Fiction is imaginary — stories that never happened. But that does not make fiction any less true.
For example, the persons and events that constitute Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” did not happen. Even if Dostoevsky was inspired by historical realities, the novel is a product of the author’s imagination. It did not happen in real time and space. His protagonist Raskolnikov never stumbled down the streets of St. Petersburg, never struggled with the guilt of murder, never fell in love with a caring woman. And yet, this does not mean that Dostoevsky’s story is untrue. Fiction translates abstract concepts into narratives of active, suffering, passionate humans like ourselves. There is something undeniably true about Raskolnikov’s struggle, just as there is something true about the stories of Odysseus, Captain Ahab, and Frodo Baggins.
These stories are so compelling because they show us the conception and application of ideas — the sorts of ideas that civilizations turn on — like “No man is above morality,” or “Life’s meaning is found through desperate struggle.” Of course, these ideas are also present in nonfiction texts like philosophy, memoirs, or that ever-ambiguous bookstore category, straight-up “Nonfiction.” And many of these books do a phenomenal job of conveying deep, complex ideas. But it is the imaginary essence of fiction that takes it beyond the factually-bound nonfiction genres.
Because the novelist works in the realm of the unreal, he or she can distill the human experience to a level of purity that transcends the real, while still seeming plausible. To return to Dostoevsky, “Crime and Punishment” is a story that revolves around an idea: should a person commit a crime if they can get away with it? While the intuitive answer “no” likely presents itself, some of humanity’s most brilliant thinkers have struggled with why that is the case. In Plato’s “Republic,” Glaucon famously challenges Socrates, “Why should I be moral if I can be immoral when it suits me, and can get away with it?” Philosopher David Hume later described such a person as a ‘sensible knave.’
While whole books have been written on the subject, neither Plato nor Hume’s attempted answers are particularly satisfying. Dostoevsky, though, can approach the question differently from someone writing a philosophical treatise. Dostoevsky can invent a person names Raskolnikov, who is rather familiar to us all (clever, driven, idealistic). Perhaps we know a ‘Raskolnikov,’ or we are something of a ‘Raskolnikov’ ourselves. Like him, we want to break the rules for our own benefit, like running a stop sign when no one is around. But Dostoevsky, working in a fictional medium, can take this desire to its extreme: he tells us why Raskolnikov, the sensible knave, was driven to commit murder.
But where Plato and Hume came up short, Dostoevsky can answer Glaucon’s challenge with an invented — yet utterly compelling — account of how Raskolnikov could not live as a sensible knave. Even though he could have gotten away with it, he could not do so and remain human. To place oneself above morality, one must abandon humanity itself. The novel’s dimension of vibrant, psychological realism speaks to us in a way that logical formulae and arguments cannot, showing us that even if something might ‘work’ in theory, it can never work in truth. So then there are times when the ‘untrue’ can take us closer to the truth than the factual can. Fiction speaks through intellect, empathy, and imagination to teach us something new about our lives and world.