Thursday, September 16, 2010

Adversity and the Human Spirit: An Overall Meaning

Adversity introduces a man to himself (Anonymous). True that.

Most of us have never been and will never be tested by an oil spill that destroys our livelihood; an F-5 tornado that erases our homes in seconds; a finite, deadly diagnosis; or senseless, random acts of violence like those that occurred on April 19, 1995 or September 11, 2001. Most of us skate through life unscathed by horrific destruction so our real, deep-down true character is merely theoretical.

We might stand in place and scream like little girls, or we might find the courage to pack up and leave home to begin anew somewhere else. We might forget to dial 9-1-1, or we might run back into harm’s arms to protect loved ones and strangers. Unless fickle fortune turns awry, we will never know with any certainty if we are capable of putting our lives and safety on the line when circumstances conspire to place us in jeopardy. We may never learn the true measure of faith.

Life, for most of us, is relatively kind, but we must still endure our daily dose of frustration, the occasional setback, and the inevitability of growing old. How we handle these light loads reveals our character over time just as surely as the unimaginably heavy load reveals the truth about others. We can measure a man or woman’s courage, compassion, and character by the ways in which each faces and overcomes conflict, and this is true for literary characters as well.

Authors place characters in adverse circumstances, also known as conflicts, and they use one or more of the five basic types to spin their stories.

1. Man v. Self. Writers set the individual in conflict with himself. Bud Fox, Gordon Gekko’s protégé in Wall Street, was in conflict with his own raw ambition. So was Macbeth. Other characters, including Amir from The Kite Runner and Orleanna from The Poisonwood Bible, struggle against guilt or shame.

2. Man v. Man. Writers pit one man against another, sometimes using humans to represent the forces of good and evil. Luke Skywalker, the young virtuous boy, and Darth Vader, the older, corrupt man, are two such characters in conflict. So are Hamlet and Claudius or Amir and Assef.

3. Man v. Society (Group). Writers may also set one man against the many. Chief Brody is one sheriff alone against the town fathers who want to be sure that Amity makes its summer money in spite of huge, clever sharks in the water. After Macbeth’s army deserts him, he fights Macduff, all of Scotland, and the entire English army alone.

4. Man v. Nature. In Jaws, Chief Brody, Quint and Hooper set out to kill a Great White; two bickering storm chasers run from a massive tornado in Twister; and many of Jack London’s characters fight wild animals and the bitter cold weather to survive.

5. Man v. Supernatural. For conflicts featuring the supernatural, Job’s story is an excellent example, but the supernatural currently in vogue features vampires, zombies, and werewolves taking center stage, each proving that mere humans have few chances to overcome evil unless the protagonist has or acquires superhuman powers, possesses weapons such as baseball bats and pure silver, is clever as MacGyver on steroids, and has a very, very strong stomach. The Lord of the Rings trilogy also has some terrific supernatural antagonists.

So, adversity (such as being in opposition with one’s own desires, another person, a number of people, nature, or supernatural forces) introduces a man (or a character) to himself. In the clash, we witness the human experience and can infer overall meanings about it. This can be represented by a brief, quasi-mathematical formula for discerning overall meanings: conflict + character = theme, and by using this formula, you, the reader, can infer overall meanings by tracing the conflict affecting each character to its logical resolution.

For example, from Gordon Gekko, we learn that sometimes selfish interests are seductive, often tempting men and women to do harm. Gekko croons that greed is good. His own ambition, like Macbeth’s, calls him to his own destruction like the Sirens called to Odysseus and his men. Worse, having realized his ambitions, he uses any means possible to hang on to the power he has acquired. Like Machiavelli’s Prince and King Macbeth, Gekko persuades himself that others do not matter, that their losses are simply collateral damage in his personal pursuit of wealth and power.

Second, we may learn that few people escape the consequences of their actions. Bud Fox, Gekko’s equally ambitious protégé, faces a crisis in his soul. Will he collaborate in destroying the company for which his father works, in which his father takes pride? Will money and power ever be an even trade when family rests on the other side of the scales? The answers are, of course, yes and no. Bud Fox does ruin his father’s company, and the consequences for his actions place him in legal peril as well as moral bankruptcy.

From both Gordon Gekko and Bud Fox, we can infer that failing to uphold moral virtue leads to ruin. It certainly does for Macbeth and Lady Macbeth as well. Even a couple of the three little pigs learn this lesson after they build their homes cheaply, with shoddy workmanship, taking no pride in the product, seeking only quick gratification. The evil wolf shows them the error of their ways.

In many contests between a man and large groups, we may infer that Goliaths often win. The system is too big for the little guy to win, but if he wins, he does so at great cost. Consider the three-part saga of Jason Bourne or the real-life Robert Kearns who fights Detroit’s auto-makers (before bail-outs, of course), sacrificing his marriage, a family, and financial stability for a principle: the intermittent windshield wiper. He wins in the end, but he pays an enormous price before he does.

For stories about man in conflict with supernatural beings, we may infer that 1) many, many innocent victims will die horrible deaths before the monster falls, 2) those who fail to uphold moral virtue will die first and most gruesomely, and 3) to every generation a Slayer is born; you just better hope you’re standing next to her.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach

Grammar, Usage, and Mechanics (GUM):

Which two of the sentences below are correct?

1. Melissa or Marvin has won the race.

2. Melissa or Marvin have won the race.

3. Melissa and Marvin have won the race.

4. Melissa and Marvin has won the race.

Pay attention to the conjunction. Or indicates that only one of the two won so a singular verb is correct. And indicates that both won so a plural verb form is correct.

Easy, right? Indeed--until intervening phrases appear. For example:

Melissa or Marvin, each of whom has run among the top three in the last twelve races, has won the race.

Marvin and Melissa, each of whom has run among the top three in the last twelve races, finish this race, their thirteenth, together as winners.

Keep your eye on the basic, simple sentence no matter how much more a writer adds.

Reading and Writing Challenge:

Identify all the types of conflict (adversity) affecting the major characters in any book or film with which you are familiar. Consider how the character resolves the conflict or how the conflict affects the character. From this consideration, infer and write statements (complete sentences) to express the overall meanings attached to the character.