The Decision of Meaning

The happiest person in Romeo and Juliet is Rosaline, who had the good sense to be uninvolved. Romeo spent his initial scenes declaring her matchless beauty, his undying love, that there would never be another woman for him, etc., up until he met Juliet and immediately began saying all those things about her instead. Romeo needed some sort of productive occupation. I would like to think that Shakespeare presaged Juliet with Rosaline as an ironic comment on the transitory nature of even passionate feeling. More likely he included Rosaline simply because the 1562 poem Romeus and Juliet did.

I take Rosaline to be the inheritance of an older source, thoughtlessly carried over, because she is out of place within the new work. Romeo and Juliet is not ironic in its tone. It takes itself and its lovers seriously. That Romeo replaces Rosaline as casually as people replace light bulbs undermines the love story. None of his dramatic declarations of undying love were true. He believed them, but they weren’t true. That they become true when he starts spouting them about Juliet can only be taken on faith, and some of us are skeptics. Yet I don’t think, given the tenor of the play, that we are meant to doubt.

I also think that, whether Shakespeare intended it or not, Romeo’s histrionics over Rosaline add a grain of salt to his histrionics over Juliet. The war over authorial intent has been waged and, for the moment, decided. A story’s interpretation is not presumed to be dictated by the author’s intentions. As much as I approve, I willingly admit the merits of the defeated idea. There is a kind of fairness in giving the creator the decision in the meaning of the work. And literary interpretation could do with more objectivity. That is the inescapable conclusion of sitting in college literature courses, listening to people give suspiciously faddish interpretations of books you suspect they merely skimmed.

But although it would be the well-deserved death of a thousand lazy essays, I can’t give the decision of meaning to creators. They’re interpreting, too. The literary evolution of Romeo and Juliet proves the point. Shakespeare based his play on Arthur Brooke’s Romeus and Juliet. The story is essentially the same in both works; Shakespeare repeated Brooke in every event of importance. Yet if Shakespeare took it for a love story, Brooke took it for a morality tale. Brooke, who probably did not suffer fools, advised his readers that the “most unhappy death” of Romeus and Juliet stood as an example to them of what comes of “unhonest desire”, neglecting the authority of parents, and getting your advice from drunken gossips and superstitious friars (“the naturally fit instruments of unchastity”). (Perhaps Brooke was harsh toward superstitious friars. Nevertheless, I give him credit for hating Friar Lawrence.)

We are all interpreters of stories, the storytellers as much as the rest of us. The special power of creators is in deciding what will be interpreted, not how it should be. Readers sometimes work out a story to its implications farther and more clearly than the author himself. A story stands as it was created. It is not, in the end, what the author meant but what he said, and that anyone can know.

That requires, however, reading the book. It’s only fair.

The Departure From Normality

Two weeks ago, life was normal. Back then you could go to the theater, or set up camp in a Starbucks with a laptop and a latte, or go to the store with breezy confidence of finding toilet paper. The churches were open. Remember that?

Now we are all waiting for a return to normalcy. Even if you’re lucky enough to have both your health and your finances sound, even if your own life has changed only in altered routines and negligible inconveniences – even so, you want that return. There is an uneasy uncertainty in the atmosphere, a question waiting for an answer. We move about life with a wary eye on the news, on the world, watching for the answer to appear. How bad will it be?

These are interesting days. People will write books about them. But it’s the duller days you want to live in, the tranquil epochs between history’s watersheds. What makes good reading, after it’s all done, is not what makes a good life in the moment. The same paradox is at work in our stories. The sort of stories we want to read or watch are not the sort we actually want to live.

There are exceptions, I know. The adventures are thick with danger and privation, but some people really would take them anyway; the romances are fraught with painful drama, but some people really would live them. Still, I am sure that the idea of such things is more appealing than the fact of them. The things that make stories good – danger, difficulties, villains, misfortune, loss – are the things that make life bad. Our lives are a quest for well-being and happiness. Who really wants the apocalypse or the crisis, the danger or the pain?

Some people want to be heroes, a noble impulse. But if heroes are to be admired, the necessity of heroism is to be avoided. Nobody needs to be a hero when things are going well. The first suggestion of anything that would require heroism – whether personal tragedy or public calamity – sets us longing for what we call normal life. We would rather be happy.

In the wake of World War I, and the Spanish influenza, Warren Harding campaigned for president under the slogan ‘Return to Normalcy’. (We’ve had about a century of nitpicking over whether normalcy is, in fact, a word, but Harding indelibly marked American culture and got to be president in the bargain, so the win to him.) Harding declared that America needed healing instead of heroics, restoration instead of revolution, and the dispassionate instead of the dramatic. He won in a landslide. And what, after all, is the purpose of any heroics or revolution except to protect, save, or make better normal life? The purpose of the stories is not, perhaps, much different.

As we wait for the return of normalcy, we are spending more time with our stories than ever. Never before has binge-watching felt like a contribution to society. And you know something? It helps. So may your stories be exciting, and your life tranquil, and may interesting days soon pass.

The Last Impossibility

Death is the great universal fact of life, as universal as birth. It rings down the curtain on every human play, sends everyone home in the end. We all know this; we are all overshadowed by what G.K. Chesterton called the last impossibility. It’s curious that we don’t take death more seriously than we do. Our popular culture overflows with glib platitudes, all catalogued in our books and movies.

You know the platitudes. He lives in your heart. She lives in your memory. The departed is – well, take your pick: inside you, inside all of us, around us, in the love or legacy or memory she left behind. The dead are anywhere but gone. Our culture, as manifested in popular books and movies, does not look to the blazing dawn of the first Easter, but usually it is equally unwilling to look at the cold finality and ultimate aloneness of the body in the tomb. What we end with is a popular culture that will face neither the darkness nor the light.

I would not recommend, as a curative, that every instance of death in our fiction be expanded to contain the fullness of Christian doctrine on the subject. There is certainly no reason to constantly elide the Resurrection; its riches are too rarely mined, even among Christians. But not every story has space for the doctrine or the riches, and such things are not to be forced. I wouldn’t ask that every story with death be a story about Easter. But I would like to see more books and movies get beyond the standard Hollywood cant.

It is possible to catch some rays of light, to hint at hope or even just mystery. J.R.R. Tolkien hinted at hope when Aragorn, in the face of death, offered this consolation: “In sorrow we must go, but not in despair.” Not that we need such exalted contexts as Lord of the Rings to find the hope and the mystery; they are possible everywhere. Emily Blunt’s “Where the Lost Things Go” dreams of an unknown place, maybe behind the moon, where lost things might be found. Gone, yes, the song concedes, but gone where? – and that hard question is more comforting than the glib answers.

If a story is not to have the light, I would take even a measure of darkness over artificiality. Honest sadness is better than false comfort. I’ve heard the cliches so many times that all I can think, when a book or movie trots them out again, is that nobody wants the people they love to be Inside Of Them. The greatness of love is that it gets you outside of yourself, that it brings you into contact with another soul in this huge universe. No one wants a memory, an image, an echo. It’s not the same and it’s not enough. We want a real, living person.

We don’t need courage to face the darkness. We need hope. Christ’s Resurrection teaches us that death is not to be accepted or dreaded. As we absorb that reality into our hearts, so may it be reflected in our stories. We are not to be driven to the pale ghosts that haunt our hearts for comfort, nor must we pretend that death is not hideous. For Death is an enemy, but a conquered enemy.

A March of Stereotypes

Last week, Becky Miller discussed the tendency of modern SF to stereotype women as aggressive protagonists who do what men do, only in heels. Her well-made points turned my thoughts to the treatment of women in speculative fiction. The portrayal of women has varied greatly from era to era and from author to author. It even varies from science fiction to fantasy; fantasy – built up from tales crowned with queens, fairies, and witches – possesses deeper traditions of vital female characters. Yet taking a broad view of speculative fiction, and especially of science fiction, one may discern the march of female stereotypes.

The reigning stereotype of early sci-fi was the young lady, invariably attractive, who was the love interest of the young hero, or the daughter of the old professor, or – this was not rare – both. Often, this young woman played Watson to the men’s Sherlock, asking what the audience doesn’t know. Thus the woman provided a method to resolve the eternal writer’s problem of the info-dump, and an infinitely more graceful one than having the hero and the professor tell each other what both already know. More significantly, the young woman is usually the story’s heart – the hero’s inspiration and the center of his emotion. Often enough, she is the damsel in distress, awaiting rescue. In short, early sci-fi stereotypes fit women into classic ideals of femininity, though it must be noted that this did not wholly sideline women from the action. It was not unusual for the hero’s love interest to accompany him into peril, nor unknown for her to use a weapon when the crisis demanded it.

Another, less genteel stereotype is typified by the women of the original Star Trek – the Federation servicewomen in miniskirts and the endless parade of female aliens who probably were not warm under those lights. Unlike the vaguely Victorian women of earlier sci-fi, those women were allowed to enter the story in their own right, not needing a personal relationship with a male character for admission. At the same time, their presentation – sexualized in the very teeth of common sense – objectified them in a way that the idealized women of a more old-fashioned tradition were not. This stereotype was probably most prominent between the fading of the old ideals and the dominance of the new, but it existed before then and is not extinct now.

The stereotype now ascendant is that of the action heroine, whose prowess defies old notions of feminine weakness and, at times, the laws of nature. Princess Leia is the embodiment of the new SF heroine: assertive, authoritative, confident in the use of weapons and in everything else, sarcastic and sharp-tongued to the point of being obnoxious. (If anyone disagrees with this last statement, let me just say: Get this walking carpet out of my way.) We want a heroine who can scrap with the biggest, toughest of men, and due to standards of female beauty strictly enforced in Hollywood, we are accustomed to heroines who do this while weighing just north of 100 pounds.

But despite this and other absurdities, there is nothing inherently wrong with the confident, sarcastic woman who knows how to make use of an arsenal. For that matter, there was nothing wrong with the sweetheart or daughter who is the hero’s heart. (The female military officer in a miniskirt we can do without.) The real error of this march of stereotypes is not that speculative fiction features a certain kind of woman, but that it neglects other kinds.

A Girl and Her Father

Of all biblical stories, Esther is among the best-known and most retold. There is good reason for this. It is a complete and satisfying tale, with peril and victory, with an underdog who wins, a villain who gets his comeuppance, and a brave, beautiful heroine. Its attraction is enormous, but a curious pattern emerges among the re-tellings. Even while staying faithful to the facts of the story, many re-tellings shift the dramatic and emotional center from Esther and Mordecai to Esther and Xerxes. The story of Esther is commonly told as a romance, but in the Bible, the relationship that matters most is the one between Esther and Mordecai.

Esther and Mordecai were cousins, but their relationship is defined by the fact that Mordecai adopted Esther after her parents died, taking her in and raising her. (Somewhat-irrelevant side note: This phenomenon – family members of the same generation but of vast age differences – occurred more frequently in ancient times than in modern, for various reasons.) Mordecai was, in effect, Esther’s father. This relationship drives forward the story: Mordecai’s concern for Esther leads to his vigils at the palace gate, through which he both saves the king’s life and incurs Haman’s animosity; it is Mordecai who explains to Esther (cloistered in the palace) the plot to annihilate the Jews and persuades her to act; Mordecai and Esther together save the Jews and later establish the celebration of Purim.

Esther and Mordecai are also at the heart of the story’s spiritual and emotional power. Esther commands the fasting and prayer in preparation of her bid to save the Jews; Mordecai makes the immortal statement that she became queen “for such a time as this.” It is their lives, their family, and their people brought beneath the shadow of ruthless slaughter. It is their relationship – and emphatically not the relationship between Esther and Xerxes – that is demonstrated to be one of mutual affection: Mordecai walked in a courtyard of the palace every day to find out how Esther was after the king’s officials took her; Esther was “in great distress” at the news of Mordecai’s distress.

Esther’s relationship with Xerxes was, of course, marriage – but marriage to a despot of ancient Persia, and that is a very qualified thing. He practiced, and pretended, no sexual fidelity toward her; consider that he slept with all her rivals for the queenship and then kept them as concubines within his palace. It is evident, too, that Xerxes and Esther didn’t really live together. They only visited at such times when Xerxes wished it – and he could go whole months without wishing it. No detail more sharply illuminates their relationship than the fact that Esther was deathly afraid to go to Xerxes without his summons. In the pivotal moment, Xerxes treated her with regard, but to the end their interactions were those of an absolute sovereign and a favored inferior. Esther was Xerxes’ queen more than she was his wife (though that also, to be fair, had its privileges). It should be noted, too, that Xerxes was an alien to the spiritual concerns of Mordecai and Esther and wholly safe from the death that threatened both of them. Xerxes is an ambivalent figure at best, and a hero on no consideration.

Why, then, do interpretations of the story so often fix on the supposed romance between Esther and Xerxes? The answer is simple, a truth that has long frustrated readers who prefer fantastical stories: People would rather hear about romance. To many people, a romantic relationship – even one as distant and asymmetrical as the marriage of a Persian despot and his queen – is inherently more interesting than a father-daughter relationship, even if it saves a nation from genocide.