Definition of Verisimilitude

Verisimilitude is the extent to which a reader is able to believe in a fictional work. Even those works of fiction which don’t mirror reality whatsoever, especially in the genre of science fiction or fantasy, aim to create a world of coherent rules and laws such that the reader is able to suspend disbelief and believe that the events of the plot “could happen” in this fictional world. Indeed, the definition of verisimilitude can be split into two subsets: that of cultural verisimilitude, which is the extent to which fictional events could happen in our own world, past, present, or future, and that of generic verisimilitude, which refers to the extent to which a reader believes that the narrative could occur within the specific and imaginary world of the text.

The word verisimilitude comes from the Latin words verum and similis, meaning “truth” and “similar,” respectively.

Common Examples of Verisimilitude

Verisimilitude is not only applicable to literature. Scholars of other forms of art also discuss the function of verisimilitude in their respective fields, from visual art to theater to film. Visual art perhaps can stray the furthest from “reality,” especially as it did in the twentieth century up to the present day with the advent of abstract art. However, for a long time the goals of many visual artists was to represent the world in the most lifelike way possible, especially by working with perspective and color. Theater has also undergone an experiment with the absurd in the twentieth century, and yet there are ways that even the most absurd conceit leads to greater truths about what it means to be human. Some animated films have tried to achieve a great deal of verisimilitude with computer-generated animation. However, there have been mixed results as to how well audiences have responded to these films, finding some of them creepy when the animation approximates real life too much.

Verisimilitude matters quite a lot in robotics and similar advances in technology. Engineers often try to mimic life to a great extent with robots, computer-generated voices (such as Apple’s Siri), and so on. However, just as with some animated movies that seem creepy, these technological advances can go wrong when they aim too close to real life and fall just short.

Significance of Verisimilitude in Literature

The Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle argued that art should have a basis in reality to have any meaning for the audience. They talked about this theory as mimesis, which is the representation or imitation of nature in art. Verisimilitude continued to be considered an important quality in literature, especially in the Middle Ages when poets were encouraged to have a union in their heroic poetry between the language that different characters used and their age, gender, race, and class.

The writer Samuel Taylor Coleridge was the first to coin the phrase “to suspend one’s disbelief” in a reading experience. Verisimilitude allows this to happen for the reader; if the reader doesn’t believe that a certain aspect of a plot is possible, this will draw him or her out of the reading experience. This could be true either for a character acting a certain way after an emotional break-up of a relationship, or the speed at which an alien’s spaceship reaches a distant planet; either one can either work within the confines of the novel, or be unbelievable for reasons set up within the novel.

Examples of Verisimilitude in Literature

Example #1

ROMEO: Arms, take your last embrace. And, lips, O you
The doors of breath, seal with a righteous kiss
A dateless bargain to engrossing death.
(kisses JULIET, takes out the poison)
Come, bitter conduct, come, unsavoury guide.
Thou desperate pilot, now at once run on
The dashing rocks thy seasick, weary bark.
Here’s to my love! (drinks the poison) O true apothecary,
Thy drugs are quick. Thus with a kiss I die.
(ROMEO dies)

(Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare)

Romeo and Juliet is often said to be one of the great romances ever written; and yet, others point out that it’s a hasty love affair (three days long) between a seventeen-year-old boy and a thirteen-year-old girl that leads to both of their deaths and the deaths of many other people. And yet, while reading or watching this tragedy, we are convinced both of the depth of their love, and the utter animosity which leads to so many deaths. Shakespeare’s language and excellent character development makes this play an excellent example of verisimilitude.

Example #2

“It’ll show you how I’ve gotten to feel about – things. Well, she was less than an hour old and Tom was God knows where. I woke up out of the ether with an utterly abandoned feeling, and asked the nurse right away if it was a boy or a girl. She told me it was a girl, and so I turned my head away and wept. ‘All right,’ I said, ‘I’m glad it’s a girl. And I hope she’ll be a fool—that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.’”

(The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald)

There is, perhaps, nothing that would ring false to an audience while reader F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. This is an example of cultural verisimilitude, because we can believe that these characters really could have lived in 1920s New York, and we believe that the events of the plot really could have happened. However, verisimilitude is just as important in this novel as it is in any other. This telling quote from Daisy sounds absurd; why would being a fool be “best thing a girl can be in this world”? It’s important to believe her experience as a part of this world, however; she knows how difficult to be a woman is in this culture, and we, the readers, believe that she could say this tragic thing about how it would be better to be beautiful and foolish so as remain ignorant of the lack of opportunity for women.

Example #3

“It’s going to be all right, sir,” Harry said over and over again, more worried by Dumbledore’s silence than he had been by his weakened voice. “We’re nearly there … I can Apparate us both back … don’t worry …”
“I am not worried, Harry,” said Dumbledore, his voice a little stronger despite the freezing water. “I am with you.”

(Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J. K. Rowling)

J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is an excellent generic verisimilitude example. She creates an entire world of fantasy that is at once completely at odds with our own experience and yet believably mapped on top of it. Rowling creates such excellent internal logic in her series that we believe each event to be able to occur within her imagined world. Indeed, it is not the magic that truly has made her series famous; instead, it’s the beauty and truth of the relationships in the books that have made them so popular. In the above quote Harry refers to a magical ability to travel great distances in no time at all; yet, the beauty of this excerpt is his mentor’s faith in Harry.

Test Your Knowledge of Verisimilitude

1. Which of the following is the best verisimilitude definition?
A. A version of reality which is not truly believable.
B. A distortion of truth to manipulate the reader.
C. The lifelikeness of a piece of fiction.

Answer to Question #1 Show

2. How does the idea of suspending one’s disbelief relate to the concept of verisimilitude in literature?
A. When an author convincingly creates a fictional world so that all of the events seem possible to the reader, who has willingly suspended his or her disbelief, there is a great deal of verisimilitude and that world seems real.
B. These two concepts are at odds; a reader should not have to suspend his or her disbelief in order to believe a text to be lifelike. Instead, when a reader must suspend his or her disbelief during a reading experience this is a sign that there is little verisimilitude.
C. Verisimilitude hints at the fact that what is inside a fictional text is indeed false and thus the reader might get discouraged and have a harder time suspending his or her disbelief.

Answer to Question #2 Show

3. Consider the following quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby:

“I told you I went there,” said Gatsby.

“I heard you, but I’d like to know when.”

“It was in nineteen-nineteen, I only stayed five months. That’s why I can’t really call myself an Oxford man.”

Tom glanced around to see if we mirrored his unbelief. But we were all looking at Gatsby.

“It was an opportunity they gave to some of the officers after the Armistice,” he continued. “We could go to any of the universities in England or France.”

I wanted to get up and slap him on the back. I had one of those renewals of complete faith in him that I’d experienced before.

What relation does this quote have to verisimilitude?
A. Tom doesn’t believe Gatsby, and therefore the audience doesn’t either, and there is no verisimilitude.
B. The audience believes this exchange between Tom and Gatsby because we can see the way that class and privilege play into the world of The Great Gatsby. Gatsby has to pretend that he went to a good university to be accepted into this society, and the reader can understand why he’s lying.
C. There is no verisimilitude in the above excerpt.

Answer to Question #3 Show

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