The Power of Fiction

When Johann Wolfgang von Goethe published his novel ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’ in 1774, he would not have thought that this piece would bring many of its readers to kill themselves. However, that was exactly what happened – but not because they found it dead boring, quite the contrary. Lovesick Werther, the hero of the novel – spoiler alert – shoots himself in the end. This, in combination with the popularity of the book, unfortunately led to quite a few copycat suicides among its deeply impressed readers. As the plot of Goethe’s novel was the source of inspiration for these deaths, this kind of connection between a published work and a wave of suicides has since been known as the ‘Werther effect’.

Thus, a piece of fiction can have considerable power. It can make the difference between life and death, between existence and non-existence of a person. Similar to literary fiction turning into reality (see the Werther example), legal fictions can also strongly influence our life. Some scholars take the view that legal fictions are mere tools or placeholders within the law that are necessary for it to work (that is, to fulfil its function). Nevertheless, fictions like the ‘legal person’ can shape the way we perceive and treat others – they can, for example, enhance their value in our view.

This March, legal personhood was granted to the Whanganui river in New Zealand. This was done to protect the river’s health and to preserve it for future generations. So, the government probably had positive effects of the personhood fiction on reality in mind. Moreover, the legal personality of the river should reflect the view of the local indigenous people that the river is a living entity in itself, is their ancestor, and is incapable of being owned as property. In our view, this is a fiction that has a – hopefully powerful – influence on how people treat the river. In the view of the indigenous people, the personality of the river might not be fictional at all, but real. Over time, while being obligated to treat the river better (like a person), we will possibly also perceive it as a gradually less fictional and more real person. This effect of a fiction would at least be more pleasant than the ‘Werther effect’.


5 thoughts on “The Power of Fiction

  1. mab77 says:

    Undoubtedly, legal fictions can also strongly influence our lives. there is power in fiction that can literally impact the reality. We have seen and heard of many instances where such actions have been played out time and time again in real life and in the media. People have committed suicides as seen in the example in the story (the plot of Goethe’s novel), or carried out atrocious acts of killings, particularly, because of the influence of fiction. We have equally seen how fiction has found its way into law where lawyers and judges alike use it as a tool that may or may not be essential to provide fair and just rulings. In fact, some scholars criticise the use of fiction in law that is just a manipulative tool used by legal personnel rather than a useful commodity. However, fiction such as what we now know as the “legal person” can impact our disposition on the way we view other people and the way in which they are treated, be it positively or negatively. I am in total agreement with the narrator when he/she said, “difference between life and death, between existence and non-existence of a person”. However, at the end of the day whatever impact fiction has on people be it positive or negative is down to the perception one has of fiction

  2. evw24 says:

    Dear Julian,

    I found your comments on the power of literary fiction, and how it’s power can be exposed through music in particular, fascinating. Moreover, Sarah’s initial comment relating to the power of Goethe’s ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’, and the impact it had on its readers, led me to think about the power of fiction in relation to politics. As I write this, a leaflet has just dropped through my letter box, relating to the upcoming election, which makes me wonder how many of the words contained within the leaflet are carefully crafted in order to win elections. One of the sentences on the leaflet says “standing up for the many, not the few”. With this, comes a Labour party narrative. A simple sentence that implies all will be included in Labour policies, persuading some to vote Labour. Pollster Stanley Greenberg declared in an election postmortem that “a narrative is the key to everything.” Political writing that claims to be nonfiction can be seen as fictional in many ways. The political power of such fiction as nonfiction is undeniable. One only has to look at the propaganda used by the German Nazi Party in the years leading up to and during Adolf Hitler’s leadership of Germany, to see how such fictions were used as a crucial instrument for acquiring and maintaining power. Fiction can say publicly what otherwise might appear unsayable. My point is this, political storytelling is powerful, and though there is no real evidence that telling good stories or narratives can lead a political party to win an election, or that good stories alone can do this. Examining how stories work, can help us better understand the ways in which some political narratives persuade while others do not.

  3. jf415 says:

    I find it sadly fascinating how Goethe’s ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’ managed to have such a huge impact towards the readers back in the 18th century. The Bible itself have already demonstrate how literary fictions or novels can have considerable power and influence toward people. Books have always been a great source of knowledge, what interest me however, is that as technology improves, the power of literary fiction can be exposed through a variety of ways.

    Take music for example, John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ to me is definitely an example of literary fiction performed as a song instead of a book. Having released for almost 50 years now, ‘Imagine’ is still one of the most beautiful and well written song of all time. Not only is the song trying to imagine a world in a fictional, peaceful, utopian sense through lyric, the illocutionary and perlocutionary effect we are dealing with here is immeasurable. As John said it himself, ‘Now I understand what you have to do. Put your political message across with a little honey. This is what we do… to try to change the apathy of young people’.

    Aside from music, movies, poems or even what we read on daily basis can also serve as a ‘literary fiction’ in a sense that it can have a considerable power and influence in changing the way you see things. This prove how dangerously powerful ‘literary fiction’ can be.

    I mean…. Remind me why people start saying ‘Carpe diem’ again?

  4. bg263 says:

    Thanks for this Sarah. I fully agree that inscriptions, whether literary or legal, could have perlocutionary effects which exceed their illocutionary functions. That Posner could suggest that the fiction of the legal person does not affect the conduct of their users already suggests that he has been claimed by that very fiction which inscribes persons as sovereign subjects who assert full mastery over what are said to be mere instruments without affective powers ‘of their own’. This is not to say that the fiction is in itself sovereign but that by virtue of its embedment in a symbolic order that likewise governs our appreciation of the world it becomes a medium that transmits the accrued meanings which we, in our finitude, are unable to arrest fully and are thus destined to be displaced into positions without our knowing. How did I come to live at Woolf College? Was it really just because I thought it was convenient to live on campus, or might it also be because of its name and my reading of The Waves during those formative years as an elitist student of literature who thought that the Great (English) Modernist Classics of the last century were infinitely superior to any of the prescribed texts? Wait a minute – did I really think so, or is that really a fiction that arrived one day and is now rehearsing itself because, for some reason, it has found this occasion to be appropriate for its re-emergence? How did this example of Woolf College even arose? Might it have been because your post was about fiction, and you mentioned Goethe, and in its resonant nomination this abode decided to speak through me at this particular instance in time? The inability to arrest the ‘true’ reason for one’s behaviour should caution one against believing (or claiming to believe) so whole-heartedly in the sovereignty of the self which, at the end of the day, might really be a fiction—amongst all the fictions that we tell about ourselves.

  5. ncjn2 says:

    The example of Goethe is very powerful, Sarah. It is undeniable that something ‘literally’ fictional can have a massive impact on our reality. Unfortunately, copycat suicides occur fairly frequently. The same goes when there is a lot of media coverage of a certain suicide (particularly of a celebrity) or of several suicides in a short period of ti,e. The suicide rate in that particular country or area will generally go up over the next few days or weeks. As tragic as that is, there has been much research into these areas to establish the origins of this copycat behaviour. It is generally believed that these people would have already had suicidal thoughts. In other words, these were not individuals that were happily going about their daily lives until they read Goethe’s book and then everything went dark. Everything was already dark, and Goethe’s approach offered them an out.

    A similar effect is perceived in news coverage of suicides. If media outlets handle the coverage well, and encourage people to seek help if they are feeling desperate, it has even been seen to have the opposite effect: more people are seeking guidance. This is called the Papageno-effect and is thought to be the opposite of the Goethe-effect. Framing is everything. It is not the facts that male the story, it is how the facts are presented. So I suppose I agree with you, Sarah. Fictions can have negative effects, but they can also have positive ones. It is all a matter of perspective.

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