look at Mismatch and wonder about his guilty fondness for Battersea. Such a strange man, such a strange request.

“Maybe later,” you reply. “What I want to know is this: How can Dickens have pragmatically implied things he didn’t believe?”

“He doesn’t… I mean he didn’t… he doesn’t, and/or didn’t.”

“But he has to,” you continue. “Suppose we were to look up at the night sky later. Would it be the way that early Victorians thought it was, or would it be the way that it actually is?”

“I’m not quite sure. I’d say the latter.”

“In that case Dickens pragmatically implies things about some planets he doesn’t even know exist,” you say with a smile.

“That’s a bit odd,” Mismatch responds, bemused.

“Isn’t it? But if we say that he pragmatically implies that the world is just as the early Victorians thought it was, or the way that he thought it was, or something of the same sort, we end up making claims that aren’t going to apply to other works of literature. Not everybody thought like Dickens.”

“That’s hardly a problem,” Mismatch replies. “Perhaps all novels imply that the world is just as their authors assume it is at the time when each different novel is written.”

“Yes, but Little Dorrit isn’t even meant to be contemporaneous with its time of writing. The Marshallsea prison for debtors had already been closed at the time Dickens wrote, but that’s where a good deal of the action happens.”

Mismatch fidgets and answers, “In that case, I’d say that Dickens explicit statements in the novel imply that everything in the world is as it was when the story is set.”

“Isn’t that rather unlikely, given the proximity of the two dates? Won’t he be mixing and matching bits of his contemporary London with bits of an earlier London?”

“Perhaps… I’m not sure.” Mismatch is visibly uncomfortable.

“In which case,” you add, “what is true about London in Little Dorrit might well be indeterminate in some cases. For example, we might not be in any position to say whether some buildings that had recently been knocked down when Dickens wrote, had in fact been knocked down in Little Dorrit.”

“...maybe,” Mismatch replies reluctantly.

“In which case, even though Dickens gives us the reassurance of third person narration, and even though it is a determinate sort of novel, with a narrative set in a familiar world rather than on a distant planet or in the future, Little Dorrit world will still be a world with significant truth-value gaps, as I’m sure you’d call them… I wonder what they’d look like.”

You scan the nearby buildings. A pointless exercise, as the indeterminacy of reality is unlikely to be signposted. When you turn around you see Mismatch striding off confidently in the direction of an apple seller. They are out of earshot, but you can still see that she has a gentle manner and a pleasing smile. Mismatch points back towards you and then towards the wall, and holds up all five fingers on one hand and two fingers on the other. Is he trying to haggle for lunch? Maybe he’s asking about the number of planets in this world? Or is the truth about what he’s doing just as indeterminate as the existence of those London buildings that Dickens doesn’t mention?

Dutifully the grocer fumbles and tries to hand over a number of apples. Mismatch shakes his head and refuses. Confusion gradually dawns over the apple seller’s face, and she resorts to the assistance of a nearby workman. He is accompanied by a slightly older and considerably larger woman, with rolled-up sleeves and a commanding presence. There seems to be some confusion about Mismatch’s request and possibly his intentions. He protests indignantly, removes his hat, scratches and then shrugs his shoulders. The woman speaks quickly then waves him away. Now the workman is shaking his head and remonstrating with her. With his index finger he point several times into the palm of his opposite hand. Mismatch seizes the moment and edges back carefully from the group. As he turns and begins to run, a scuffle breaks out. “Quick, my friend, back to the time machine!” Mismatch shouts.

Three minutes later, panting and out of breath, you turn into a secluded cul-de-sac. Mismatch is already pulling the dusty tarpaulin off the machine. Rising above the clamour of voices you hear an order to Split up!” It’s time to be elsewhere.

“What now?” you ask desperately.

“Back inside… Inside, and pedal for your life!”

© Dr Tony Milligan, 2007

Tony Milligan completed his PhD on Iris Murdoch in the Philosophy Department of Glasgow University in 2005. He’s now a Teaching Fellow with the Philosophy Department at Aberdeen University.

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