Monday, June 16, 2008

Message stories that I like

One message novel I enjoyed is Orson Scott Card’s novel Saints. It was originally published under the title A Woman of Destiny, but that sounds flowery, whereas Saints is a crisp neat title that sums up the book accurately. The book is about the life of a fictional woman who becomes one of the plural wives of the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith and who is instrumental in the growth of the Church of Latter-day Saints.

The book is obviously positive about the Mormon faith, but Card takes it one step further by presenting polygamy in a very favorable light. No one is underage, it’s all consensual, and in the best case scenario, the wives become good friends. Although I think Carolyn Jessop’s Escape is more realistic in this regard, I still enjoyed the book.

Why was this? Several reasons, but the first and foremost is that the characters came before the religion did. Card begins by describing a family whose father has just deserted them, plunging them into appalling poverty. Dinah and her brothers struggle to keep themselves fed and housed, and it’s impossible not to feel sympathetic towards them. Therefore, by the time they were converted by a Mormon missionary, I was on their side and continued to be interested in what happened to them, even though I’m not uplifted by descriptions of beliefs or baptism. The effective message stories leave the reader saying, “I may not believe that, but I can see why the characters would.”

Another reason I like Saints is because there’s never a sense of, “Now that the heroine has converted to the author’s religion, she is Special and things will go her way”. Oh my, no. Card goes in the opposite direction and makes life as brutal as possible for Dinah. When she tries to leave for the Mormon city Nauvoo, her husband takes her children away from her. When she falls in love with Joseph Smith and marries him, his wife isn’t aware of it and so they have to keep it a secret – which backfires badly. When she gets pregnant, she loses that child as well. Very often, the protagonists are depicted as beautiful, popular and happy thanks to their espousing the author’s principles. Not so here. Card never describes Dinah, and she earns the friendship and love of the people around her – it’s never given to her only because she’s the heroine or only because she’s a convert.

Probably the only issue that I have with the book is that nonbelievers such as Dinah’s older brother and the town doctor are painted in an unflattering light, but it’s relatively minor compared to the book’s good points. It also helps that this is set in the past, where it was normal for women to take a secondary role to men. I stopped reading the Ender series partly because Petra, who led her own army in Ender’s Game, became focused on marriage to Bean and talked about decorating their bedroom in pink ruffles. Thankfully Dinah, even when she’s deeply in love, is more dignified.

The other novel – which is second only to Gone with the Wind on my favorites list – is Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. I didn’t know much about Objectivism before reading the book, so perhaps that helped; I became involved in the story before I could be introduced to some aspects of Rand’s philosophy with which I disagreed. And one reason I kept reading was to see what the antagonists would do.

The primary antagonists in Atlas Shrugged - James Taggart and Lillian Rearden – are evil for the sake of being evil, and they always have been evil. They’re difficult if not impossible to fear. They’re completely defeated in the end.

The antagonists of The Fountainhead are quite different. First, there’s Peter Keating, who I found easy to relate to. He’s constantly pressured to live up to other people’s expectations, with the result that he sacrifices his own needs and hopes. To paraphrase Rand, he gets everything that society can give a man – money, accolades, a beautiful wife – and nothing that a man can give himself – choosing to be with someone who loves him, a sense of accomplishment and the joy of following his own dreams.

Peter Keating is a sympathetic antagonist at times, but Ellsworth Toohey is a superb antagonist always. He’s clever, polite, charming and popular. He makes a public show of forgiving someone who tries to shoot him. He’s also coldly manipulative, plotting very successfully against his enemies and ruining the lives of anyone who trusts him or depends on him. And he does all this with a plan in mind – though being Toohey, he’s smart enough only to confide this plan to someone who is no threat at all to him. He’s physically unattractive, but then Roark, the protagonist, is no Mr Universe either.

So I never got the impression that the antagonists of The Fountainhead were the black background against which the jewel-like heroes could sparkle even more brightly. Instead, they’re people with their own dreams and goals and weaknesses. They may spout the sentiments Rand disapproves of (and wants the reader to dislike as well), but they’re not automatically foolish or condemned to destruction because of that. And because Toohey is so effective as a villain, pulling the strings of people far richer and more powerful than he is, there was plenty of conflict. I never felt that Roark was facing someone whom he could easily defeat because the author was on his side.

I’m sure there are other message novels out there which are just as enjoyable, though after struggling through Rand’s We the Living, I’m not eager to seek them out. A little of this goes a long way – but perhaps it goes so far because, when it’s done well, it’s a good read and an interesting glimpse into an ideology that I might not share, but which I can understand in the end.


kiwi said...

Great post. In many ways you're identifing the architecture of power. You know Michael Foucault, right?

Marian Perera said...

kiwi, why are you breaking my brain today?


I'll look up Michael Foucault.

kiwi said...

"I didn�t know much about Objectivism before reading the book, so perhaps that helped ..."

Sure you do! You're a scientist. Remember that spectrum thing? Objectivism at one end, relativism at the other and subjectivism in the middle. For the former, the tree in the forest exists whether anyone is there to see it or not. For the subjectivist, the tree exists, but is only meaningful when people are present and inevitably those same folks will see/understand it differently. Relativism. The tree, at best, is a language game and at worse a figment of your imagination. Modernists occupy the objectivists side of the spectrum, post-modernist the other.

Seriously, I'm doing some pre-enrolment work on an MLit, and having trouble taking of the scholar's cap. Your posts are welcome relief, Marian. Has to be said. If academics could put things as lucidly as you, our universities might have more relevants in popular culture. Honestly, your posts are beautifully written and a joy to read.

Marian Perera said...

Thanks, kiwi. :) Coming from an academic person, that means a lot.

I looked up Michael Foucault on Wikipedia and after I've had more coffee I'll read the article.