To what extent can fiction–meaning that to include all forms of storytelling–purge itself of all rhetoric?
By rhetoric I mean techniques and devices by which the author attempts to persuade us to think and feel about the story in a particular way. The question is, is it possible for an author to eschew all rhetoric and simply and purely lay his subject before his audience and allow the very nature of that subject to wield its effect?
Wayne Booth, in The Rhetoric of Fiction, thinks not. He asks us to consider the following murders:
“Macbeth murders Duncan, and we pity Macbeth rather than Duncan; Markheim murders the pawnbroker, and we hope for Markheim’s salvation; Monsieur Verdoux murders a series of wealthy women, and we side with him against a rotten civilization; the would-be heir in Kind Hearts and Coronets murders a half-dozen or so of his relatives and we simply laugh; Zuleika Dobson “murders” the whole of the undergraduate body at Oxford and we laugh, quite complicatedly; Ch’en, in Man’s Fate, murders a stranger in cold blood and we are terrified–for Ch’en. There is no need to list the many murders in which the more “natural” responses of hatred toward the murderer and pity for the victim are made to predominate” (p. 113, notes 26).
Booth wants us to see that even so universally condemned an action as murder cannot be depended upon to manifest its natural evil without the help of rhetoric–and that rhetoric can also be deployed in such a way so as to make us (at least momentarily) blind to the evil of the murder and in some sense “root” for the murderer. As I’m sure many people do when they watch the Godfather films.
But if Booth is right, then how is it possible for us to distinguish when a story is telling us the truth about its subject and when it is simply masking its subject with rhetoric?
What do you think?
* The image above, reproduced courtesy of Eippol at Wikimedia Commons, is of the original screenplay of The Godfather II in the National Museum of the Cinema in Turin, Italy.