Does meaning matter in fiction?
approximately 1200 words
Meaning in Fiction
with apologies to Dante Alighieri
We all have stories to tell.
I have a story for you.
My first time abroad, I traveled to Germany to teach a mathematics course to US service members. As I got in my rental car to drive from the hotel to my classroom, my ego swelled at the idea that I was going to help win wars and defend our country. A tiny worry nibbled at me, though. You see, I didn't know word of German beyond "deutschmark," so I was concerned about getting lost. But I was the man with the plan. I resolved to memorize the street signs along my route.
My budget would only support the cheapest rental available, a Trabant. If you don't know, the Trabant was made in East Germany, and it was powered by a two cycle engine--just like my lawnmower back in Tulsa. So here I was, puttering down the busy streets of Frankfurt in an East German lawnmower, dodging massive BMWs and sleek Porsches. All the while, I was peering at street signs written in an incomprehensible language comprised of words with an average of 86.38 letters.
If Lady Luck hadn't smiled on me, some hausfrau's mammoth Beemer would have doubtless accidentally squashed me. What saved me was that the signs said my route stayed on a single street all through the city: Einbahnstrasse. Any dummkopf could remember that, thought I. Einbahnstrasse.
It wasn't until later, when I tried to retrace my route back to my hotel, that I deduced from the kindly finger gestures of other drivers that "Einbahnstrasse" is German for "one way street."
As you can guess, I was lost.
Lucky for me, there was a map in the glove box of my rental car. In German.
But someone at the rent-a-car company was my guardian angel. Someone cared enough about a stranger--me!--to walk in another person's shoes. When I snatched up the map and examined it, I recognized some French words. When I looked closer, it had Italian text, too. Then, at last, I saw that the fine print was in English Now, I'm fluent in Okie, but I can get by in English if pressed.
Because of that silent savior, that person who walked in my shoes before I did--or, more accurately drove in my Trabant before I did--I wasn't lost after all. I was found.
When I finally returned to my hotel, I reflected over a fine German lager that things always seem to work out, one way or another--not always like we planned, but they work out. I guess it's true, what Oscar Wilde said: the good Lord watches over mathematicians and dummkopf.
Like all stories, this one has levels of meaning. The lowest level is historical: this really did happen to me. That's the literal level of meaning.
As authors, we spend years learning the craft of making our stories come alive in our readers' heads. The predominant theory of modern fiction is built on this notion. We do everything we can and use every trick we can summon to convince our readers that our fictional world is real, populated by real people, with real problems and real lives. Realism is what it's all about.
Realism, this literal level of meaning, is what draws readers into our stories and keeps them there. If our stories don't create a convincing world, most readers will drop our books and pick up something more engaging, something more real.
But literal meaning is just the first part of what makes a story memorable. Without it, only masochists and relatives will likely read our works. Now that I think of it, for some of us that's the same set. But most of us crave a wider audience.
Deeper levels of meaning can keep readers coming back to our fiction, looking for more. What are some other levels of meaning?
Well, there is the metaphorical. In this level, a story uses one kind of reality, the created reality of fiction, to illuminate another kind of reality, the one we all live in. When we use metaphor and allegory in fiction, we use the visible world of our story to illuminate the visible world of reality.
Getting back to my little story, we all live in an artificial world of human making, not a natural one. We surround ourselves with constructed symbols to help us interpret and negotiate that world. But sometimes we misinterpret the symbols and lose our way. That's when we need someone, a guardian angel, if you will, to reach out and help us. My story is a metaphor for this very real, and very human, situation. It's the parable of the Good Samaritan, with tongue in cheek. It's a metaphor.
But there's another level of meaning here, a level that Dante and medieval theologians called the tropological, and what we might call the moral today. Besides illuminating a truth about the real world through metaphor, this story has a moral.
In the story, I thought I had the answers. I had a plan: just read those German signs, and I'd be the man. I was over-confident. I didn't ask for help. I just charged ahead. This kind of hubris, this arrogance, almost always leads to disaster. It's not what you don't know that gets you in trouble; it's what you think you know that's wrong.
But the story also shows how planning and forethought can pay off, if done thoughtfully by putting yourself in another person's shoes. My plan went bust. But whoever put that map in the glovebox had a plan, too. My benefactor's plan involved imagining another person's needs and thinking about more than yourself. It really does take a village to create a livable world.
I bet my benefactor would have stopped and asked for directions, too. Being a rugged individualist, I'd never do that.
So, we've got the literal meaning of the story, the metaphorical meaning of the story, and tropological or moral meaning of the story. What's left?
Remember how I said that a metaphor uses the visible to illuminate the visible? What's left is using the visible to illuminate the invisible. The world is not only stranger than we imagine, it's stranger than we can imagine. There is a mystical element to life and living. A complete story conveys that mystery, sometimes with poetry, sometimes with tragedy, and sometimes with comedy.
I think there's a mystical element to my little tale of being a stranger in a strange land. Perhaps it's about the ambivalence of fate, perhaps it's something else. After all, this isn't much of a story. The beauty of fiction is that each reader can--and usually will--find their own unique mystical meaning in a story. Dante would have called this the anagoge, literally, "leading upward," from the seen to the unseen. Like those street signs that read "Einbahnstrasse," the anagoges point in one direction, but the readers may find different destinations. Just as I did with the map in my Trabant, readers will use the symbols authors give them, but they will interpret them in the language of their own culture, history, and experience.
The idea here is that a well-crafted story will, unlike my Trabant, hit on all four cylinders of meaning: literal, metaphorical, moral, and anagoge. These levels of meaning have been part of the western literary tradition at least since the middle ages. They are ingrained in our culture and in our souls.
We all have stories to tell. You have stories. They will be more powerful, more enduring, and more from the heart if you provide your readers with a roadmap, just like my guardian angel gave me that day in Germany. Give your readers truth, metaphor, moral, and mystery, and they will always find their way back to you.
These ideas are far from original. In fact, Dante articulated all of them seven hundred years ago. See Carol Alberto Furia's wonderful and detailed website for a more detailed discussion.
Read more essays on writing by Max at
"Thoughts on Writing"