French literature: What is verisimilitude?

What is verisimilitude?

Verisimilitude is a rule of classicism. It applies to all classical literature, but specifically to theater. Verisimilitude is not truth; it does not lead to a « documentary. » It’s the illusion, or the impression of truth created by the author. The actions should not seem implausible, unrealistic, or impossible.

As always at this time, this rule was inspired by Aristotle and his work « Poetics » which criticizes the irrational in stories. Boileau sings its praises in « The Art of Poetry » (1674): « Never offer anything incredible to the spectator / The truth can sometimes not be believable /…The mind is not moved by what it does not believe. » Thus, the organizer of classicism explains to us that verisimilitude is not truth but the art of making something seem true…

This aspiration to verisimilitude was at the center of the dispute over « The Cid » (1637). The final marriage of Chimene and Rodrigue was considered implausible, especially by Scudery, as Rodrigue had killed Chimene’s father in a duel. Verisimilitude was shattered with the romantic theater of the 19th century (Hugo’s « Hernani » in 1830, another dispute…).

This requirement for verisimilitude appears to be taken up again by realist or naturalist authors of the 19th century (Balzac or Zola), especially in the novel. However, the fiction of the novel seems to be accepted by all, and while it may be close to the truth, it remains an imaginary work, close to reality but still invented. The idea is no longer really verisimilitude, « the making-true, » but an approach to the reality of the described situations. We could use the expression of the surrealist author Aragon’s « The Lie-True » (1980), that might be a nice and simple definition of verisimilitude…

Classicism article link: French literary movement: Classicism.

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