Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

endward, or not

One Student's picture

So, I'm reading "Get Out of Gaol Free, or: How to Read a Comic Plot" by John Bruns (Journal of Narrative Theory, v.35 no.1, Winter 2005, pg. 25-60).

(Interesting: nanizyvanie, a term originating with Victor Shlovksy meaning form of fiction structure as "a stringing together" of episodes and short stories; in the case of Don Quixote, this results in paradoxical characters, and in the case of The Pickwick Papers, this results in 'finished' character who don't (need to) develop. This particularly interests me, because I am drawn to this narrative structure and am planning to write a piece which spans a good deal of time and experience using it - not that I had a name for it till now - so that I don't actually have to write a novel, because if I did then I wouldn't even start. It's not going to be a comic piece, however.)


Bruns thinks that "a novelistic plot demands that we, as readers, must always be moving endward, in a more or less rectilinear fashion, towards resolution, closure, and understanding" (as opposed to another understanding of the genre of novel as "a way of enabling characers to engage in lively dialogues to which the reader can then respond".) "The comic plot, however," Bruns goes on to say, "has no demands, save one: that the reader must always be moving somewhere, moving anywhere. In the comic plot, characters needs not be understood - their movement alone can be the object of the reader's desire". Quoting Thomas McFarland, "Tragic plot or mythos is burdened with the large task of revealing tragic character. Comic plot, questions of character settled beforehand in the comic typology, becomes frolicsome and restive, complex and mazelike." 

But what about novels like Moby Dick and Uncle Tom's Cabin? The reader moves endward, most certainly, and the characters are revealed. But there is humor within both novels. Within a non-comic novel, does comedy become part of the non-comic structure, functioning to reveal the characters and bring the reader endward toward understanding? And then the question becomes one of how does the comedy reveal and move ...

I am moving toward the conclusion that humor is such an endlessly utterly protean strategy that every mobilization* 

Also: end = understanding. When you understand, there is an end of movement, of development. 

*By mobilization ... I mean that every single joke in Uncle Tom's Cabin need not be interpreted individually, not only because that would be ridiculously time-consuming but also because each single joke does not represent one unit, one mobilization of humor. There are multiple mobilizations however. The humorous elements attendant on Topsy and the humorous elements attendant on Augustine St. Claire represent separate mobilizations. Perhaps the Topsy mobilization is part of a larger mobilization attendant on almost all the black characters (Uncle Tom usually not and then near the beginning, Cassy never I think). 

And each mobilization reveals something in Uncle Tom's Cabin. As mobilized by Augustine (his ironical observations on the state of things), it reveals Augustine as the avatar of a particular attitude and reaction toward slavery. 

But avatar sounds like archetype, like an unchanging pre-established figure, which is a quality of comedy. If this were a stylistically more sophisticated novel ... and yet, other serious novels which use comedic elements - Dead Babies by Martin Amis, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, anything by Kurt Vonnegut - do not have characters one can imagine having a conversation with. Non-comedic novels using comedic archetypes ... is Augustine like Falstaff, then? Falstaff is the Braggart Soldier, and he has been around since the earliest Western comedic traditions. Or is Augustine like an archetype, functioning like an archetype with Uncle Tom's Cabin, but not functioning that way anywhere else? Because UTC is moving the reader toward a particular  end and thus must use particular archetypes - a 'particular archetype' being a contradiction, in the usual sense of the word 'archetype'. Archetypes specific to UTC. Hence, avatar. 

I feel like I'm wandering through the thickets of the funny, going foward but without any idea of how to map them.  

So anyway, avatars. Do all novels have avatars? Or is this quality particular to serious novels which use comedic strategies? My favorite characters are the ones which live in my head after I stop reading the story. I want to make Topsy one of those characters, because I don't like what she is an avatar of in UTC, and because she seems salvageable - she might yet be a (fictional) person. 

But if (fictional) people and archetypes both live outside their novels, then what's the difference? The archetype lives unchangingly; the (fictional) person does change. Ok, and I'm being very strongly influenced by the practice and culture of fanfic writing here, and the fact that certain books and movies and so on inspire much more fanfic than others, and why. Some very good stuff has little or no fanfic - but it could, it's not a matter of quantity, never mind that, it's about potential. One might write fanfic for The Pickwick Papers, but for Mr. Pickwick to remain the comedic!Pickwick he must not change, he must not move to an end. If I were to write Pickwick's death, would he stop being comedic!Pickwick? Actually, I think it's possible to write Pickwick's death either way, as comedic and and as not. Because it's not about content, it's about the delivery. 

Topsy changes! And stops being funny ... she still speaks in dialect, there's still something vaguely ridiculous and foolish about her reasoning. 

Speaking of moving endward, or rather not ...