Personal Triumph, Story Outcome, and Story Judgment
Main Characters, like the people in real life they portray, find peace in their own personal way. Sometimes they achieve this resolution by means most would consider sad or even reprehensible. What happens when an Author’s judgment on a Main Character’s growth clashes with societal standards?
Something truly awesome.
In Dennis Lehane’s novel Mystic River you have no less than three Main Characters who, by one form or another, manage to resolve their own personal issues. While it is a story of triumph for one of them, the other two find themselves at the end of a personal triumph. Regardless of whether or not their Overall Stories ended in Success, all three found their own version of peace.
Three Main Characters? The time restriction on a feature-film, typically two-and-a-half hours, makes it virtually impossible to completely explore three distinct storyforms. Novels, on the other hand, can do so with ease.
A storyform is a collection of four distinct perspectives, all focused on the same central inequity. The Main Character clues us in on what it feels like to have the problem, the Influence Character lets us know it is like for someone else to experience that problem, the Relationship Story allows us to feel what it is like when we have the problem, and the Overall Story examines how all the players deal with the problem. By definition then, Main Characters with distinct personal issues require their own storyform. The Overall Stories of those different storyforms may overlap and share thematic material (as they do in Mystic River), but the personal nature of the Main Character’s Throughline almost demand their own collection of story points.
Understand that while this article contains images from the film version of Mystic River, the film itself fails to explore each story to completion.
For once, we’re focusing on the novel.
Sean’s personal problems stem from his estranged relationship with his wife Lauren and his daughter, Nora. Having successfully identified the person behind Katie’s murder, Sean (Kevin Bacon in the film) calls up his wife and makes amends. They attend a parade together at the end of the story:
He loved his wife then as deeply as he ever had, and he felt humbled by her ability to convey instant kinship with lost souls. He was sure then that it was he who had wronged their marriage with the emergence of his cop’s ego, his gradual contempt for the flaws and frailty of people. He reached out and touched Lauren’s cheek…
Sad sack Dave (Tim Robbins in the film), a victim of child molestation, finds his peaceful resolution at the banks of the Mystic, a place where Jimmy says:
“We bury our sins here, Dave. We wash them clean.”
What Jimmy refers to here is his intention to kill Dave, thinking him responsible for his daughter’s death. The truth, unfortunately, is that Dave had nothing to do with Katie’s murder; he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Jimmy doesn’t believe him, and shows his disbelief by running a knife through Dave’s gut. Dave falls to his knees as Jimmy pulls out a gun and aims it at his childhood friend. Unwilling to die just yet, Dave pleads for mercy.
Jimmy lowers his gun.
“Thank you,” Dave said. “Thank you, thank you.” Dave lay back and saw the shafts of light streaming across the bridge, cutting through the black of the night, glowing. “Thank you, Jimmy. I’m going to be a good man now. You’ve taught me something. You have. And I’ll tell you what that something is as soon as I’ve caught by breath. I’m going to be a good father. I’m going to be a good husband. I promise. I swear…”
Dave finds peace as he bleeds out. In contrast to Sean’s story, Dave’s is one of personal triumph. While he was able to overcome the deep-seeded issues he developed as a result of his childhood trauma, he was unable to avoid some sort of retribution for the crime he really did commit. He failed to avoid the consequence of killing a child molester in the same parking lot where Katie was killed. A bittersweet ending that helps to color the “happy ending” Sean’s story received
Perhaps the most chilling resolve lies in the heart of Jimmy Markum (Sean Penn in the film). Having just found out Katie’s true killer (albeit too late for Dave), Jimmy finds himself faced with the revelation that he killed an innocent man. How does he respond?
He was evil? So be it. He could live with it because he had love in his heart and he had certainty. As trade-offs went, it wasn’t half bad. He got dressed. He walked through the kitchen feeling like the man he’d been pretending to be all these years had just gone down the drain in the bathroom. He could hear his daughters shrieking and laughing, probably getting licked to death by Val’s cat, and he thought, Man, that’s a beautiful sound.
By most standards, Jimmy’s attitude is reprehensible. How could anyone find peace when they’re guilty of such a crime? The truth is we know people like this, and may even be a bit guilty of the same sort of justification (hopefully with less deadly consequences). A peaceful resolution does not have to be something with which an audience agrees with. Sometimes bad people get away with bad things and feel OK about it. Jimmy is one of those people.
He didn’t get the revenge he was working so hard for, but he’s OK with that. He can live with himself because he has love.
The peaceful resolution to a Main Character’s personal issues does not have to be a black and white issue. Proving that the end result of a Main Character’s arc was a good thing does not have to be something that we as an audience actually feel good about. The Author is in charge here, not the audience.
Whether you’re talking about Sean, Dave, or Jimmy, all three Main Characters manage to resolve their own personal problems. While Sean’s is the closest to a happy ending, Dave and Jimmy’s stories have that bittersweet feeling that is unfortunately more true-to-life. The end result is something closer to truth.
What gives this story its feeling of delicious intricacy, of being that much more like real life, is the degree to which these peaceful resolutions are found. Our moral appreciation of the ends towards achieving those means, if in discord with the Author’s original intent, gives a piece of fiction that feeling of meaningful complexity. Neither technique, whether subtle or complex, is better than the other. Some Authors prefer to give their audiences something more.
Dennis Lehane is one of those authors.