Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Questward Bound

quest--an agenda or goal pursued by a character in a novel or short story; a reach for artistic, emotional,financial, philosophical, or romantic reward; an end of which the character may be aware but choses to keep hidden.

The quest or desire may change during the arc of a longer narrative, as in Nelson Algren's The Man with the Golden Arm, in which the protagonist, Frankie, is a returned veteran of World War II, addicted to morphine. His main quest is the dream of being a jazz drummer, on a par with Gene Krupa or Dave Tough. He is bound by conscience and love to caring for his invalid wife, who may or not be truly crippled, and whose invalid condition Frankie may or may not be directly responsible. Frankie's main talent appears to be his dexterity with a deck of playing cards, leading to his only steady source of employment--dealer in illegal poker games. Frankie's quests revolve around staying free of drugs, pursuing his career as a drummer, and the romantic pull toward an old girl friend, Molly.

Walter Tevis' novel, The Hustler, dramatizes the quest of its protagonist, Fast Eddie Felson, to become the best pool hustler in America. Readers may bring value judgments to Frankie's or Fast Eddie's choices of profession, but these judgments are left at the door in the wake of the characters' yearning to achieve the goal of their quest. Becky Sharp was also on a quest in Vanity Fair; so was Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz; so too was Nora Helmer in A Doll's House.

The 1927 motion picture, The Jazz Singer, adapted from a stage lay by Samson Raphaelson, features a protagonist who longs to forge a show business career as a singer, in defiance of the wishes of his father to use his voice as a cantor. Joe Bonaparte, protagonist of Clifford Odets' play, Golden Boy, wanted to become a concert-level violinist but in order to secure funding for his education, became a prize fighter, risking the ruining of his hands. Both protagonists had goals; in their quest to achieve these goals, they encountered opposition.

The reader not only empathizes with the quest-oriented character, the reader is not satisfied with a dramatic individual whose agenda does not radiate from quest.

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