Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Fatal Flaw

fatal flaw--a physical or psychological trait given a character; a handicap that informs the behavior of a character in a novel or short story; the Ugly Duckling writ large, the more-intelligent-than-others writ small; an often-imagined deficiency experienced by a front-rank character that is in fact not noticed by others.

If he'd been fashioned with a nose of ordinary length and configuration, Cyrano might well have had to enlist Christian to act on his love for Roxanne, but the forces that shaped him (and his nose) also had undeniable effect on his way with words as well as his way with a sword. And to look at the flaw of the inner person, let's suppose Macbeth had been content to accept the promotion from King Malcolm and let it go with being Thane of Cawdor, or that Miss Rebecca Sharp had not been so, shall we say upwardly mobile. What then of Macbeth or Vanity Fair? We could also look at Antigone and her determination to bury her brother, but just as well we can look at her uncle, who is determined that Antigone's brother not be buried. Without the willfulness of uncle and niece, Antigone would not have been put to death, seriously undercutting the impact of the story.

As Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and James M. Cain democratized crime, brought it away from the estate and gated community, into the city, John Steinbeck notably applied the fatal flaw to Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, and even more notably to the characters of Lennie and George in Of Mice and Men. Lennie is big, powerful, and simple-minded; George is small, quick-witted, a bit of a martyr. He has become Lennie's protector and in so doing has mortgaged his own ambition of becoming a rancher.

The flaw, whether the inner of psychological origin or the outer of injury or growth or general appearance, literally effects the direction and outcome of the story and as an adjunct, the reader's reaction to the afflicted character. From the beginning of Ken Kesey's One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, we are presented with a self-serving protagonist, Randle P. McMurphy, whom we see using his feigned mental state to avoid incarceration in a prison. We watch him warily to see where his game will take him, in the process buying in to the process of growth. We know from experience in reading that characters in a novel cannot stand still--they either grow forward or spiral downward. McMurphy's fatal flaw becomes his compassion, his empathy, which trumps his own self-serving pleasures and extends to his fellow inmates.

Joe Buck and Enrico "Ratso" Rizzo come steamrolling out of James Leo Herlihy's The Midnight Cowboy with fatal flaws, Buck's being a romantic naivete similar to Emma Bovary's, Rizzo's a one-two punch of a leg crippled by polio and an incipient consumptive cough. As in the explosive ending of Cuckoo, the payoff of Cowboy provides a plausible-but-unexpected flash of warmth and light for the survivor and, however uncomfortably, for the reader.

The novel is about characters orbiting to resolution, which is defined by growth. The fatal flaws are inertial forces, propelling the characters to their release-through-understanding or their descent into a relinquishing of the power to rescue themselves. Writers inflict fatal flaws upon some characters in order to inject the explosive emotions of epiphany and awareness into the story

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