A Willing Suspension of Disbelief

By Maeve Maddox

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The origin of this expression lies in literary criticism. The term represents a contract between reader and writer.

In recent years, however, the phrase has escaped from literary criticism and is used in a variety of contexts that have little to do with the original meaning. A web search brings up numerous examples in which the term seems to serve only as a round-about way of saying that something is unbelievable.

I think that the reports that you provide to us really require a willing suspension of disbelief.
Translation: I don’t believe that the reports you have given are accurate.

Deciding to bake these cookies will require a willing suspension of disbelief.
Translation: You may not think the ingredients are very appealing, but go ahead and try the recipe.

I can’t exactly suspend my suspension of disbelief now though, so I head off with Pelletier to hike Cathedral Rock.

The writer has had his aura read by Pelletier, who believes that hiking Cathedral Rock will cause his aura to change dramatically.
Tentative translation: I can’t admit I’m skeptical about the existence of auras, so I go through with the hike.

The term “willing suspension of disbelief” was coined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his two-volume autobiographical and critical work, Biographia Literaria (1817). The term originates in his discussion of the poetry collection he published with William Wordsworth in 1798.

The collection, called Lyrical Ballads, is credited with ushering in the Romantic era of English literature. The previous era, the Age of Enlightenment, elevated Reason and Skepticism above unquestioning belief. Religion, the supernatural, sentimentality, and excessive emotion were special targets of intellectual contempt.

Coleridge, with his penchant for high emotion and the supernatural, recognized that in order to draw an “enlightened” reader into his fantastic fictional world, he needed to employ a certain technique. His goal was to create a level of human interest and believability in his characters that would inspire his readers with a “willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.”

One of the poems included in Lyrical Ballads is “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” a poem I learned and loved in high school, but which doesn’t seem to be taught much anymore. Looking it up for this post, I found that it still gives me goosebumps.

Coleridge immediately places the reader in a recognizable situation. A man on his way to a wedding has his arm grabbed by a ragged old man who could be a beggar. The wedding guest, all dressed up for the occasion, is understandably annoyed and shakes him off, but the old man, a sailor, holds him with his “glittering eye” and launches into his eerie tale. Coleridge has hooked his readers and, by interweaving realistic physical descriptions with the supernatural elements, enables us to believe in the reality of the old man’s harrowing tale.

Why is it that a reader of Little Women cries when Beth lies dying, or viewers experience breath-stopping fear when watching a movie and the protagonist moves towards the alien creature’s hideaway?

Apparently, according to psychologists, when we give ourselves up to a narrative, we turn off the part of our brain that assesses reality in the ordinary way. We react to what we are seeing—on the screen or in our mind’s eye as if it were really happening. We are acting on “poetic faith.”

As long as the writer doesn’t introduce something jarring, something that would wake the brain’s critical thinking systems, readers can ignore the fact that what is happening to provoke our emotions is not really happening at all.

As for the ubiquitous use of “a willing suspension of disbelief,” unless a writer is discussing a movie, play, or novel, the term is probably best eschewed.

On second thought, perhaps even writers of reviews need to think hard about exactly what they mean to convey by this ten-syllable mouthful. Here’s an example from a review of the True Grit remake:

It’s a movie about melancholy, though much more than that, and it asks for more than the usual suspension of disbelief.

Translation: There is a lot about this movie that is unbelievable or unrealistic.

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4 Responses to “A Willing Suspension of Disbelief”

  • Chuck Hustmyre

    Isn’t the title of this article wrong? Currently, the title reads “A Willing Suspension of Belief,” but the article refers to the phrase the “willing suspension of DIS-belief.”

  • ApK

    In the example “I think that the reports that you provide to us really require a willing suspension of disbelief,” I think it may be more than “only as a round-about way of saying that something is unbelievable.”
    I may be giving the writer too much credit, but it seems that it may be an intentional allusion to works of fiction and fantasy to convey just how much of a lie the reports are. Not just “I don’t believe they are accurate” but “I think this is so obviously and completely made up and untrue that it might as well be a Dan Brown novel.”

  • Maeve Maddox

    Chuck Hustmyre
    Quite right. The title needs to be corrected. I can’t do it myself, but I’ve asked Daniel to change “Belief” to “Disbelief.” Thanks.

  • Maeve Maddox

    ApK,
    I like your translation better than mine. I originally wrote something stronger than “inaccurate,” but changed it to be nice.

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