Analysis of class topics in Stranger than Fiction and The Truman Show
The meaning of life has been speculated for millennia, and seems even more enigmatic in today’s world, which is so intensely focused on the daily grind and acquiring what is necessary to reach career goals, life goals, and many short-term accomplishments. Modern books and movies can be used to explore some of the theories that would explain what gives life meaning, either directly or indirectly, by proposing various theoretical scenarios and postulating the effects these scenarios would have on our perception of what would constitute a meaningful life.
Two popular movies, Stranger than Fiction (2006) and The Truman Show (1998), take place in a universe where the environment in which the main character lives is fabricated. Because both main characters are living in an environment that is controlled or dictated by a higher power, these movies can approach the idea that god, or another higher power, would give our lives meaning. These movies also approach the ideas that death can undermine meaning in life, or make life more meaningful, and whether or not happiness, love, or the greater good can give meaning to life.
Harold Crick, the main character of Stranger than Fiction, lives a boring, routine life as an IRS tax agent, performing the same tasks, day in and day out, until he starts hearing the voice of the narrator, writing a novel about his life. He goes about his life until he hears the narrator dictate that an action he performs will lead to his inevitable death, which drastically disrupts his mundane life, despite the fact that he has routine habits, and little ambition. This initial reaction, much like Tolstoy’s realization that his death was inevitable, seemed to undermine the meaningfulness of Harold’s daily life.
Tolstoy’s Confession contains a metaphor in which he is a traveler, hanging from a branch above a well. At the bottom of this well is a dragon, symbolizing death, waiting to eat him, and there are mice, symbolizing time, continuously nibbling at the branch, making his fall into the fiery jaws of the dragon inevitable. While he is hanging, however, the traveler is able to lick honey off of the branch, thus giving his life some pleasure. Tolstoy’s realization that he will someday, inevitably die seems to undermine the meaning and joy he finds in everyday activities, which is consistent with the way Harold reacts to the realization of his own mortality.
While Tolstoy turned to religion to give his life meaning, as death in a religious sense is not always the end, Harold Crick visited a therapist to gain an alternative perspective for this phenomenon. This therapist, Jules, after hearing Harold’s story, tells Harold that he must be the main character of a novel, which must be a comedy or tragedy, and must end with either his marriage or his death. In the movie, Harold falls in love with a free-spirited baker, Ana Pascal, who he happens to be auditing, and this gives him hope that his life is, in fact, a comedy, and that he will survive until the end of the novel. In this way, his relationship with Ana gives his life meaning, because he feels that his ultimate purpose in life is not to die.
However, later on in the movie, after Harold’s life is almost ended despite his cautious efforts to preserve it, and it becomes clear that Harold is still meant to die, Jules recommends that Harold should accept his fate and make the most of the time he has remaining. Harold learns to play guitar, takes a vacation, develops a friendship, and explores his relationship with Ana.
You have to die –
When Harold discovers that he knows the voice of the narrator he has been hearing, he finds that the author, Karen Eiffel, is a real person in his world, and her writing is inexplicably linked to the events that occur in his life. Harold gives the manuscript of the novel that has been dictating his life to the therapist because he could not bring himself to read it. Upon reading this masterpiece, Jules tells Harold that Karen’s novel would be incomplete if it was not for his death, and that his death would be beautiful, poetic and meaningful. This revelation gives Harold a small amount of peace, so he spends one last night with Ana and goes about what he believes to be his last day alive, finally being hit by a public bus as he saves a child from being run over.
While Harold does not actually die in the movie, he perceives his death to be meaningful because of the greater good he is doing. Now only does Harold save the life of a child as he leaps in front of the bus, but he believes he is giving a meaningful end to what is touted as Karen’s most meaningful novel thus far. This gives his life external meaning, and, when Karen is viewed as a godlike figure as in Wielenberg’s explanation, his life is given meaning because he has accomplished the purpose that the higher power had assigned to him, and because a person of significance cared about the outcome of his life.
While all of these factors that gave Harold’s life meaning revolve around his death, there are theories that give life meaning despite the fact that everyone dies. For example, Aristotle describes a good, meaningful life to be one in which a person is able to thrive and flourish in every aspect that makes an organism uniquely human. In this way, Harold’s life was meaningful because he was able to break out of his mundane work routine. Harold learned to enjoy his life, play guitar, and explore a meaningful relationship with a person he cared deeply for. All of these actions are uniquely human and are vital to living a fulfilling and meaningful life, according to Aristotle, because these capacities are what separate us from animals.
Truman Burbank, the main character in The Truman Show, was born onto a TV studio set. He was raised, unbeknownst to him, by actors, went to school with actors, and nothing in his world is real. His life is filmed and broadcast 7 days a week to the entire world from a fictional town called Seahaven, which is located within an arcological dome in the Los Angeles area. While he has faced some tragedy in his life with the loss of his father and the disappearance of a girl he is infatuated with, Truman’s life seems very fulfilling. He has a good job, a loving wife, and is well connected to his community.
In some theories, such as that postulated by Peter Singer, life is given meaning by reducing suffering, and the philosopher, Richard Taylor even goes so far as to say that any life can be meaningful as long as it gives a person internal meaning. According to these theories, Truman’s life should be meaningful and satisfying to him.
However, as the show goes on, the set starts to break, people disappear, and other strange things occur that cause Truman to question what is happening in his world. He tries again and again to escape, and even encounters the actor who played his father, who had died when he was a child. This causes Truman to dig deeper into his reality to try and determine what exactly is happening to this apparent utopia that he has been residing in. This speaks to Aristotle’s definition of a meaningful life in how Truman is not simply settling for the simple pleasant life that he is living as the main character of this show, with his perfect wife, pleasant neighbors, and easygoing occupation. Truman wants to travel and pursue his passion for Sylvia, an actress who had been removed from the show for threatening to reveal the reality of Truman’s situation to him.
In the end, Truman is able to escape his captors and departs from Seahaven on a small boat. Despite almost being capsized, Truman survives and perseveres until he hits the border of the arcological dome. At this point in time, he finds an exit from his idealistic world and is presented with a choice. It is at this moment that the creator of the show, Christof, a godlike figure to Truman’s world, begins to speak to him.
Christof tries to dissuade Truman from leaving Seahaven for good. He appeals to the argument that life is meaningless unless a higher power appoints a specific meaning to it. Christof tells Truman that his entire life thus far has only had meaning as a television show, and as entertainment to millions of people in the real world because that was the purpose that he gave to Truman’s existence. He also appeals to the idea that is commonly introduced by people who seek meaning in life by describing the pain and suffering that is present in the modern world, and how, by staying in Seahaven, Truman is able to theoretically only experience the pleasant things in life without having to worry about the tragedies and injustice that are prevalent throughout the world.
In the end, however, none of these appeals seem to ring true with Truman Burbank, and he leaves the set of the Truman show to experience everything that the real world has to offer, for the best or for the worst. This seems to indicate that the arguments for what gives life meaning that present themselves in this movie are not satisfactory to the multidimensional experiences we have as human beings.
Why is Truman’s Life Any Less Meaningful Than Our Own?
Thinking about whether the life of Truman Burbank is more or less meaningful than our own is a difficult question. It might seem helpful that, upon my initial reflection, his life seemed obviously lacking in some area, but that isn’t a sound argument. To some, the fact that his life is constructed, planned out for him, seems to automatically make it less meaningful. He also lacks genuine two-way human interaction, most of his conversations are with actors who are just saying what they’re told to, and nothing in his environment is real. But, what do we mean by these things? Starting with his environment, unlike the digital locale of The Matrix, Truman’s hometown of Seahaven isn’t literally nonexistent in the physical world. People outside of the show-within-the-film can access it, and its buildings are, for the most part, physically like another. This seems like a good place to start.
One way in which Seahaven can be said to be false is that it can be said to lie. To Aristotle, everything has its telos or purpose that is written into the fabric of the universe. For example, an oven’s telos is to cook food, a calculator’s to perform calculations, and, to Aristotle, a human’s to use their faculties of language and reason. If we believe this to be true, then the town of Seahaven lies because each object within it has both a telos as presented to Truman, which is the same as it would have to us, and a true telos, that of keeping up the illusion that Truman’s world is not a giant TV show set and/or that of selling a product to the viewers at home. This same sort of duality can be seen in the behavior and words of the actors, when Louis Coltrane, the actor playing Truman’s best friend, Marlon, says something, there is his false motivation conveyed to Truman, which is again whatever that motivation would be if Truman’s life wasn’t a TV show, and his true motivation to keep Truman on track for the show’s plot.
So, if we agree that the purpose an object was created for is objectively its purpose, than it seems clear that Truman’s hometown of Seahaven is a lie, as are his interactions with its inhabitants. But, why should this make his life less meaningful? The philosopher Erik Wielenberg outlines three different ways in which life can be seen as internally meaningful. The first, by Robert Taylor, says that meaningfulness is subjective, in which case Truman’s life can easily be meaningful. The second, by Peter Singer, says that suffering is intrinsically bad and intentionally attempting to reduce suffering is the meaning to life. Truman’s life can still be seen as meaningful with this criteria, it’s not unreasonable to think he’s intentionally trying to reduce suffering through his generally friendly behavior, and because he’s on TV he reduces suffering even more than he realizes. The third, by Aristotle, states that some activities are intrinsically good, particularly using reason and language as mentioned above. Again, Truman’s life can be seen as meaningful, as he clearly engages in reason and language as much as anyone in the real world.
The idea that Truman’s life is less meaningful than our own falls part even more when considering another idea that Wielenberg mentions, that of external meaning. To Wielenberg, having an externally meaningful life means that it’s better for other people that we are alive than if we weren’t. This is clearly the case for Truman, the world over is seen to watch his life and take great joy in following it, as is mentioned by Christof when he tries to convince Truman not to leave the show. Some people might argue that any false reality by definition lacks meaning. But, as Christof also mentions, the kind of duality of purpose that seems to make Seahaven and its inhabitants “fake” is common in our regular lives as well, people lie about why they do things all the time. And yet, even after being made aware of all this, Truman still decides to leave his constructed environment. Why would he do this?
There are two things that these arguments I’ve made overlook. The first is that these ideas about what makes life meaningful are based on Wielenberg’s formatting of them in the context of a universe without God. The second is that all of these argument are based on our universe. Although Seahaven physically exists in our world, in practice it is its own separate world with its own rules. And Seahaven has a God in Christof. Could this make Truman’s life less meaningful?
Although Truman’s life may be planned in many ways, it is planned around him. He has no place or purpose in the universe of Seahaven. Or, rather, his purpose there is to be purposeless. While the actors all have their roles to play, definite things to do in Seahaven, Truman’s purpose in Seahaven is to be the “real” or “human” element outside of Seahaven. Unlike in our universe under Aristotle’s view, where humans have a telos like anything else, Truman in his universe has no telos, or rather his telos is simply to exist. And, to make matters worse, within Seahaven this is a supernatural purpose imposed by Christof, the God of Seahaven. No matter how meaningful his life is, assuming Aristotle or Singer is right, or could be if Taylor is right, from the perspective of the universe he’s lived in his entire life, Truman’s purpose lacks meaning. And, as the film says, “We accept the reality with which we are presented.”
In this scene, Truman speaks directly to God, or at least the God of the universe he lives in. Truman asks God who he is, and discovers that he is the star. The universe revolves around him, as is reinforced throughout the conversation. Additionally, God affirms that Truman is the only real person or thing in the fake universe that he created. He has no worries in Seahaven, but he only has purpose in the fact that he’s alien to it.