What Is Verisimilitude?
When someone says that a literary work has verisimilitude, that means it is believable to the audience because it reflects real life experience. This idea of art mirroring life has been around for centuries, originating in the ancient Greek concept of mimesis. To writers of the classical era, the audience had to “suspend their disbelief” in the artificial environment of the theater in order to achieve catharsis, or emotional release. That was done by playing on real feelings and moral dilemmas.
In the nineteenth century, verisimilitude became one of the most important characteristics of the realist novel, along with omniscient narration and psychological character development. Many critics have argued that novelists of that period felt an obligation to understand the ongoing transformation of their social order from a feudal to a capitalism economy by assuming complete control over the worlds they created. Realist novels contain minute descriptions of factories, details of the battlefield, and in-depth examinations of both the physical and emotional environment of their characters. Nineteenth-century novels also achieved verisimilitude by including real historical events alongside fictional characters.
How Do You Identify Verisimilitude in Writing?
Simply put, a literary work contains verisimilitude if the reader believes it is true to life. A novel or film can be literally unrealistic in fact yet seem real because there is consistency within the narrative or a strong element of psychological truth.
For instance, Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Handmaiden’s Tale, achieves verisimilitude in spite of the fact that a basic plot point — the overtake of the U.S. government by Christian fundamentalists — is implausible. Atwood thinks logically about how this overtake would occur, and in what precise stages it would occur; she even includes an afterward where academic scholars look back on this period of history. All that makes the reader suspend their disbelief.
Examples of Verisimilitude
1. Leo Tolstoy’s novel, War and Peace, interweaves real-life historical characters, like Napoleon Bonaparte, into his story of a fictional Russian family.
2. Honoré de Balzac’s Lost Illusions contains long sections about paper making, against which the main characters interact.
3. Herman Melville’s Moby Dick tells the implausible story about a man fighting a battle with a white whale. But because the novel contains many realistic descriptions of the whaling industry and of human obsession, it is a great example of verisimilitude.
4. The Matrix, starring Keanu Reeves, is hardly realistic. Human beings are not really being harvested as an energy source by greedy aliens. But the movie’s details are consistent, and it also portrays a moral truth — that people at the bottom are exploited by those in power to the point where they believe prefer to believe illusions over reality. These things give the film verisimilitude.
5. The Sopranos, a successful HBO series, uses shots of northern New Jersey and New York to set the real life stage of the show. That, and the psychological depth of the characters, gives the program verisimilitude.
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