Umberto Eco

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On the ontology of fictional characters:

A semiotic approach

Umberto Eco

University of Bologna


Abstract. (150-200 words)
In 1860, on the verge of sailing through the Mediterranean to follow Garibaldi’s expedition to Sicily, Alexandre Dumas stopped in Marseille and wanted to visit the Chateau d’If where his hero Edmond Dantès, before becoming the Count of Montecristo, spent fourteen years of his life, and was visited and rescued in his cell by the Abbot Faria. During his visit Dumas discovered that the visitors were shown the “real” cell of Montecristo, and the guides were speaking of him, Faria and other characters of the novel as if they had really existed. On the contrary, the same guides ignored the fact that a historical figure like Mirabeau had been imprisoned at the Chateau d’If.

Thus Dumas comments in his Memoirs: “It is the privilege of novelists to create characters who kill those of the historians. The reason is that historians only evoke mere ghosts, while novelists create persons in flesh and bones.” (reference)

Once a friend of mine urged me to organize a symposium on the following subject: why — since we know that Anna Karenina is a fictional character who does not exist in our real world — do we weep for her deeds (or in any case, we are deeply moved by her misfortunes)?

Probably many sophisticated readers will not cry on the fate of Scarlett O’Hara but they, too, are certainly shocked by the fate of Anna Karenina.

I resolutely told my friend that this phenomenon had neither ontological nor logical relevance, and could only interest psychologists. Moreover, we certainly can identify ourselves with the cases of fictional characters, but this does not occur only in reading fiction. Many of us have sometimes thought of the possible death of a beloved person, and felt touched, if not moved to tears, even though they knew for sure that the imagined event had not taken place.

Later, I had to admit that there is a difference between weeping for the imagined death of our beloved and weeping for the death of Anna Karenina. In the first case, when after the daydream we are asked if our beloved has really passed away, we say that it was not true — as it happens when we suddenly awake from a nightmare and we realize with relief that it was only a hallucination. On the contrary, if we were asked if Anna Karenina died we would always answer positively, as if the fact that Anna committed suicide were true in every possible world.

Moreover, some people are pulled to suicide when abandoned by their beloved, but I have never heard of somebody who committed suicide because one of his friends had been abandoned by his fiancé. Thus it seems strange that, when reading that Goethe’s Werther killed himself because of his ill-fated love, many romantic youngsters did the same, by the so-called Werther effect.

It seems funny that we deeply share the sorrow of somebody else only or mainly when we know that he or she never existed. But what does it mean that fictional characters do not have some kind of existence? According to Meinong (reference) every representation or judgment has necessarily an object, even though this object is not necessarily an existing one. Centuries before Meinong, Avicenna (reference) said that existence was only an accidental property of an essence or substance (accidens adveniens quidditati). In this sense there can be abstract objects (like the number 17 of the right angle, which do not properly exist but subsist) and concrete objects like myself and Anna Karenina, with the difference that I am a Physically Existing Object while Anna is not.

Now, today I am not concerned with the ontology of fictional characters.

Since the core of my reflections today is why people feel moved by fictional characters, I am obliged to consider Anna Karenina as a mind dependent object, or the object of cognition. In other terms, my approach is not an ontological but a semiotic one. My concern is not in which sense the assertion Anna Karenina committed suicide is true but rather why a normal reader can accept the assertion Anna Karenina committed suicide as true even when he or she knows that Anna is a narrative figment?

By definition fictional texts clearly speak of non-existing persons and events and from the point of view of truth conditional semantics, a fictional assertion should always tell what is not real-life.

In spite of that we do not take fictional assertions as lies. First of all, in reading a piece of fiction we subscribe a silent agreement with its author, who pretends that something is true and asks us to pretend to take it seriously. Secondly, we know that every fiction designs a possible world and all our judgements of truth and falsehood must concern that possible world. In this way it is true in the Conan Doyle’s world that Sherlock Holmes lived on Baker Street and false that he lived in Tartu and we can bet our life in this point.

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