Gordian Plot

The Incompetent Hero Proves His Worth

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DON QUIXOTE is foolish, ineffectual, and more than a little mad. Achilles is brave, fierce in battle, and boastful. Hamlet is cruel and destructive. King Lear is garrulous, vain and proud. Juliet is beautiful, innocent and in love. Gargantua is lustful, obscene, and exhibitionistic.

These characters have neither vices nor virtues in common with each other, and yet most readers find them all highly sympathetic. If a character attracts or repels because of his attribtues, how can it be that valor and cynicism in one character and timidity and sentimentality in another character will equally intrigue a reader and capture his wholehearted sympathy?

The paradox is easily explained. Although a reader will love or despise a fictional personality because of his actions and qualities, these actions and qualities take on different meanings in different fictional environments. A practical, hard-headed man like Achilles would be a dolt in the world of Romeo and Juliet; Don Quixote, an intolerable fool in the Iliad; Juliet would seem prissy in Gargantua and Pantegruel; Lear would emerge as grotesque a personality as Polonius if he were to walk on stage in Hamlet None of these characters would qualify as heroes in these transformed contexts. The "sympatheticness" of one or more characters seems to be the second most important quality in popular fiction. Suspense is the first and always indispensable. The presence of one or more sympathetic personalities is necessary to the success of ninety-nine out of every hundred slick stories. (What a few allowable exceptions there are to this general rule will be dealt with in their place.) The extreme characteristics of such different heroes as Achilles and Gargantua were pointed out to show that gaining sympathy for a fictional personality is far from a cut-and-dried business. The one thing most heroes and heroines hold in common is the fact that they have been strongly differentiated from all the other people in their story worlds. Juliet has a sentimental passion in a world of lust and strife. Don Quixote is superlatively gallant in a prosaic work-a-day milieu. Achilles is the best warrior among the Greeks.

This differentiation has been almost universally the case in the literature of the past. The common, ordinary man was not thought interesting enough to write about. A complete reversal was ushered in in the nineteenth century, so that today most "quality" fiction devotes itself to a portrayal of the typical rather than the atypical character. James Joyce's Stephen Dedalus was meant not as a port rait of an artist as much as of the artist. Molly Bloom was as much an investigation of womankind, according to Joyce's lights, as of any particular woman. Leopold Bloom, of course, was Everyman. The difference stands out nicely if we consider the book on which Joyce patterned Ulysses. The original of Mr. Bloom was Odysseus, the hero of the Odyssey, and probably no more extraordinary man ex. isted in the Greek fictional world. His courage, ingenuity, tenacity, long-suffering, and his remarkable adventures all separated him sharply from the crowd.

The Everyman of today's "quality" literature is rarely genuinely sympathetic—that is, worthy of emulation. The sympathy he inspires is more often a kind of self-pity in the reader. In fact, he is quite often not sympathetic at all—merely interesting.

This, it seems, is one of the major differences between today's popular and "quality" fiction. As in classical literature, most heroes of current popular fiction continue to stand out from the crowd, either by virtue of their personalities or their problems.

Now, although sympathy can be stirred up for your hero in an infinite variety of ways—often in opposing ways—it is still a tricky business, and doubly tricky in slick stories dealing with incompetent heroes. Sympathy came into the discussion of incompetent-hero stories because the sympathy here always hinges on the actual inadequacy of the hero. In other popular-fiction story-types there is not necessarily a connection between sympathy and the hero's problem. A hero may be sympathetic because he is a nice guy; but his problem may be climbing a mountain.

A hard-working Seabee battalion during the last war is building an airstrip on a Pacific island for the Navy. One of the Seabees is a very strange fellow. He has no mechanical ability whatever, and he cannot carry out even the simplest orders. It is not that he is ill willed or stupid, but that he seems to be living on an entirely different plane from the rest of the company. He does possess, though, one extraordinary talent: he knows intimately the ways of the wild animals on the island. In fact, he seems even able to communicate with them.

One day he and the narrator of the story, another Seabee, go off into the jungle to observe a colony of monkeys. When they arrive at the spot, they are attacked by a group of holdout Japs. The narrator is wounded, and the Japs are closing in for the kill when the dreamer calls to the monkeys for help. The monkeys counterattack and rout the Japs. The two Seabees are saved. The incompetent has proved his worth, even militarily.

Consider the qualities that make this hero sympathetic, because his particular inadequacy appears over and over again in all kinds of literature. He is a dreamer—inarticulate, good-natured, pleasantly inscrutable. First, these qualities are thrown into strong contrast by placing him among a hard-boiled bunch of service men who are taken up with concrete, practical business. If the dreamer's failings had ever so much as a touch of malevolence about them or had In any way constituted a distinct liability to the group's cause, he would not have stimulated the reader's sympa thy. Obvious? Yes, but perhaps only by hindsight. An author writing about a real situation or an actual case out of his personal history could very easily be misled by the facts into introducing such dissonant tones. Folk literature is full of stories about seeming incompetents who prove their worth. Take Cinderella. Why does the reader's heart immediately go out to her? Because she is beautiful, more beautiful than her self-indulgent stepsisters? Because she must scrub floors and bear with the contempt of her inferiors? Not at all. It is the innocent acceptance of these injustices that endears her to the readers. An ambitious, vindictive, and ill-willed schemer, although she was just as cruelly treated and just as deserving of a better status, would arouse the reader's interest because she had a problem—but not necessarily his sympathy. The head nun and a doctor in a hospital are discussing a young nurse. They feel she is a very nice young woman but just does not have the stuff to make a good nurse. Later in the day, the doctor assigns the young nurse to a tetanus case because the patient's chances of survival are almost nil. Nothing much can be done for him. The nurse, though, simply by her presence and her innate warmth inspires the patient with the will to recover. With his new interest in living, the patient miraculously gets well, and subsequently proposes marriage to the nurse. When she announces her resignation, there is a cute closing scene in which the head nun and the doctor bewail the fact that it is always their most promising nurse who leaves to get married.

Now consider something of the same situation in which a director and producer, having seen a certain young actress do her stuff, decide that she does not have sufficient t alent to make the grade. The producer and director may have seemed just as stuffy as the nun and doctor, but the young actress would not have received the same immediate sympathy the young nurse did. Why? There is a delicate difference. Nursing is largely a thankless business, fine for women not primarily motivated by a desire for wealth and recognition. Acting in Hollywood is, in the mass mind, precisely the opposite kind of profession. Sympathy is a cornmodity of which the reader has infinite quantities, but he will not hand it out just for the asking.

When the incompetent-hero story is told by someone within the story framework, the hero is very often a "character" in the slang sense of the word. But when an incompetent hero tells the story about himself his inadequacy is usually due to a lack of insight on the part of the story's other characters.

"I" have just passed my eighth birthday and have wheedled my mother into letting me cross streets by myself—a big social step in my town, a definite sign of maturity. One day, I go to a nearby lot and try to wangle my way into a game of baseball with two older boys. They let me play, but only to have someone to chase the balls they hit into the field. When my turn to bat comes they decide it is time to go off and see the pro baseball game at the town's stadium. There they have a hidden knothole waiting for them which they alternate in using and which they do not let me look through. Soon, thr still older boys come along and appropriate the hole for . themselves. In return, they tell us of a "crawling" hole on the other side of the stadium which is too small for any of them to use. We find the hole, but neither of my companions is small enough to fit through. I can, though, and, once inside, surreptitiously open an exit door for my friends. We all see the game, and my companions subsequently accept me as their equal.

These plot-lines into which we are separating current popular fiction are necessarily quite basic and bald. And the stories selected to describe them are those that seem the clearest and cleanest examples of the type. Very often a story will combine two of these plot-lines, as is frequently the case with stories that contain a love interest. And then, quite often, too, the mechanics of a tale are so vivid that the plot-line, whatever it may be, is relatively inconsequential.

An interesting incompetent-hero tale of this nature concerns a crack-pot inventor who, while puttering around with various projects, is living off the proceeds of his wife's turkey farm. He discovers, one day, a very powerful fuel and decides to invent a rocket ship which can use this fuel and which will carry him into outer space. He builds a contraption which no one expects to leave the ground. It does, though, and takes the inventor with his supplies for quite a ride. But to the inventor's amazement his trip comes to an end in what looks like his own back yard. His calculations had led him to believe that he was landing in another world. But everything seems the same. His wife is there to meet him. His neighbors are all recognizable. One thing, though: none of the people in this world he has landed on seem to know what a potato is. By raising a crop of potatoes from the stock he brought on his rocket ship he tries to prove that he actually has come from another world exactly like this world while a man that looked like him left this world just when he left the other. No one believes him, of course, although they do give him much credit for developing the potato. The "snapper" is the hero's consideration that he is living in cosmic sin with another man's wife, and his real wife is living with another man she thinks to be him.

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