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Gordian Plot

The Hero Chooses the Wiser Alternative or the Better Person

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THE MORAL or esthetic dilemma is a time-honored theme in all literatures. The necessity of choosing between selfindulgence and duty, between the easy expedient and justice, between what is merely gilt and what is truly gold has troubled heroes of all ages. Unless they are parodies or burlesques, dilemma stories are usually didactic, uplifting, and regenerating affairs. They exemplify and prove the essential nobility of man. For this reason, they are favorites with slick editors, who are always eager to say nice things interestingly. As might be expected, though, these editors have a way of taking this powerful fictional theme and, for the sake of superficial originality, doing some strange things with it. As an instance, consider this piece.

A blind, old man knocks on the door of a house where a party is in progress. When the host answers, the old man explains that he is lost. He is invited in to rest and, since he has an accordion with him, he is happily able to repay the kindness by playing some tunes for the guests. Then he tells his sad story. His neighbors in the nearby town where he lives made a collection to buy him a seeing-eye dog. The dog turned out to be a very intelligent and useful friend to the old man. But there was a difficulty: the old man's one joy in life is playing his accordion. And whenever he plays, the dog puts up a deafening howl. Now the old man is faced with a dilemma. He can't very well return the dog to the people of the town because they would consider him an ingrate, and he can't give up his playing, because life would lose its meaning for him if he did. The people at the party are struck to the heart by the old man's difficulty. When the time comes for the old man to leave, the host offers to drive him home and slips a revolver into his pocket on his way out. He explains his plan to the old man. The host intends to shoot the dog, and then run over the dog's body with his car so that the death will look like an accident. The old man, of course, is deeply troubled by this solution to his quandary, but sees in the scheme, the only answer. At the last minute, just as the host is about to shoot the dog, the old man changes his mind, and decides that the dog is a better and more important friend to him than his accordion.

If such a tale seems an outrage against probability, the literal-minded reader can find compensation in such blunt stories as this one. One of three sons of an upper-middle-class, small-town widow seduces a young waitress who is painfully lower class. Distraught, despairing and pregnant the waitress goes to the boy's mother with her problem. Initially, the mother is incredulous, refuses to believe that her son would do such a thing. But, listening to the girl, who seems honest enough, she learns that the son, although he never explicitly promised to marry the girl, had told her many times that he loved her. The mother promises the girl that, after she hears her son's version of the story, she will do all in her power to see justice done. The son is angered and ashamed to find that his mother has learned of the affair. The older brother who is currently engaged to a highly respectable, upper-class girl in town is outraged at the mother's suggestion that the boy marry the waitress. The older brother feels such a solution would ruin his chances to marry into an aristocratic family and would seriously injure the business connections he has so laboriously built up. The mother, though, who has given over her entire adult life to bringing up her sons to be respected members of the community and who consequently has most to lose by an improper alliance insists that the boy treat the girl fairly and marry her. The critical scene is set in front of the town church. The mother has asked the girl to meet the family outside, after services. There the mother introduces her to friends as the fiancee of her youngest son. The son himself is happy to have his dilemma solved since he really loves the girl. It is interesting to notice that this story appeared not in one of the more fashionable women's magazines, but in a practical housewife's periodical. The solution offered by the author of this story is much more likely to seem valid to readers of the latter type magazine than to readers of the former.

The more restricted the readership of a magazine socially and economically, the more definite and unqualified the answer to a hero's problem can be. Contrariwise, consider this one:

A game warden is set the task of locating a poacher who has been herding wild horses on state property. When he is found, the game-law violater turns out to be a very nice young man who loves nature. The game warden does not admit his position or his business but tags along with the poacher in order to gather evidence against him. The two strike up a close friendship, and the game warden discovers that the ultimate aim of the poacher is to breed horses from the magnificent wild stock he has been herding on this public land. The game warden is so attracted to the young man's ways and ideas and so sympathetic to his project, that he finally decides to let the poacher go ahead, and turns in a report saying that he was unable to locate the culprit.

This story was printed in a magazine with a very broad circulation. And the solution that the author offered to the warden' s dilemma had to be strongly qualified. The warden, after all, by letting the poacher continue his activities, was neglecting his duty and contravening the law. The qualifications or mitigating circumstances: (1) the poacher was young, handsome, ambitious; (2) rather than being an exploiter of nature like most poachers, he was intent on improving nature by breeding a superior stock of horses; (3) instead of harboring a callous disregard for nature, the young man loved all its manifestations. Innocuous as herding horses on public property may seem to the casual reader, the fact is that the magazine which printed the story reaches all sorts of people with all sorts of interests and opinions. In consequence, these precautions became necessary.

In most dilemma stories, the two or more alternatives at the hero's disposal are made only too clear. And the greatest pains are usually taken to outline the pros and cons of each possibility. Occasionally, though, a story appears in which the very fact that the hero is facing a dilemma at all becomes apparent only at the story's close. For instance:

A young prep-school student is told that at the next student assembly he will be tapped for the school's most exclusive honor society. For 5000 words, the reader hears, through the thoughts of the hero, about the workings of the society. The reader is gently persuaded that the society represents a contemptible kind of arbitrary snobbery. But he is nonetheless anxious for the hero to be accepted into the society, since admission is an undeniable mark of distinction at the school and since also the hero seems like such a sensible and likeable boy.

At the assembly, three boys are tapped by a society member and step forward. At last, the society president walks up to our hero and lays a hand on his shoulder. A strange thing happens. Suddenly the hero revolts against the clannishness that the society fosters and refuses to step forward. At first, there is only awed silence. In the entire history of the school, this has never happened before. Then there is a patter of applause, followed by a wild ovation from the mass of students who are only too keenly appreciative of the falseness of honor societies.

It was a wonderful trick. So much emphasis was put on the question of whether the hero would actually be tapped, that the reader forgot to consider the possibility that the hero might refuse acceptance. When he did, the reader realized that, unconsciously, the hero had been facing a dilemma from the time he learned he was to be chosen. The snobbish nature of the society had been dramatically and amusingly detailed through the boy's thoughts about it. But, if at any point the boy had consciously considered not joining the organization, if the dilemma had ever been clearly stated, the reader would have been tipped off to the probable outcome, and the story would have lost most of its punch. In connection with the corollary theme of a hero choosing the better or more suitable person, something of the same trick is sometimes used.

A widower-father and his five sons hire a housekeeper. She turns out to be a wonderful cook and generally a very appealing person. Four of the boys throw themselves at her. The fifth thinks she is after a soft berth, and spurns her. She, in turn, focuses all her attention and flirtatiousness on this dissenting son. When the young man is finally won over and just about to propose marriage to her, the housekeeper announces her engagement to the father.

Here is not a matter of there being no apparent choice to be made. The surprise is accomplished by turning the chooser to a completely unsuspected choice. Such a dodge, if adequately written, always seems to fascinate readers. Very important, though, is keeping the final choice of the hero hidden until the close, and yet developing it in such a way that it seems the wisest move the hero can make. The choice of the right girl for the hero or the right man for the heroine is common enough in the slicks, but rarely does it fill the foreground of a story. Most often it will be used as a subplot behind a tale of adventure or business or what-not. The reason for relegating to the background the choice of the right mate is a simple one. Give a hero the right girl and the wrong girl, and the reader is always quite certain which one the hero will eventually choose. Few fictional tricks are original enough to lead the reader away from the trail. Therefore, the writer rarely can depend entirely on the problem of choosing the most suitable spouse to create the needed suspense. But more of this when we come to slick love stories.

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