Exploration and Evaluation of the Relationship Between Perception of Reality and Behaviour by Liliana Nociforo

More Than This (Ness, 2013) by Patrick Ness is a science-fiction coming of age story that deals with the idea that the life the protagonist Seth has been living is merely an online simulation, and that the post-apocalyptic, empty English town that Seth wakes up in after his death is the ‘real world’. Whilst trying to survive in this alternate reality, Seth meets two other teenagers, Tomasz and Regine, and the characters’ personal journeys in conceptualising their individual definition of reality are embarked upon.

Defining reality is the main theme of the book, as most of the plot revolves around the conflict between pursuit of the real versus a sense of absence of reality, or ‘irreality’. “Part 1 asks a question. Part 2 answers that question… but then Part 3 asks, are you sure?” (Ness, 2013) For the purpose of this paper, I will not engage in an ontological pursuit, rather I will focus on how different views of reality influence the characters, as “the facts of [their] world remain stubbornly elusive, and the task at hand is not primarily to map out that landscape, but to understand the self within it.” (ibid.) Structuralist theorist Jung’s Archetypes of Dreams (Jung, 1927) and transitional theorist Bakhtin’s Carnival (Bakhtin, 1984) are used to explore the notion of irreality’s role in experiencing reality in the novel, as both address behaviour in respect to conventions of reality and society. More Than This (Ness, 2013) also posits another potential form of experiencing reality, which I have called ‘alreality’. Alreality is the state of believing that everything is real, and there cannot be experience that is not real or irreal, even dreams. By using post-structuralist Baudrillard’s theoretical notion of Hyperreality (Baudrillard, 1983) in conjunction with Jung and Bakhtin, I am able to explore alreality’s effects on the characters’ behaviour.

The novel focuses on two versions of reality, the perceptions of which alter constantly throughout the plot. The ‘reality’ explored in the Prologue and through the characters’ ‘dreams’ is what I call the First Reality, and the ‘reality’ in Parts 1-3 is the Second Reality. Controversially, these signifiers do not correctly represent the order of ‘realness’ or originality of the realities, rather the order of their perceived experience, in order to mark chronological changes in the characters’ behaviour that these alternate realities produce. The behaviour of the characters is strongly dictated by their ideas of what is real and what is not; their sense of responsibility is altered when faced with the prospect irreality. Since the characters believe they have experienced reality, they therefore also have a definition of an equal and opposite irreality, which they believe is distinguishable from reality. “Real life is real life. You wouldn’t just forget about it … You’d always be able to tell the difference.” (Ness, 2013 p. 221) This belief results in each character forming individualized rules and regulations for their definition of and conduct in the realities.

In hyperreality, simulations of reality have seamlessly replaced aspects of the ‘real’ reality, as such that the participants of the reality are unaware of the change. It is evident that the characters in More Than This have entered into a literal hyperreality when it is revealed that the First Reality was actually a simulation. Baudrillard considers America to be the epitome of the hyperreal (Mann, n.d.) because of its advanced technology and affection for counterfeit glory in the form of celebrities. Interestingly, when Seth’s family enter Lethe, they move to America, which is symbolic of their entrance into “a fantasy world more real than reality.” (Eco, 2014)

“We think that some time, eight or ten years ago… everyone went online. Permanently. Everyone left the real world behind,” Regine says, “and moved to one that was entirely online. Some completely immersive version that didn’t look like being online at all, so much like real life you wouldn’t even know the difference.” (Ness, 2013 p. 220)

This introduces the concept of an Original Reality which was simulated to become the hyperreal First Reality. Like in theoretical hyperreality, the Original is forgotten by Seth and the others; the transition from real to hyperreal is so seamless that they are unaware that their experiences are hyperreal.

When Seth enters the Second Reality, he accepts it as the ‘real reality’ until he has his first dream. Seth then believes the dream to be a memory; this collection of memories then becomes the First Reality. In the rational world, the waking hours are the ‘real reality’ and dreams are the ‘irreal’. For Seth, however, this is reversed. He sees his dreams as memories of the ‘real reality’ and his daily experience as fiction. Indeed, the Second Reality can be seen as a ‘dream’, or more precisely a manifestation of Seth’s unconscious. Seth rationalises that the Second Reality “all has the inevitability of a story.” (p. 222)

The kind of story where everything’s explained by one big secret, like everyone going online, and what’s real and what’s not being reversed. The kind of story his own mind would provide to make sense of this place. (p. 248)

Because Seth considers his experience to be a story, he subconsciously begins to apply archetypal characters and outcomes to the Second Reality, to the extent where he soon becomes consciously aware and accepting of this behaviour. “Archetypes are systems of readiness for action, and at the same time images and emotions.” (Jung, 1927) Seth appoints archetypal roles on himself and the others he encounters in the Second Reality, thereby connecting unrelated events in his mind based on the idea of a resolution or moral to his ‘journey’. He sees himself as the Hero, “whose primary purpose is to … sacrifice himself for the service of the Journey at hand – to answer the challenge, complete the quest and restore… balance.” (Coster, 2010)

There are several ‘quests’ that Seth undertakes throughout the story, and some prove more successful than others. Seth is successful in his quest to stay alive and protect Regine and Tomasz, but never discovers the full truth about ‘reality’, which could be seen to be his primary goal. He considers Regine and Tomasz his Mentors and Threshold Guardians, who “provide motivation, insights and training to help the Hero … and provide essential tests to prove a Hero’s commitment and worth.” (Coster, 2010) Seth constantly questions the reality of the pair, and seems to trust them based only on his own hypothesis that they are there to help him achieve his goal or destiny.

Did he call them into being? Did he make them arrive? (p. 185) Tomasz and Regine. A boy and a girl come to stop him… before he ran straight into the arms of something dangerous. A boy and a girl to give him answers to all the questions he might have. (p. 252)

Seth is permanently sceptical about the ‘realness’ of the Second Reality and continues to justify his actions, and those of others, based on a conception of irreality. Seth’s heroic archetype mentality is ultimately made manifest in the final fight scene between himself and the Driver. “I’ll win . . . That’s how the story goes, doesn’t it? The enemy makes a surprise return just before the end, facing the hero one last time- and the hero wins.” (p. 453)

Contrary to Seth’s thoughts and the confidence they give him, he is defeated by the Driver and dies briefly before being resurrected by the Driver. Thus, the Ordeal in the story is realised when Seth “engages in . . . the central life-or-death crisis, during which he … confronts his most difficult challenge, and experiences “death”.” (Coster, 2010)

[Seth’s] Journey teeters on the brink of failure. Only through “death” can the Hero be reborn, experiencing a resurrection that grants greater power or insight to see the Journey to the end. (ibid)

Seth eventually remembers the event that happened in the Original Reality that caused his family to engage in the hyperreality. “Seth has brought them to a cemetery. To a tombstone. To the place where his brother lies buried.” (p. 349) Since the ‘real’ Owen died before Seth entered the First Reality, the Owen that lives in the First Reality is actually a simulacrum (Baudrillard, 1983), a simulation of reality which separates from its original. Owen is “not unreal, but a simulacrum, never again exchanging for what is real, but exchanging in itself, in an uninterrupted circuit without reference or circumference.” (Baudrillard, 1983) Therefore, to Seth and his family, Owen is ‘real’, and even though Seth now knows that this is not ‘true’. For them, “the real is not a meaning, it is not a truth of anything and does not possess an epistemic structure since it is not mirrored by and does not mirror any accurate knowledge of its workings.” (Kolozova, 2013)

Carnival and carnivalesque themes (Bakhtin, 1984) present in the Second Reality successfully create two distinct behavioural responses in the characters. Some carnivalesque themes persuade the characters that the Second Reality is ‘irreal’, however grotesque realism convinces them of its reality. Grotesque realism is the most prominent carnivalesque theme found in the novel. It is especially prevalent in the Second Reality, where Seth’s experience is directed almost entirely by his bodily urges until he meets Regine and Tomasz.

Details of Seth’s gastronomic and excretory practices produce a primal account of his experience, as “the primary needs” (Luttazzi, 2009) are obeyed in assumed solitude, without societal confines. In grotesque realism, “the bodily element is … presented not in a private [and] egotistic form, severed from the other spheres of life,” (Bakhtin, 1984) rather it is exposed and indulged in “to celebrate the victory of life.” (Luttazzi, 2009) Incidents such as “He leans forward a bit and waits to pee out into the tall grass… until at last, with a heartfelt cry of relief, he sends a poisonously dark yellow stream into the yard,” (p. 50) serve to demonstrate how “grotesque realism degrade[s], bring[s] down to earth, turn[s] the subject into flesh. It makes no pretence to renunciation of the earthy, or independence of the earth and the body.” (Bakhtin, 1984) The connection to the physical that grotesque realism causes concretes the reality of the experience for Seth. Because his experience is ruled by his physical senses, he is persuaded of its ‘truth’ to the extent that he prepares to kill himself again, as he had done in the First Reality. Seth plans to kill himself by jumping off a cliff into the sea, and begins to run to shore. “He doesn’t think about his final destination as he runs, not in words. There is only intention. There is only a lightness… of it all being over. The lightness of letting it all go.” (p. 170) This repetition of his reaction to “a loneliness more awful than what he’d left” (p. 172) confirms that Seth is treating the Second Reality as another ‘real reality’, causing this negative perpetuation of his behaviour between realities.

It is further made clear that Seth has undertaken an ‘alrealistic’ viewpoint when he refuses to accept that the First Reality was merely a simulation and states, “It feels and looks completely real because it is completely real,” (p 357). He believes that it can be entered into through the connective system in the coffins. Seth’s overwhelming guilt about Owen’s kidnapping and frequent suicide attempts in all of his experienced variants of reality demonstrate that he is completely unaware of any indication of ‘irreality,’ rather it is all real for him.

This perspective changes when Seth meets Tomasz and Regine, as when forced to make social interactions again, he begins to question the connectedness of his experience. This results in Seth adopting the belief that the Second Reality is irreal. This belief appears to be shared by Regine and Tomasz, as indicated by their behaviour. Whilst in the domain of the grotesque body, Seth “tries to see if playing with himself will have any results,” (p. 142) and Regine later confesses, “We saw you… out in front of your house.” (p. 193) Tomasz finds the situation merely amusing and Regine seems to pay no attention to it, signifying that they are engaging in carnivalesque mindset. Carnival allows for the subjugation of societal conventions, where the ‘true self’ can be put on display without consequence (Bakhtin, 1984). The change in environment and circumstances that is the Second Reality allows a Carnival to emerge, in which the social dynamic and thus the rules are altered. Regine carnivalises a situation by downplaying its significance, for “[one way] to degrade an object [is to] hurl it into the void of nonexistence.” (Bakhtin, 1984) Tomasz often finds humour and delight in ‘unconventional’ situations, thus he portrays the true spirit of carnival, as “laughter make[s] no exception… it builds its own world versus the official world.” (Bakhtin, 1984) Tomasz is an important initiator and perpetuator of the carnivalesque because of this, subverting society’s limitations with “festive liberation of laughter and body.” (ibid.) An example of this occurs when “Tomasz grins even wider [and says] “You were pulling on your willy!” (p. 192). Tomasz’ jovial behaviour indicates that he believes the Second Reality is irreal. Since Tomasz is only 11 years old, it is assumed that he would be more frightened and would not act as courageously if he believed it to be real.

In hyperreality, “all… is equally true, and the search for proof, indeed the objectivity of the fact does not check this vertigo of interpretation.” (Baudrillard, 1983) This explains Seth’s fluctuating beliefs about the ‘realness’ of his experiences, as he uses “a logic of simulation which has nothing to do with a logic of facts and an order of reasons” (ibid.) to attempt to distinguish what is ‘real’ from what is ‘not’.

The objective of this paper was to analyse how perception of reality impacts behaviour by treating characters of More Than This (Ness, 2013) like real people and by avoiding any pursuits to concretely define what is ‘really real’. Initially I sought to use Baudrillard’s Hyperreality (Baudrillard, 1983) in conjunction with Kant’s Noumenal and Phenomenal (Kant, 1998) theories as well as Jung’s Archetypes (Jung, 1927) and Bakhtin’s Carnival (Bakhtin, 1984) to explore the constructs of reality, thus I framed my reading of the novel with these theories. However, after a close reading of the text, I noticed that there was little evidence in More Than This as to which ‘reality’ should be treated as the ‘real reality’. Moreover, whilst Baudrillard’s Hyperreality (Baudrillard, 1983) would have been effective in defining reality, Bakhtin and Jung’s theories proved to be centric on experience rather than definition of reality. Thus, disregarding Kant, I reconstructed my hypothesis to focus on behavioural response to the experience of perceived reality or irreality. The problematic of using these theories was that the words ‘irreality’ and ‘alreality’ did not exist within their framework, so I had to invent them to suit my purposes and definitions.

My concept of alreality worked well with Baudrillard’s Hyperreality (Baudrillard, 1983) as I intended alreality in its definition to be the ‘next step’ of the hyperreal process. In this paper, Baudrillard’s post-structuralist theory facilitated the definition of the multiple realities the characters had experienced and explained the existence of the character Owen in the First Reality though congruence with textual evidence. Despite this, Baudrillard did not prove necessary to the exploration of the characters’ behaviour in relation to their perception of reality, thus Hyperreal theory served mainly to lay the groundwork for the alreal standpoint, and was effective in justifying what causes the characters to shift between irrealistic and alrealistic viewpoints.

The transitional and structuralist theories of Bakhtin (Bakhtin, 1984) and Jung (Jung, 1927) combined efficiently to give both complimentary and opposing demonstrations of behaviour in conjunction with definition of reality. Aspects of Baudrillard’s theory were interspersed throughout each argument as connectors, as despite reaching similar conclusions, Jung and Bakhtin’s theories could not be used simultaneously. This is because archetypes (Jung, 1927) are distinctly structuralist and serve to create rigid roles and scenarios, whereas Carnival (Bakhtin, 1984) strives to eradicate these constructs through humour and degradation. Nevertheless, despite being incompatible in this way, both structuralist and post-structuralist theory was successful in extrapolating the ways that perception of reality interferes with and shapes the experience of it. Whether or not there is a definitive definition of reality present is separate to its effects; characters change their standpoint on the reality of situations frequently enough that the ‘truth’ of this reality is inconsequential.

Jung’s Archetypes (Jung, 1927) strongly argued Seth’s irrealistic perspective of the Second Reality, as the novel provided clear evidence that Seth was aware that he was identifying with and consciously enacting major archetypes. Jung’s theory did not enable any discussion on alreality, as archetypes are indicators of dreams or stories when consciously recognised and applied. My concept of irreality was constructed in order to explain the mindset used when archetypes come into play. I felt that simply stating that something was ‘not real’ was not strong or definitive enough, as ‘not real’ can encompass many things such as dreams, movies or pop-culture icons. Irreality had to be even more unreal and untrue than a dream, because in the novel, dreams are treated as true memories. Thus, it is only through irreality that archetypes could be used for More Than This (Ness, 2013).

Bakhtin’s Carnival (Bakhtin, 1984) was more versatile in its application, and allowed both irreality and alreality to be explored as Seth’s potential viewpoints, though briefly. Just as Jung’s theory was more suitable to argue irreality, Grotesque Realism (Bakhtin, 1984) lent itself to an alrealistic perspective. Whilst there was sufficient textual evidence to suggest grotesque realism was occurring in the novel, all carnivalesque elements explored were identified through a reading of the novel, and were not conscious aspects of the plot like archetypes. For this reason it cannot be explicitly stated that a Carnival (Bakhtin, 1984) caused the change in behaviour and perception of the characters, however Carnival facilitated a sound theoretical argument as to how such elements would impact perspective and behaviour. Carnivalesque themes also provided insight into the possible perspectives of Tomasz and Regine, where irreality was favoured based on their parodic behaviour, which was considered inconsistent with the severity of their situation if it were real.

I was able to use these theories to find textual evidence of behavioural patterns and changes in conduct and character. These behavioural phenomena suggested whether the characters believed their experience was real -indicating alrealism- or irreal. In instances where Seth’s perception was considered alrealistic, his behaviour was notably unchanged between realities. Grotesque realism initiated an alrealistic perspective in the Second Reality for Seth, which caused him to repeat the suicidal behaviour he had exhibited in the First Reality. In contrast, when Seth’s perception was considered irrealistic, his behaviour changed substantially. Seth’s frequent encounters with the Driver and dangerous rescue missions show that he felt confident and was mission-oriented, instead of feeling guilty and suicide-driven. This marked transformation of his character is based on the notion that irreality must have a happy resolution, as explained by Jung’s Archetypes (Jung, 1927).

Of Jung (Jung, 1927) and Bakhtin’s (Bakhtin, 1984) theories, it is difficult to determine which is more efficacious in revealing the ways in which perception of reality manipulates private and interpersonal conduct. Alone, neither outweighs the other in profoundness, although Bakhtin’s multiple carnivalesque themes allowed a broader scope of outcomes to be explored by including more characters. Underpinned by Baudrillard’s (Baudrillard, 1983) theoretical concepts, Jung and Bakhtin’s work enabled me to make clear connections between Seth, Tomasz and Regine’s behaviour and their beliefs about reality. However, it is only when both arguments are viewed in correspondence that a competent evaluation of the characters can be made. This results in a somewhat post-poststructuralist position, as neither structuralist nor poststructuralist theory alone is sufficient in outlining the many ways in which concepts of reality change the experience of it. It is not possible to fully explore my concepts of irreality and alreality without correlative use of Jung’s Archetypes (Jung, 1927), Bakhtin’s Carnival (Bakhtin, 1984) and Baudrillard’s Hyperreality (Baudrillard, 1983).


Works Cited

Bakhtin, M., 1984. Rabelais and His World. First ed. s.l.:Midland Book.

Baudrillard, J., 1983. Simulations. New York: Semiotext(e) Incorporated.

Coster, P. L. D., 2010. The Collective Unconscious and Its Archetypes. Gent: Satsang Press.

Eco, U., 2014. Travels in Hyperreality. s.l.:Houghton Mifflin Harcour.

Jones, E., 1976. Hamlet and Oedipus. New York: W.W.Norton.

Jung, C., 1927. Mind and Earth. s.l.:Carl Jung.

Kant, I., 1998. Critique of Pure Reason. Cambridge: The Press Syndicate of The University of Cambridge.

Kolozova, K., 2013. The Real in Contemporary Philosophy [Interview] (28 March 2013).

Luttazzi, D., 2009. Se Dio avessse voluto che credessimo in lui, sarebbe esistito. s.l.:Daniele Luttazzi.

Mann, D., n.d. A Very Short Introduction. [Online]
Available at: http://publish.uwo.ca/~dmann/baudrillard1.htm
[Accessed 3 September 2015].

Morgann, M., 1777. An Essay on the Dramatic Character of Sir John Falstaff. London: s.n.

Ness, P., 2013. More Than This. First ed. London: Walker Books.

Ness, P., 2013. The Secret of Writing an Unforgettable Book [Interview] (19 September 2013).

Woolley, B., 1993. Virtual Worlds: A Journey in Hype and Hyperreality. Illustrated ed. s.l.:Benjamin Woolley.

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