The winning essay: Poppy Crumpton, ‘Is Fiction More Important than Fact?’
3rd December 2014
We are delighted to publish the winning entry in our first English Literature A level essay competition. Poppy Crumpton is a student at Headington School. Her essay demonstrated range, confidence and rhetorical sophistication. Congratulations, Poppy.
A fact is ‘a thing that is known or proved to be true’, whereas fiction is ‘literature in the form of prose, especially novels that describe imaginary events and people’- as defined by the Oxford dictionary. With these definitions one could conclude, as Mr.Thomas Gradgrind does in the quote above, that as facts are by definition true, they are right and therefore should have more emphasis put on them than fiction. Despite this, even within this speech Gradgrind says ‘Plant nothing else, and root out everything else.’ Dickens’s ironic use of metaphor within a speech about facts helps to depict the notion that fiction and metaphor show truth, as much as facts and are accordingly, as, if not more important than facts. I will explore ways in which literature depicts truth, and how as a result fiction proves to be more important than fact. Other ways in which I will show that fiction is more important than fact will be to show its value in promoting the imagination and its use of escapism. Literature types that I will focus on are: satire, social commentaries allegories, dystopian novels and etiological proverbs and fables.
Thomas More’s Utopia, a sixteenth century criticism of European society that also includes many satirical asides, is a good example of how fiction can reveal truths about society, which is more important than the facts of the time. More questions the societal values of the time by inventing an island that has opposing values, for example in Utopia children wear jewels, and give them up when they are mature- the opposite of society at the time in which you would earn money and get jewels when you’re ‘mature’. The contradiction shows how infantile the want of extravagant things to aggrandize your status in society is. A further example of More’s controversial statements of society is the significant modernization of a welfare state and ruling officials being promoted on a meritocracy, which contradicts the divine right to rule of the king and the lack of socialism in the country at the time. However, his naming of the place as a “utopia’ may be More claiming the perfect society he envisions is impossible because the etymology of the word come the Greek meaning ‘no-place-land’. Either way he importantly explores the decisions of the government and whether his improvements on society are good or bad cannot be distilled into facts. Additionally, in dystopian fiction works such as the recent bestseller The Hunger Games our society is explored by the exact opposite of the pleasant society that More creates. Collins creates a horrific society where people in the districts supply the capitol with primary goods, and then they give them back very little, as they starve; this directly reflects our own society where the core of North America and Europe exploit the periphery of West Africa and South America for its own gains. In this way More and Collins very similarly show that fiction can help us to question our own belief system, more than fact can- as countless facts have been given to society about how corrupt it is and yet the emotive portrayal of Katniss has led to a recent questioning of capitalism.
Similarly, social commentaries question society more directly as they don’t create a fictional world, but fictional events within the society of the time. Examples of social commentaries are David Copperfieldand To Kill a Mockingbird. David Copperfield contrasts the so called ‘better’ upper class with the ‘less humane’ lower class, as Emily says to young David Copperfield ‘your father was a gentleman and your mother is a lady; and my father was a fisherman and my mother was a fisherman’s daughter, and my uncle Dan is a fisherman’ – the word ‘gentlemen’ connotes a better an than a ‘fisherman’ but later on in the novel Steerforth, a ‘gentleman’, takes advantage of Emily and they run away together leaving Emily in disgrace and Steerforth with no reprimand. Yet, Ham a ‘fisherman’ who was engaged to Emily at the time of her discrepancy, dies trying to save Steerforth showing a much greater moral integrity and gentleness. This ironic contrast of the two classes again shows the importance of fiction, as facts about both classes would have shown the better hygiene of the upper class leading one to believe perhaps that they were more humane however Dickens depicts the opposite. Correspondingly, Harper Lee in To Kill a Mockingbird contrasts Tom Robinson and Bob Ewell in the first of the two climaxes of the novel. Ewell is described in the beginning of the novel as ‘the disgrace of Maycomb for three generations’ likewise Tom Robinson’s death is described as ‘typical of nigger’s mentality to have no plan’, showing they are held in equal contempt by society and yet Tom Robinson ‘was a dead man the minute Mayella Ewell opened her mouth and screamed.’. The questioning of prejudice is seen throughout the novel, but the theme of empathy is seen even more so because after at the trial when Bob Ewell assures the death of Tom, Atticus empathizes with him saying ‘I destroyed his last shred of credibility’ and Scout in retrospect says that he was born a Ewell, and therefore didn’t know any better. This again shows the importance of fiction because the facts would tell you, according to the court, Tom Robinson was guilty or even if you took the truth of Bob Ewell being guilty, you would fail to empathize with both of their situations and the fiction helped to depict this making it more important than the facts.
Fiction is also more important than fact because within fiction you can discuss morality, whereas facts cannot cover this because the question of good or evil cannot be verified. The medieval play Everyman, although not a work of fiction, does display fictitious events and uses allegorical characters to examine the question of whether you should go to heaven or hell. Everyman represents all of mankind and his anonymity allows the question to be directed toward the audience, as they realize that the characters of Goods, Knowledge and Fellowship (each abstract ideas personified into characters that Everyman summons in order to prove his worth to go to heaven) he realizes that he has not been a good person. This discussion of good versus evil cannot be valued in facts, Everyman realizes that he is alone in death and cannot take earthly goods with him. Accordingly, Harry Potter faces similar questions of good and evil in the Philosophers Stone. At the climax of the novel Professor Quirrell says ‘There is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it’. This shows a very similar character to everyman someone who justifies the actions he makes, by saying that they make him more powerful but as Death says to Everyman ‘Drowned in sin, they know me not for their God;/ In worldly riches is all their mind,’, so the riches are what both Quirrell and Everyman seek but as he finds out at the end and as Harry shows the only thing you’re left with is good deeds like holding onto the Philosophers Stone and staying true to your parents. Harry Potter also shows another essential part of fiction which is escapism, this is important in using your imagination and relieving stress from people’s everyday lives. Society evidently values this because millions of books are sold every year for this reason; other escapist fantasy books include The Hobbit and Game of Thrones.
To conclude, fiction is more important than fact because it shows the truth in allegorical situations, it shows empathy, it encourages people to use their imagination (which even Einstein said was a truer sign of intelligence than knowledge), it can discuss questions that don’t have definitive answers like morality, it provides escapism and finally in stories such as Aesop’s fables it can teach us lessons. To counter my arguments many would say, as Gradgrind would initially argue, that fiction is essentially lies and therefore cannot be more important than the truth of facts, and that fiction manipulates truth. However, I would argue that in modern society the line between fact and fiction is drawing ever closer as spin doctors manipulate facts for propaganda, previously accepted facts change because of scientific discovery and religion is some people’s fact and others fiction. Only through imagination can new discoveries and inventions be made. Also through fiction we can explore moral dilemmas facing our generation such as getting involved in uprisings in the Arab world. I think the answer to the question is best summarized in the dedication of IT by Stephen King in which he says ‘Fiction is the truth inside the lie, and the truth of this fiction is simple enough: the magic exists’.