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Gordian Plot

The Virtue of the Tempted Hero Asserts Itself

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THERE is still another story type which deals with heroes gone astray, and its protagonist is essentially the same goodbad fellow we ' ve seen coming to his sad and poignant end. This new chap, though, manages to do very well for himself. Although he had broken the law, at the close he gets the girl, the respectable job, public recognition, or whatever he was after-in fact, whatever happens to be lying around for his gratification.

How come? The trick is done by putting the questionable behavior outside the framework of the story. Relegating to a time preceding the action of the story those sins which the writer does not wish a character to pay for is a device used at times in every fiction-form where certain rules of justice prevail.

The other aspect of the story which allows a good-bad hero to come out on top is the pre-occupation of this storyform with the hero's regeneration rather than merely with his preparations for regeneration. But, even though the story deals primarily with the moral improvement of the hero, there are sins in his past, and they must be accounted for. The method of penance is a strange one, but effective. This good-bad hero who is reforming is making the change because his unethical activities have troubled him. Even if he has gained, say, wealth through his wrongdoing, the subsequent guilt he experienced has more than compensated for the pleasure of his gain. Thus, when we meet him, the score is evened-quite a different situation from the case of the gay cavalier who has broken the law and loved doing it.

In this respect, the tempted hero who makes a change for the better has an entirely different approach to crime. He has never wholeheartedly given himself over to it. He has always acted with moral reservations. This, in addition to the ambiguous nature of his wrongdoing, some mitigating circumstances attending his original participation, and the relegation of the activity to a time preceding the story action, allows the writer to treat this hero very generously. Here is an example.

The hero is a jockey for a sharpy racetrack crook who currently owns only one horse. The jockey and the owner have been down on their luck lately. Their underhanded schemes-pulled off at small tracks to make quick killings- have been failing miserably. But the owner comes up with a new one. He has learned that a horsey, tally-ho set in the vicinity is planning to stage a hunting race-on which there is bound to be heavy, gentlemanly betting.

On credit, the owner purchases from a local dealer an aged hunting horse. The owner then approaches the manager of the stable under whose auspices the race is to be run and requests permission to enter this purchased horse. He has his jockey show the horse off by running it over the hunting course, so that the members of the stable will see that it is a third-rate nag. The owner's plan is to switch the nag for his one good horse which he will dry-paint to resemble the nag. He will then bet heavily on the outcome of the race and clean up. It happens that the proprietor of the stable is a young woman who has inherited the stable from her father. She loves horses and hunting and has little use for people who make money through devious abuse of horses. The jockeyhero, during the negotiations for entering the nag in the hunting race, meets the girl and is immediately attracted to her. She, too, is attracted to him, but takes a strong dislike to the owner who she suspects is eager to make a fast buck. She forthrightly tells the jockey that she despises anyone who defiles the sport by cheating. This admonition, combined with his own distaste for all the below-board doings of his boss, makes the hero resolve to see that the race is run honestly. Before the hunt, the boss switches horses as planned. But the jockey then reswitches them, is detected doing so by the girl, and tells her all. The jockey runs the race on the nag, makes a fine showing, but loses the race. The horsey crowd learns of the jockey's desire to keep them from being fleeced and accepts him socially. The owner flies the coop, welshing on his bets. And the jockey, at the close, is about to marry the stable proprietor. The two of them will run her stable as man and wife.

We saw in detail the dangers and difficulties attending stories about the purely bad protagonists and the good-bad heroes who must pay for their transgressions. In distinction to both these types, the piece which handles the regenera - tion of an erring hero is entirely safe. The story is, of course, didactic with a vengeance. Vice is shown to be unrewarding, both spiritually and materially, whereas the old straight and narrow proves to be strewn with compensation- amatorial, psychological, and material.

Virtue, in this story type as in most, is never its own reward. Slick moralizing, in this respect, is usually carried on, on a rather elemental, childish level. There rarely can be anything subtle about the good things of this life for the slick writer. The reason for this is simple enough: intangible, airy satisfactions would be valid only with a section of any possible slick audience. Tangible returns, though, are acceptable to almost everyone. Consequently, the writer must deal handsomely with any hero who has made the break. The beautifully pat wind-up of Elizabethan comic dramas might serve as object lessons for writers attempting any slick fiction. And although he can't pu11 a strange bag of gold from a hole in a tree to hand to the hero at the close, the slick writer, with a little care, can always plant such a bag there quietly at the story's start to be discovered by the hero in the last paragraph.

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