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Fiction: Purpose & Form

This Long-Article begins with a brief introduction to the significance of Fiction; followed by a close analysis of a short story; which is then intertwined with interpretation of a related film; finishing with a closing summary; and all the relevant links listed at the end.

Books: Reading for the Plot; Selected Short Stories of Guy de Maupassant

For centuries, literature of fiction—specifically, novels and short stories—has had a major influence upon the thoughts and attitudes of people, and has served as a catalyst for the cultural changes the West has undergone since the invention of the printing press. The social significance of fiction is important to recognize, as its power to influence is much less obvious than the overt, religious indoctrination that it has replaced. The power of fiction is not to indoctrinate, but to seduce: to affect individuals with particular ideasbut without the conscious awareness of having been engaged with an ideological sales pitch.

For this reason, learning about the essential forms and techniques of fiction can be very interesting and rewarding, as one becomes more capable of engaging with fictional works in added dimensions and with new levels of depth.

Reading for the Plot – Design and Intention in Narrative, by Peter Brooks (1984)
A Ruse, by Guy de Maupassant (1882, Short Story)

Reading for the Plot, a book on the subject of literary theory, begins one chapter with an insightful analysis of the short story A Ruse—and I have found that the analysis (together with the story) forms an excellent foundation for understanding the essence of fiction’s unique power to influence one’s thoughts and attitudes.

The analyst begins the chapter by pointing out that storytelling is a contractual event, in that something is expected of the listener in return for the act of listening. He then moves on to the analysis itself, from which I developed my own thoughts on the story—largely based on his perspective—presented in the analysis below, in which I describe the key passages with commentary to highlight the aspects I find significant.

Analysis of “A Ruse”

Passage 1 (P1): a) The story begins with a Narrator introducing a young woman [which I will shorten to W.] in mid-conversation with her old doctor [which I will shorten to D.], b) whilst she is protesting at the notion of a woman deceiving and being unfaithful to her husband.

Commentary on P1: a (i) This story was published in an era when marriage was still considered as a sacred covenant, and therefore at a time when infidelity was considered a very serious and despicable thing [the significance of this context will soon become apparent]. a (ii) The Narrator is used to introduce W. and D. in mid-conversation, with an opening dialogue that obscures the origin of the subject matter being discussed, i.e. who introduced this notion of infidelity via deceit? b) In refuting this notion, W. begins by qualifying it with “Even supposing she doesn’t love him…” from which her following sentences are made slyly ambiguous as to whether she is refuting this notion from a moral perspective, or from a practical one.

P2: a) D. promotes the idea that infidelity in marriage is a pre-requisite preliminary to finding true love; b) along with the idea that all women are highly capable of dissimulation [i.e. and so are able to pull-off the feat of having a secret lover whilst also being married].

Commentary on P2: a) This notion is the core ideological content of this story, which the other ideas introduced are in service to b) Said in response to her refuting the possibility of successfully carrying out such deceit (which was written in such a way so as to make the reader feel that W. was objecting on moral grounds, whilst actually setting up the conversation to be had on grounds of practicality).

P3: W. disagrees with D.’s assertion that women can “extricate themselves from the most difficult dilemmas with a skill bordering on genius.”

Commentary on P3: Again W. is protesting against D.’s promotion of infidelity—but again it is written in such a way so as to empathise with her, instead of noticing that it has now become an objection purely on grounds of practicality; and further, she argues that “…women are certainly more liable to lose their heads in such circumstances.”—a kind of self-depreciating argument, which serves [the Author (Maupassant)—which I will shorten to A.] to further cloud the fact that an extremely subversive idea is now being debated in terms of how it could successfully be achieved, whilst having totally bypassed the moral implications of such an activity.

P4: D. emphatically refutes W.’s argument, which he does by declaring that he will share an illustrative story: “…let me tell you something that happened to one of my patients whom I had always regarded as a woman of unimpeachable virtue.”

Commentary on P4: This declarationnot an offer or invitation—sets up the story-within-the-story [the significance of which will later be explained].

P5: a) D. narrates the story [to W.] of his young woman patient [W.2] who wakes him up in the middle of the night at his door, claiming her lover has died in her bed whilst her husband [H.] will soon be home; and she desperately appeals for him to come to her house to help her sort out the situation somehow. b) D. offers to help by devising a ruse that the man (her lover) was a stranger passing by who had a sudden attack in the street; who D. came to assist; and who W.2 allowed to be treated inside the house at D.’s request. c) D. and W.2 successfully carry out the ruse on H., who is fooled into believing that the man is simply an unwell stranger (as opposed to his wife’s recently deceased lover), and who helps D. carry the man (corpse) outside where a carriage awaits; and where D. “…held the corpse up and spoke to it encouragingly so as to deceive the coachman.” [i.e. they fooled everyone Weekend at Bernie’s-style].

Commentary on P5: a-c) During the story (told to W.), D.’s recounting of the events emphasises two things: the sentimental words and actions of W.2 regarding her lover, showing that he was in fact her “true love”; and the initiative, energy, and coolness she displayed whilst clearly being under extreme pressure in an unusual dilemma. In other words, whilst the story is a kind of mini-suspense, in which a listener is positioned to empathise with the difficult situation of W.2—and desire to see it resolved in her favour—it effectively distracts from the moral considerations via a literary ‘sleight of hand’, in setting-up decoy concerns for the listener to feel involved in.

P6: a) D.’s tale ends upon the successful completion of the ruse, at which point W. is confused: “Why did you tell me that horrible story?”, b) to which D. replies: “So as to offer you my services in case of need.”

Commentary on P6: a) W. has listened to the whole story, but is clueless as to the point of it [the significance of this to be pointed out shortly]. b) D. now effectively spells it out: the story has served as an illustrative offer—an enticement not only to adopt the philosophy of “true love” he has ‘proscribed’, but to rely on his “services” to make it easier for her to actually carry it out.

Brooks [in Reading for the Plot] likens D.’s tale to a dirty joke, in that it is “…designed to ensure the listener’s complicity in what could not otherwise be said or acknowledged.” He elaborates this line of analysis further by claiming that:

  • W. has already undergone a loss of innocence simply in hearing the offer.
  • Listening to the tale itself implicates the listener.
  • The act of hearing is irreparable.

A Brief Examination of a Related Scene in a Film

This important point regarding the act of listening reminded me of a scene from the film:

Film (DVD): Glengarry Glen Ross

Glengarry Glen Ross (1992 Film)

This entirely dialogue-driven film (written by David Mamet, whose scripts are known for their sharp and exacting dialogue) is an interesting depiction of the cutthroat and manipulative world of real estate salesmanship, with some really great lines and performances in it. However, there is one scene that takes place at the counter in a bar, during which the salesman Moss begins telling his fellow salesman Aaronow about his plan to rob their employers—a plan which includes Aaronow himself. The scene ends as follows [key sentences underlined]:

Moss: In or out. You tell me, you’re out you take the consequences.
Aaronow: I do?
Moss: Yes. [Pause.]
Aaronow: And why is that?
Moss: Because you listened.

Whilst looking up the quote, I happened to find this excellent explanation of it from

‘Just as “talking” can go from harmless to criminal in an instant, “listening,” as we see in this exchange […] can be equally dangerous. Moss explains to Aaronow that if Aaronow does not commit the robbery Moss has planned, Moss will have to commit it himself. Then, when the police catch Moss and ask him who his accomplices were, he will turn in Aaronow. There is a bit of logic to this threat, though it is hardly airtight. Nonetheless, the choice before Aaronow now—either commit a crime tonight, or be accused of a crime later—is a ludicrous one, and Aaronow demands to know why he has been put in this position. Moss tells him, “Because you listened.” In doing so, Moss implies that Aaronow, by having listened, is already guilty of a crime. Even if Aaronow does not break into the office, the fact that he is aware Moss intends to do it but does not prevent Moss from doing it makes Aaronow an accomplice in the eyes of the law. Moments ago, Moss was just “talking” and Aaronow was just “listening.” However, now that Moss’s talking has become criminal, so has Aaronow’s listening.’

An Interpretation of Fiction via “A Ruse”

To continue with Brooks’ analysis—which is now moving towards an interpretation of Fiction—he says that:

  • W. is contaminated by D.’s story.
  • This “contamination” was D.’s motive in telling it.
  • D.’s act of narration is aggressive—a kind of violation.

Brooks then gets to the heart of the analysis, in essentially saying that the title “A Ruse” actually has three implications:

  1. The ruse the doctor and wife played on her husband—in fooling him into believing that her dead lover was simply an unwell stranger.
  2. The ruse the doctor played on his patient—in telling her the story before she understands the point of it, so as to “contaminate” her with the illustrated idea of finding “true love” via infidelity.
  3. The ruse on the other listener: the Reader—in now also having been “contaminated” by the doctor’s illustrated idea, in that “…can [she/he] maintain the innocence originally displayed by the young woman?”

The ultimate ruse, therefore, is on the reader—by the author. As I mentioned, this story was written at a time when the very notion of infidelity was considered a serious one; and this type of story is clearly one designed to appeal to young women.

At this point, my thoughts based on Brooks’ great insight led to further thoughts separate from it; and which, as I will soon show, make a strong connection between literary fiction and cinematic fiction.

In my estimation, Brooks’ analysis serves as a basic demonstration not merely of a technique of Fiction, but the purpose of it, which is not to entertain the reader: it is to implant ideas and attitudes in his mind—by way of entertainment, which pleasantly distracts (i.e. seduces) him into being affected (or infected) with whatever ideas the author intends to deliver. This is not necessarily an act of subversion by the author, as this purpose is practically intrinsic to the form of fiction; however the author in this case—Guy de Maupassant—has clearly and methodically designed this short story with subversive intent (and done it very well, I should add).

Examining the technique used in the story, a threefold descent of levels can be seen to separate the reader from the author:

  1. From the Author to the Narrator—who has the least presence in the Short Story.
  2. From the Narrator to the Doctor—who has three paragraphs before beginning his story-within-the-story, after which he has the final sentence.
  3. From the Doctor to his Self-Narrated Self—the Doctor he is describing to his patient (i.e. his past self), who has by far the most presence in the Short Story.

Presented a simpler way, the technique the Author uses to implant his idea into the reader is:

  • Maupassant narrates the Narrator
    • the Narrator narrates the Doctor
      • the Doctor narrates the past-Doctor (→ Idea is implanted)

Having a character narrate a story to another character doesn’t always occur in a work of fiction; and if it does, it doesn’t always occur with this degree of significance. However, this technique—and others like it, such as the “flashback”—is simply an elaboration of the essential technique of fiction: to separate the reader from the author, so as to have him unconsciously enter the undeclared “contractual event” of storytelling, in which “it asks for something in return for what it supplies.”—a state which is more or less encapsulated by the familiar phrase: “the suspension of disbelief.”

This particular technique—this threefold decent of levels—was reminded to me by another story: a cinematic one of high sophistication.

Film (DVD): Inception; Book: The Making of Feature Films – A Guide

Inception (2011 Film)

This blockbuster movie is of the kind that are complicated to describe, let alone explain; however, select description and explanation of the film will be necessary, in showing its relevance to the art and purpose of Fiction.

The protagonist (Dom Cobb)—a thief who enters people’s dreams to steal secrets from their subconscious—is offered a special job: to plant an idea in someone’s mind. Being a job he has great incentive to take-on, he accepts the seemingly impossible task and assembles a team to help him.

The inception is to be performed on Fischer—the son of a big business competitor of Saito, the business magnate offering the job—who is to be implanted with the idea to break-up his dying father’s business empire as soon as he passes away. For this job of inception, Cobb and his team:

“[will] need to go three levels deep in order for the idea to take root: a dream within a dream within a dream […] they break Fischer’s idea into three parts, one for each level of the dream. On the first level, “I will not follow in my father’s footsteps.” On the second, “I will create something for myself.” And at the deepest level, “My father doesn’t want me to be him.” Everything you wanted to know about “Inception”, by Sam Adams,

An Interpretation of Fiction via “Inception” & “A Ruse”

This concept of multiple dream levels is central to the plot of Inception, because it is central to the act of inception:

Eames: …in the first layer of the dream I can impersonate Browning. And suggest concepts to Fischer’s conscious mind. Then when we take him a level deeper, his own projection of Browning should – should feed that right back to him.
Arthur: So, he gives himself the idea.
Eames: Precisely. That’s the only way it’ll stick. It has to seem self-generated.

These “dream levels” are metaphors for the literary techniques of separating the reader from the author by degrees: to create multiple levels of indirectness with which to engage the reader. In Inception, the 1st Dream Level is akin to the Narrator, who—being only one remove from the Author speaking directly to the reader (and therefore appealing to him, which would not be effective)—sets-up the 2nd Dream Level (i.e. the story). And the 3rd Dream Level serves to carry-out the “inception”: to implant the idea into the “mark”, who is akin to the Reader—this “level” being demonstrated by the technique of story-within-the-story in A Ruse, which is designed to suggest the idea in an even more indirect manner than from within the story itself, so that “the seed […] will grow into an idea” and seem “self-generated”.

Therefore, authors’ use of narrators, characters, and stories narrated by characters (along with other narrative techniques), are basic tools of the essential function of Fiction: to ‘seduce’ ideas into the individual’s mind—subconsciously—by way of appealing to his emotion via the bypassing of his reasoning. This principle is alluded to in Inception, when Cobb says:

‘”I will split up my father’s empire.” Now, this is obviously an idea that Robert himself will choose to reject. Which is why we need to plant it deep in his subconscious. The subconscious is motivated by emotion, right? Not reason. We need to find a way to translate this into an emotional concept.’

In order to carry out the inception, the team drug Fischer with a sedative, hook him up to their “shared dreaming” device, and have him enter the first dream level (with them in it); from within which, they hook him up again to enter the second level; and from there, again to the third level, which is set-up to trigger the planned idea in his mind—so that he has no idea that the idea was set-up to be generated by him.

Importantly, the team then has to extract Fischer from these levels in reverse sequence, so that the design of the inception is as follows:

  • Leave Reality
    • Enter 1st Dream Level
      • Enter 2nd Dream Level
        • Enter 3rd Dream Level
          • Inception
        • Leave 3rd Dream Level
      • Leave 2nd Dream Level
    • Leave 1st Dream Level
  • Return to Reality

This structure is really a metaphor for what all fiction does, as in the example of A Ruse, in which the Narrator’s lines enclose the Doctor’s; and the Doctor’s lines (in conversation with his woman patient) enclose his own narration—each level serving the one after it, whilst the transitions between the levels serves the whole.

To try and illustrate this, I have arranged and colour-coded the text of A Ruse so that:

  • the Narrator’s lines are in Green, and are furthest on the left (Level 1)
    • the Doctor’s lines are in Purple, and are indented from the left (Level 2)
      • the Doctor’s narration lines are in Red, and are indented yet further (Level 3)
The text of the short story “A Ruse”, arranged to visually display the three levels of narration

The Author, Maupassant, has already created two degrees of separation between himself and the Reader: by way of the Narrator (Level 1) narrating the Doctor (Level 2), who introduces the idea to be implanted (that marriage is simply a preliminary stage for a woman to achieve true love) by suggesting it to his patient—but the “inception” occurs during the story-within-the-story (Level 3), in which the idea itself is not mentioned or referred to, but in which the narrative causes the idea to be intuitively grasped.

Faraci’s Interpretation of “Inception”

As I said, my mind perceived a connection between the threefold levels I had learned of from Brooks’ analysis of A Ruse, and the threefold dream levels within the film Inception. However, I did not make this connection immediately: it only occurred to me following someone’s perceptive observation about the film, which then activated it in my mind.

When I first watched Inception, my thoughts about its deeper meaning were exclusively in the realm of Depth Psychology—and for obvious reasons. After exhausting my own thoughts, I then searched online for an analysis of the film (as I often like to do, particularly with deep and sophisticated films, as Christopher Nolan’s seem to always to be) and soon found this one:

Never Wake Up: The Meaning and Secret of Inception, by Devin Faraci, 07.19.2010,

In the beginning of this article, the author states that “Every single moment of Inception is a dream […] The film is a metaphor for the way that Nolan as a director works […] Inception is about making movies, and cinema is the shared dream that truly interests the director.”

The “dream” aspect of his interpretation is the central one, which has relevance here—however I found the “metaphor for directing” angle to be a much more significant insight. After he explains his “dream logic” angle, he goes on to explain how Cobb’s team represents a film production crew [roles in bold]:

“The heist team quite neatly maps to major players in a film production. Cobb is the director while Arthur, the guy who does the research and who sets up the places to sleep, is the producer. Ariadne, the dream architect, is the screenwriter – she creates the world that will be entered. Eames is the actor (this is so obvious that the character sits at an old fashioned mirrored vanity, the type which stage actors would use). Yusuf is the technical guy; remember, the Oscar come from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and it requires a good number of technically minded people to get a movie off the ground. Nolan himself more or less explains this in the latest issue of Film Comment, saying ‘There are a lot of striking similarities [between what the team does and the putting on of a major Hollywood movie]. When for instance the team is out on the street they’ve created, surveying it, that’s really identical with what we do on tech scouts before we shoot.’

“That leaves two key figures. Saito is the money guy, the big corporate suit who fancies himself a part of the game. And Fischer, the mark, is the audience. Cobb, as a director, takes Fischer through an engaging, stimulating and exciting journey, one that leads him to an understanding about himself. Cobb is the big time movie director (or rather the best version of that – certainly not a Michael Bay) who brings the action, who brings the spectacle, but who also brings the meaning and the humanity and the emotion.”

Brief Comments on a Related Subject (Filmmaking)

Faraci’s great perception revealed an immediately recognizable perspective on the film to me, which I would not have noticed by my casual observation; and further, it reminded me of a book on my shelf which now became of particular interest for me to read:

The Making of Feature Films – A Guide, by Ivan Butler (1971)

Although from a distinctly different era of cinema (most notably, long before CGI began), it still has plenty of relevance in understanding the art and process of filmmaking—particularly since the author has devoted a chapter to each aspect of it:

  1. The Producer
  2. The Scriptwriter
  3. The Director
  4. The Actor
  5. The Cameraman
  6. The Art Director
  7. The Costume Designer
  8. Special Effects
  9. The Continuity Girl
  10. The Editor
  11. The Composer
  12. Sound
  13. The Distributer
  14. The Censor
  15. The Cinema

For each chapter, Butler has interviewed top professionals to share their experiences of the mentality and technicalities of their specialized work. The book is thus laden with insights into the filmmaking business and art, which becomes valuable when considering how films are designed to affect the viewer.

John Frankenheimer interviewed in chapter: The Director
John Frankenheimer interview continued
The Making of Feature Films: Contents page (1st half)

The significance of this is to show that, despite the massive and multi-faceted work that is exclusive to cinematic fiction, the purpose and essential form of it is derived from literary fiction: to implant ideas into the mind of the viewer. And very interestingly, Inception is actually an illustrative commentary on both the cinematic and literary aspects.

Further Interpretation of “Inception”

To return to Faraci’s interpretation, he asserts that:

“In the film it’s explained that playing with the dream too much alerts the dreamer to the falseness around him; this is just another version of the suspension of disbelief upon which all films hinge. As soon as the audience is pulled out of the movie by some element – an implausible scene, a ludicrous line, a poor performance – it’s possible that the cinematic dream spell is broken completely, and they’re lost.”

This alludes to the seductive form and purpose of Fictionnot just of movies. Although the “dream” metaphor is a fitting one for movies, it is important to recognise that it is based on the exact same principle as literary fiction, only in a different form—a different medium. Faraci continues [my bold]:

“Inception is such a big deal because it’s what great movies strive to do. You walk out of a great film changed, with new ideas planted in your head, with your neural networks subtly rewired by what you’ve just seen. On a meta level Inception itself does this, with audiences leaving the theater buzzing about the way it made them feel and perceive. New ideas, new thoughts, new points of view are more lasting a souvenir of a great movie than a ticket stub […] in Inception Nolan is examining the ways that cinema, the ultimate shared dream, can change an individual.”

It’s an excellent article by Faraci, which as I said ‘woke me up’ to the film-as-an-allegory-for-filmmaking angle; and once viewing the film from that perspective, I realised that he missed (or at least left out) something which I found striking within this context: the particular idea which Inception implants into the mind of the viewer. This idea is stated clearly by Cobb—and presented emphatically by the movie—on three occasions [key parts in bold]:

“What is the most resilient parasite? Bacteria? A virus? An intestinal worm? An idea. Resilient… highly contagious. Once an idea has taken hold of the brain it’s almost impossible to eradicate. An idea that is fully formed – fully understood – that sticks; right in there somewhere.”

[saying of his wife, Mal] “I knew something was wrong with her. She just wouldn’t admit it. Eventually, she told me the truth. She was possessed by an idea, this one, very simple idea, that changed everything.”

An idea is like a virus, resilient, highly contagious. The smallest seed of an idea can grow. It can grow to define or destroy you.”

Inception, then, not only allegorizes the filmmaking process in a beautifully elaborate manner, so as to illustrate it by allusion; but simultaneously, it demonstrates the purpose of Film (i.e. of Fiction) via an “inception” on the audience: the “idea” that “an idea is like a virus”. This idea is conveyed via the subplot revolving around Cobb’s wife Mal, who is Cobb’s antagonist because “She was possessed by an idea, this one, very simple idea, that changed everything. That our world wasn’t real.”—and her antagonism is intended to seduce Cobb with this same idea.

Is an idea like a virus? Is anyone susceptible to being possessed by a very simple idea, to the point that they turn from “lovely” to malicious? This is the “idea” the film has claimed explicitly via the dialogue, and exemplified in the story; and which is an idea that essentially alludes to a widening of the concept of “radicalization”. I won’t comment on what I think of this idea, as this is not the point: the point is to raise to awareness that there is an idea being sold at all—the missing of which is actually what the film is allegorizing, in the form of the team’s inception on Fischer, who is the “mark”.

What I will say is that the film is extremely impressive in every area, particularly aesthetically, with the highest of production values (including an all-star cast)—and this serves to make it that much more seductive in terms of ‘incepting’ the ideological content into the viewer. And furthermore, this is a good example of a film that would be especially rewarding to study—which is why I intend to read some in-depth examination of it in the future.

Closing Summary

Which brings me back to the analysis of Brooks: storytelling is a contractual event, in which listening implicates the listener, who is contaminated by the idea [being illustrated via narration].

Closing paragraph of Brooks’ analysis of “A Ruse”

Brooks does not go as far as to say that this “contamination” in A Ruse is a principle that applies to fiction in general—that is what I am saying. The point of this article is to show the significance of Fiction, which is that it is an inherently seductive form of communication; and that it can be fascinating and rewarding to engage with on that level—instead of simply being entertained and thus seduced by it.

In other words, this article is not about A Ruse, or Inception: it is about the ruse that is “inception”—in the form of Fiction.

Thus with Inception: in the movie, the “mark” is the one to be “contaminated” by the idea; but in the movie theatre, the viewer is the “mark”—innocently watching an allegory of the very process he is simultaneously undergoing … that is, unless he wakes up


Stepping stones . . . . to unravel the ruse

Author: Simon Kanzen

I value reading substantial literature, enjoy thought-provoking entertainment, and above all, I think every day. With Stepping Stones, I develop my thoughts in writing and share references to relevant media, intending for other readers and thinkers to find these writings useful.

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