Fact or Fancy


Facts or Fancy
“NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.” –Charles Dickens, Hard Times.

When Charles Dickens wrote this quote in 1853, he was reflecting and critiquing the industrial revolution and its soul-less privileging of utility and science. This quote, however, speaks to our own time and our own privileging of science, facts and logic. What do you think? Is it true that facts are the only form of valid knowledge?

In the novel, Dicken’s character, Mr. Gradgrind, expounds the importance of facts. At one point, he approaches Sissy, “Girl number twenty,” and asks her to define a horse. Gradgrind rebukes Sissy for her inability to do this. However, Bitzer, Sissy’s classmate, manages to provide a scientific definition: “Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.”

While Gradgrind seems happy with this definition, Dickens use of dramatic irony illustrates to the reader that facts, in and of themselves, are not enough. In other words, facts, which may or may not speak to a utilitarian or scientific perspective, oftentimes do not provide an image that the reader can relate to. In Bitzer’s scientific definition of the horse, the facts do not allow the reader to see a complete picture of the horse. While Grandgrind believes that pure fancy and fiction amount to nothing more than “destructive nonsense,” a definition or description that allows the reader to see, feel, and understand the horse is one that the reader can relate to.

Good writing, then, is not so much concerned with facts, as accurate as they may be, as it is with fancy and fiction. In short, the good writer remembers that he or she is not only a “reasoning animal,” but also, and maybe more importantly, a complex feeling, relational and creative being.  Put simply, the good writer shows rather than tells.  Knowing that facts are only a small part of the picture, the writer uses detailed description, examples, metaphor, point-of-view, strong, active verbs, and detail to encourage the reader to see the horse as he or she imagines. In this way, the reader is able to feel and know, instead of being told, that facts are only a small part and by no means the main part of a story.

Consider this description, taken from Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse:

“I bolted, half charging, half jumping the rails so that I caught my off foreleg as I tried to clamber over and was stranded there. I was grabbed roughly by the mane and tail and felt a rope tighten around my neck before I was thrown to the ground and held there with a man sitting it seemed on every part of me. I struggled until I was weak, kicking out violently every time I felt them relax, but they were too many and too strong for me.”

In this description, the reader understands the facts related to the situation, but Morpurgo’s decision to tell the story from the horse’s point-of-view allows the reader to  feel the horse’s fear and panic. The reader can empathize with the horse’s oppression and relate, even in a distant way, to the violence the animal is subjected to. Morpurgo does this by setting a scene and using strong verbs and adverbs, such as clamber, stranded, grabbed roughly, tighten, thrown, struggled etc.

In some ways, we might be able to recognize that Grandgrind is as oppressed by his relentless desire for facts as the horse is oppressed here by the men who want to control him.