Friday, April 30, 2010

The Flavors of Conflict

Choices. Choices. Have you ever been so inundated with choices on a menu, like the array of ice cream options or coffee variations for instance, that you just give up and say "vanilla" or "just black " please? It's just too much. Sometimes I think that way about conflict. With so many options, how do I choose? Or maybe, the first step is going back to the basics of "vanilla," but with the understanding that vanilla doesn't mean boring, but pure and basic.  The options of what can be added to it are endless.

Take the exam essay topic I have for an American Lit class: how traditional forms of support, such as family, religion or community, don’t work for a character any more and cause a character to feel alienated.

Essentially, this is a method the writer uses to create conflict. The menu is varied, but a basic "vanilla" flavor of conflict is "loss of a traditional form of support." It almost guarantee some form of conflict. Too vanilla? Remember, not boring, but a pure base to add the right flavors.

For my essay I have to use examples from various works and I found it amazing how the "flavor" is built on the basic concept of this conflict; the loss of traditional forms of support. It can even be a perceived loss of support brought about by a change in the character.

In the short story "The Second Choice" by Theodore Dreiser, the feeling of alienation in the main character, Shirley, is influenced by her attraction to an outsider. This outsider, Arthur, "arrived with a sense of something different" and set in motion a change in Shirley's perception of her world that she must deal with after he leaves. In reality, her world hadn't changed. Her job at the drug store is the same. The houses on her street are not only the same, but painfully identical:

There was Mrs. Kessel in her kitchen getting her dinner as usual, just as her own mother was now, and Mr. Kessel out on the front porch in his shirt-sleeves reading the evening paper. Beyond was Mr. Pollard in his yard, cutting the grass. All along Bethune Street were such houses and such people -- simple commonplace souls all -- clerks, managers, fairly successful craftsmen, like her father and Barton, excellent in their own way but not like Arthur the beloved, the lost - - and here was she, perforce, or by decision of necessity soon to be one of them.

Her world is held in comparison to the "glorious interlude" she shared with the outsider and her contentment in the familiar routines is lost; her community identified distantly as "such houses" and "such people." Additionally, this is how she now perceives the hobbies and social events she had enjoyed "before Arthur":

That was another thing Arthur had done - - broken up her interest in these old store and neighborhood parties and a banjo and mandolin club to which she had once belonged. They had all seemed so pleasing and amusing in the old days - - but now - -. . .

Shirley now sees her world through Arthur's eyes, and the sameness and routine is something to be endured. While Arthur has left to explore the broader world, she is now an outsider trapped in a limiting social context of the turn of the century.  She's deeply aware the only option is marriage - - especially, if, as a subtly alluded possibility, Shirley is indeed pregnant. And even if she resumes the course of her former life, the loss of her support system by her changed perceptions reduces all aspects of her life to a "second choice."

I think you could take almost any story and find ways the character has lost traditional forms of support and/or feels alienated.  Many of these stories also use the arrival of an "outsider."  Do you think your story has a loss of a support system and/or a character feeling alienated?

2 comments:

  1. Oh, I know mine does. Or at least she thinks she does. I've actually thought about some of those great pieces of literature that lack a happy ending and providing one.

    How many more weeks before school is out?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hey Renee! Great to hear from you! Yes, it is tempting to provide happy endings. :) Not a one in a whole semester of stories...that's a lot of angst without the band-aid to make it better! Still, I've enjoyed reading so many different approaches for telling a story.

    I'm happy to say that this semester is almost finished -- or at least I will be happy to say so after finals this week! I'm ALMOST there, but all kinds of cliches come to mind like "it ain't over 'til the fat lady sings" or "close only counts in horseshoes." LOL Soon! But then I start summer sessions!

    ReplyDelete

My Blog List