Blurring Boundaries: fiction that directly affects readers

By Vikas Datta

Fiction, by its very definition, is an imaginary world, populated by characters that spring from the author’s imagination and are nourished by the interest of readers. We readers simply spend part of our time contemplating the microcosm of a world that sometimes looks like ours, sometimes does not.

Our point of view is something like “…If we could fly out of this window hand in hand, soar above this big city, gently lift the roofs and take a look at the strange things that happen… pass, the strange coincidences, the plannings, the crossed objectives, the wonderful chains of events, working across the generations and leading to the most extreme results, it would make all fiction with its conventions and its planned conclusions the most obsolete and unprofitable .

It was Sherlock Holmes talking to his companion, Dr. John Watson, in “A Case of Identity” (from “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes”). What makes it paradoxical is that Holmes apparently breaks the boundaries of his frame of existence to weigh in on the fact-fiction relationship.

But what happens when characters transgress their fictional status to speak to their reading audience. Next, we have a “Breaking the Fourth Wall” situation. The term actually derives from the visual manifestations of culture, particularly theatre, where an imaginary – and transparent – ​​“wall” separates the audience and the actors, who act as if unseen.

This phenomenon has also extended to other forms, such as films and television shows, but especially to certain forms of literature. In this, the characters seem unaware that they are fictional characters, and that readers are watching and following them closely, to reach out to them, or for that matter, their creator. The purpose is usually comedic, but can also be serious, if there is a mental state or some sort of existential crisis that arises.

Let’s look at some examples of “Breaking the Fourth Wall” in the broader realm of literature.

This is not a very recent phenomenon – Shakespeare’s characters often addressed the public. The protagonists of ancient Greek theater did the same – from the moment the concept took hold, or perhaps even before.

In our time, even comics such as “The Beano” and “Dandy” are good examples of this, and even, the Franco-Belgian comic tradition was full of it, say, “Achille Talon” (“Walter Melon” in English) or “Philemon”, but above all, “Tintin”.

We have the intrepid boy reporter who winks at his readers near the end of “King Ottokar’s Scepter” (1938-39), informing them at the end of “The Secret of the Unicorn” (1942) – much to Captain Haddock’s surprise – that the rest of the adventure will be told in “Red Rackham’s Treasure” (1943), and that the cover of “The Castafiore Emerald” (1962) has Tintin in the foreground, looking directly the reader, with a smile and a finger to his lips.

Much of what Snowy says in the series breaks the fourth wall – or for the benefit of the reader because the other characters can’t hear it. At one point he looks at the player and says “I could have told them that. But no one would have listened to me!”

In “real” literature, the phenomenon predates Shakespeare.

Examples can be seen in Dante’s “The Divine Comedy” (1320), where the poet, as narrator, addresses the reader at least 18 times, throughout his journey through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales” (c.1400) then more recognizably in the second part (1615) of Cervantes’ “Don Quixote”.

The sequel features the man from La Mancha, the author, the book’s fans, and a fake sequel written by another man, which forces our hero to track down the fake sequel’s Don Quixote to get him to relinquish his rights to the sequel. name/concept, so the real author can write a real sequel.

It addresses the issue of understanding a character it is written about, and it is assumed that Spanish readers – and the characters – are familiar with the first part, as well as the fraudulent sequel actually published.

Jane Austen’s “Northanger Abbey” (1818) is a pre-modern example, with the narrator ranting about the importance of reading novels.

“I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolite custom so common to novelists, of degrading by their contemptuous censorship the very representations, to the number of which they add themselves – joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets to such and hardly ever allowing them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she happens to pick up a novel, is sure to turn the insipid pages in disgust. is not patronized by another’s heroine, from whom can she expect protection and consideration?

The 20th century was when the phenomenon took off, and for some reason, classic detective fiction has seen a lot of it.

A striking example is the superlative “closed room mystery”, John Dickson Carr’s “The Hollow Man” (1935) where one chapter consists of Dr. Gideon Fell lecturing on examples of such crimes in fiction. Asked by his interlocutor about the relevance of this in relation to the current situation, he replies: “Because we are in a detective novel, and we are not deceiving the reader by pretending that we are not there.”

Edmund Crispin’s eccentric English language and literature professor at Oxford – and part-time amateur sleuth – Gervase Fen, in his nine appearances in comic mystery novels and two anthologies of short stories, is well aware that he is in a novel, and does not hesitate to say so regularly throughout the series.

In “The Moving Toysshop” (1946), considered the climax of the series, a character asks our hero why he is on the left side, and he retorts that after all (Victor) Gollancz publishes them, in a cry- to the publisher’s political leanings.

Next, the narrator of CS Lewis’s seven volumes “The Chronicles of Narnia” (1950-56), a remarkable fantasy story for children and a religious allegory for more mature readers, uses personal pronouns to refer to readers and to himself. same.

Stephen King in his series “The Dark Tower” (1982-2004) freely uses this device – he himself acts as a character and is able to help other characters.

Also, before the epilogue of the eighth and final book, “The Dark Tower” (2004), he addresses the reader in “Coda”, saying that the story ended perfectly without an epilogue, where Roland finally enters into the tower, and that they should put the book down without reading it.

And then Jasper Fforde’s “Thursday Next” fantasy comic series, so full of meta-levels to the point that the mind sometimes staggers, features a scene in “Something Rotten” (2004), where the feisty and Unstoppable, Thursday, is about to get intimate with her newly uneradicated husband, Landen Park-Laine, but suddenly stops and says she can’t go on because so many people are watching. After he reminds her that she’s not a character in a book, she apologizes and says she’s been spending too much time in the BookWorld (you’ll have to read the show to find out what’s up). acts).

Then there’s the galactic tyrant Emperor Zhark, a creation of a friend of Thursday’s husband, and intended to serve as an example of science fiction’s worst writing, yet a (mostly) reliable ally of our heroine.

Not only does he manage to bump into and exchange a few words with his creator, who plans to dramatically unseat him, but he also manages to renegotiate his fictitious contract to, among other benefits, provide more detailed descriptions of his first appearance. .

There are more examples but at this point readers should think that if they identify so much with a work of fiction, can the characters on some level, somewhere, feel the same about the other side ?

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