Unreliable narration in a possible worlds model for fiction

I define fiction by three rules concerning the sentences of a text (or propositions represented by these sentences):
1. Some sentence or proposition is false at the world of the text (iw, for ‘indexed world).
2. All sentences or propositions are true for a referenced world (fw, for ‘fictional world’)
3. For some sentence in the fiction, conditional markers indicating otherworldly reference are omitted.
Both examiners raised a question in relation to the second stipulation above as to sentences in a fictional text not true for the referenced world, in particular in the case of unreliable narration. I’d considered this case, but not written it up, as the word limit had already been exceeded to a small degree. At this late stage, though (final edit), I’m incorporating the following treatment of unreliable narration, an apparent contravention of the logic of fiction, in addressing examiners’ concerns:

Another potential problem that might be raised with the proposed model is in the case of sentences of fiction that are apparently false for a fictional world referenced in a text. This is a contradiction in terms, on the face of it. The definition for fiction given above stipulates specifically that all claims made in a fictional text are true for the referenced possible world (for every sentence p is true at iw for fw). This stipulation is as rigid as that which requires that some sentence in the set or proposition represented by this set of claims is false at the centred world of the text. This set of rules governing the logic of fiction does not preclude some sentences holding true for iw as well as fw, or indeed for all worlds (sentences that are necessarily true). But it does, or ought to, mandate that no sentence or proposition is false for fw.

The problem of falsehoods concerning a fictional world incorporated into a text manifest most obviously in cases of unreliable narration. In Brian Aldiss’s The Malacia Tapestry, for example, the narrator is callow, self-centred, apolitical and naïve: the reader sees Perian’s world through his eyes, and gradually comes to appreciate the limitations of and errors in his depiction. The narrator reports a sometimes erroneous interpretation of a fictional world, such that for a subset of sentences in the text it is the case that p is false at iw for fw.

In rhetorical terms, unreliable narration is an obscuring device. The difficulty, in particular when a text is couched in first person narrative, is in isolating what should or should not be taken at face value from the narrator, which statements are false. There is a kind of truth in the narrator’s unreliability: the world is given from the vantage of one ill-equipped in some senses to give a good account of it. In The Malacia Tapestry , this is a strategic choice. Misinterpretation of events provides for a delayed revelation of grim truth of the vicissitudes of power, But along the way, half-truths, misinterpretations and errors are woven into the text.

A first step in answering the anomaly of sentences untrue for a fictional world is to say that the unreliable narrator gives an account of a doxastic world, rather than a fictional world per se. Aldiss’s Perian is wrong about the world he inhabits, but faithfully articulates what he believes to be the case. So it can be said that for all sentences, or propositions, p is true at iw for bw, where ‘bw’ is the belief world of the narrator.

This step has broader utility in consideration of fictions of various kinds, and for various sorts of sentences in fictional texts. Representations of worlds for which there are multiple narrators, or, as in the case of a number of novels by Philip K. Dick, in which a disembodied narratorial voice reports the thoughts and perceptions of various characters, can be thought of in the same way. In these cases rather than a single, controlling narrator giving a filtered representation p is true at iw for BW, where BW is the set of belief worlds {bw, bw’ … bwn} represented in the text.

As elsewhere Ryan’s work on narrative universes, together with that of other theorists, informs this treatment of possible worlds in fiction. Ryan’s intensional model, earlier considered, allows for a set of worlds attendant on a centred, fictional worlds – inhabitants’ belief worlds, ideal worlds, dystopic worlds imagined counterfactuals considered by individuals, fantasy worlds, and so forth. Another like case – fiction in fiction – will be considered at length in the context of fiction’s rhetorical function.[1] Fictions referenced in fictions refer to worlds possible at the indexed fictional world at which they are located as texts.

The point of difference between the model I advance and that of the narrative universe centred on a fictional world is that such a model is intensional, taking possible worlds, doxastic and axiological worlds, as contained within a bounded universe centred on a privileged actual world. In contrast, in an extensional model, and one that takes world-centring as an arbitrary or parochial feature, such attendant worlds may have a point of reference to a world existent in its own right. Any world that is part of such a system of worlds can be evaluated on its own merits as a possible world of alethic space or concrete existence in the physical cosmos. A fictional text at a fictional world (fw) may refer to a third world (fw’). A doxastic world (bw), or a counterfactual world conceived by a narrator or a character at fw, may reference some possible world (pw) provided it does not defy logic. That intensional worlds have extension cannot be ruled out in any case, given a set of existent possible worlds and only indexical rather than ontological privilege. any of which may be centred.

The resolution of the problem of untruths in unreliable narration is grounded in recognition of the same relation from cognitions, beliefs, and utterances to possible worlds as from sentences in fiction or fictional texts to fictional worlds. Sentences and texts are elements of the world they are indexed to, while referring on to possible worlds. The thoughts, expressions, stream of consciousness of a narrator who inhabits a fictional world are elements of (or events at) the fictional world. Even where the propositions represented in the depiction of an unreliable narrator are false for the fictional world, the report itself is a ‘fact’ at that world. According to an extensional model, in a given instance, the extension for the content of an assertion p may be located at some other world. But the extension for the assertion itself, ‘p’, is a cognitive or a semiotic element of the fictional world referenced in the content of a sentence in a text. Although p is false at iw for fw, it can be said that ‘p’ is true at iw for fw.

All sorts of other bits of content in fictional texts operate in the same way: for example, dialogue, stream of consciousness, written texts. Take as an example, in Orwell’s 1984, the sentence ‘WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, and IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.What is proposed here is not that there is a world for which these slogans hold true, but that there is a world at which these slogans are slogans.

This mechanism for interpreting content ostensibly at odds with the rule that all p in Φ must be true at iw for fw allows for the representation of different interpretations of worlds, and also differing world-structures, or, from Ryan, different kinds of universes. The fictional worlds model I advance really assumes a base-level concrete world, with a set of dependent doxastic worlds reflecting the beliefs of inhabitants – characters, a narrator – indexed to a possible world. If the belief world of a character or a narrator in truth references some possible world other than the indexed world, this is the measure of their misunderstanding of the conditions that pertain at their own. This assumption, though, of a universe constituted of objective reality and subjective vantages of it could be deemed prohibitive of a constructivist outlook on worlds, or the view that there is no concrete set of facts about a world that inhabitants might either correctly or incorrectly perceive, but only multiple interpreted realities.

One move towards a constructivist or subjectivist ontology is to mandate both fictional world and dependent doxastic worlds: it does seem reasonable to conclude that a world inhabited by sentients is necessarily structured this way. Another step in this direction is to say that all reports on the fictional world per se ought to be mediated by a doxastic world, or understood as mediated in this way: the complete set of sentences in a text reflects the way some character believes the world to be, not how the world is as such. In this way, an epistemological aspect, with attendant constructive power and limitations, is represented in a ubiquitous relation at that world: nothing is reported except as it is perceived.

A more difficult case than the merely unreliable narrator might be speculated upon (but perhaps not proven). This is the case of a malign narrator, who lies intensively about a fictional world as a kind of trick. In The Malacia Tapestry the reader learns of Perian’s errors where the narrator reports that he is corrected or chastised by other characters, who begin to appear wiser than he. Ultimately, the reader is in the capable hands of an author deploying unreliable narration for particular result, selecting a character as a filter for the representation of a world who is not, in some ways, the ideal agent for the task. Unreliable narration along these lines may reflect lack of understanding, or a desire to misrepresent a state of affairs: a kind of devious reportage. It comes with signals when the narrator is contradicted that belie the true state of affairs for the world described. But take instead a fictional text that incorporates untruths never signaled, not from a narrator who inhabits the world themselves as a character but from one who is a dislocated, omnipotent voice. In the case that the deviation that results in the representation of one world rather than another is undetectable the reader, and perhaps the narrator, even the author, of the text is at sea. In one sense the fictional world referenced is the fictional world to hand, as described. The ‘deceit’ may mean that two distinct worlds are invoked – one the apparent fictional world referenced, the other the world intended as the ‘true’ point of reference. But at a certain point the ‘trick’ might be considered moot, and the intended fictional world a vacuous point of reference: there is a text, which references a world, and whatever other worlds the text might have picked out are not referenced, at least as things have turned out.

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