Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Stranger in Town

All stories begin with an incident to shatter the calm of routine. For some time to come, perhaps forever, adios to the ordinary. Bienvenidos to the downward spiral of dramatic events to come. If we have any history of reading fiction, we know some form of disaster and some need for evasive action beckon. Our curiosity and anticipation draw us in.

Many stories begin with an individual--often the protagonist--sent or assigned to an unfamiliar locale, with a stated goal or assignment. Welcome to the stranger in town, one of the two or three basic designs of story.

The stranger in town represents the alien or outsider to the locals, who are wary if not outright suspicious and resentful. To see this dynamic in action, start with the opening paragraphs of Gustave Flaubert's Madam Bovary, where the character of Charles Bovary is first introduced to a classroom of schoolmates. Although not the protagonist, Charles Bovary comes to us as an outsider. In one way or another, he remains marginal and influential to his eventual wife, Emma.

Camille Preaker, protagonist of Gillian Flynn's Sharp Objects, gives yet another version of stranger in town. A regular from a place has left, often for life in another city. Circumstances call her back home, where she's regarded as changed, no longer one of us, her trustworthiness and motives cause for increased suspicion.

The greater a character's deviation from ordinary, the better the character's potential for dramatic immortality. Captain Ahab, far from the protagonist of Moby Dick, nevertheless steals scenes from The Whale and from the intended protagonist, Ishmael. Readers who have yet to experience the pleasures of Thackeray's Vanity Fair, have absorbed through literary osmosis the picture of Becky Sharp as an opportunist. Those yet to read Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind, still know Scarlett O'Hara's mantra about tomorrow. Shakespeare's Iago resides in infamy as an advocate of treachery, and who among us believes his Sir John Falstaff was ever knighted in actuality.

The Stranger in Town represents the spectrum of marginality or alienness readers understand, often on the level of personal experience. Difficult to concieve of any serious writer who has not felt the separation of being from alien country. The Stranger is the one white in an all-black group, the one black in an all-white, the one white in an otherwise Asian group. To add double jeopardy, imagine a WASP baseball player, fresh off an athletic scholarship to Princeton, one of the most reputed WASP universities, being drafted by a major league baseball team in which most of the starting lineup is from Cuba and Central America.

SIT embodies race, gender, sexual orientation, political, and economic stratification. SIT can be a young girl asking her prehistoric father if she can have a boyfriend over to dinner, and the father hoping the boyfriend is not "on of then Neanderthal sorts." 

What are her true origins? What does she want? Why is she really  here? Nevermind what she tells us, what agenda does she hide?

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