Bewildering Stories

Prisoners of Circumstance

by John Thiel

John answers a question in Discussion 84.

To the editorial echelon:

I was not referring to the serials when I said the characters in your stories tended to be held in a state of passivity (and that, perhaps, by the thrall of the story), but I did suggest that the tincture of this protagonist inertia was found in other stories, and that it was not uncommon for characters in the stories you publish to be that way. It has occurred to me that they may be too bewildered to function at optimum.

As an object, Snyder's hero [in “The Dark”] is not passive, but as a person he is. A person who meditates tumbling, scorching and freezing while plunging through a void, consumed by inner energy, is passive in overwhelming circumstances. I did not say such a person was passive by nature or that he would always be passive. His circumstances are suggesting that he will always be that way. His streaking through space is not volitional. A human bomb, I think, is passive behaviorally. He has, of course, an intellect which isn't passive.

A spectator is passive, as is the case in Venezuela's story [“The Beantown Silverfish”]. The watcher of a hexed game is still more passive, and the believer that a game is hexed is most passive of all. As in the case of Snyder's hero, he's intellectually active but circumstantially otherwise. When he takes physical action he's passive in terms of thinking it out correctly.

In the serials there's too much of a thrall in the first [Julian Lawler’s The Prophet of Dreams] and too much of an entrenched crime wave in the second [Gerald Sheagren’s “Fried”] for anybody's action to be what he himself would will as personal action. Such is true of Lord of the Rings also.

Gide's story as described resembled Camus' The Stranger. I think we're getting a little existential around here. The existential topic in both books would, I think, be negation or estrangement. I've joined in this approach with my story "That Elusive Other," where Sartre is highlighted. By the way, I'm looking forward to seeing my story [“The Ranger Knew a Trick”] in issue #85.

Thank you, John! You’ve given us a lot to think about. And, since this is a “Discussion,” let’s think about it, or at least get a start on it.

First, your point is taken with the understanding that heroes may be prisoners of circumstances. They react to external problems, ones not of their own creation.

In “The Dark,” Craig Snyder’s hero is literally a prisoner. In Julian Lawler’s The Prophet of Dreams, the entire City — let alone the main characters — is taken prisoner.

In other stories, the characters are not always prisoners in a literal sense. The hero of Clint Venezuela’s “Beantown Silverfish” chooses to be a football fan. One may say he’s a prisoner of his own dim wit: he’s so literal-minded that he can’t understand figures of speech even when they’re explained to him.

Nor is Gerald Sheagren’s Frank Marino a prisoner; rather, he creates one under false pretenses, and his prisoner proceeds to take revenge literally into his own hands. Actually, Clint Veneuela’s and Gerald Sheagren’s stories are similar: “Silverfish” is a comedy, because its object is an abstraction, the calendar. “Fried” is a tragedy, because its object is a person, the condemned prisoner.

Speaking of Sartre, he has written what is probably the classic story of prisoners of circumstance: Le Mur (The Wall). The protagonist is a prisoner who, when promised freedom in exchange for betraying a comrade, sends his captors on a wild-goose chase, to the place where he thinks his friend is least likely to hide. Of course, his friend is captured. As you know, Sartre loves to dwell on cruel twists of fate and the ironies in what lies beyond our control.

Camus’ Meursault is an accident going somewhere to happen. Emotionally, he lives like a prisoner and is never so free as when he’s in jail. Gide’s character in La Symphonie pastorale is so much a prisoner of his own self-centeredness that he systematically deceives everyone, including himself.

I can think of two examples of the truly “passive hero”: one story is a failure, the other a classic. Robert A. Heinlein’s Citizen of the Galaxy is beloved of many readers. Unaccountably, I think. The protagonist — one can hardly say “hero” — is shuttled about like a pinball at the whim or good will of others and of chance; he does little or nothing on his own. I’ve always considered that novel a crashing bore.

Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” is quite the contrary. It elicits horrified fascination: Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning as a beetle, and we come to share what he has realized: he’s already been treated as one for a long time.

This installment of the Discussion has already grown rather long. Let’s continue it in issue 86. I’d like you to tell us how your story fits into all this!

Please send us your ideas!

Copyright © 2004 by John Thiel and Bewildering Stories

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