Fairness in Life and Art

By Brantley Thompson Elkins

 

SPOILER ALERT:

If you havenŐt seen the movie version of Atonement, or read the book, but want to, please be advised not to read any further, as I have to reveal the ending to make my argument.

Based on the novel by Ian McEwan, the acclaimed movie tells the story of Briony Tallis, a spoiled 13-year old well-born British girl with literary ambitions who ruins the lives of her older sister Cecelia and CeceliaŐs boyfriend Robbie by falsely accusing Robbie of raping another girl. Robbie is sent to prison, from which he is freed only to join the Army at the outbreak of World War II.

Cecelia, the only one to believe in his innocence, pines for Robbie as we see him waiting for evacuation from Dunkirk after the German blitzkrieg. Briony, like Cecelia, has become a nurse, tending to the wounded and seemingly trying to expiate her sin. She finally bites the bullet, it seems, calling on Cecelia and Robbie after his return to express remorse. They donŐt exactly roll out the red carpet for her, but she agrees to set the record straight, and it looks as if the lovers will live happily ever after.

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Cut to 60 years later. Now a successful novelist but suffering a fatal illness, Briony is being interviewed on TV about her latest novel – based on the story of Robbie and Cecilia. Only, in the course of the interview, she reveals that she made up the happy ending: Robbie died at Dunkirk from a septic infection, while Cecelia was killed in the blitz. Briony never called on them, never lifted a finger, never said a word, when it would have done them any good. Yet she seems to think that her novel is a form of atonement.

Velvet and I both found the revelation heartbreaking. But commentaries on both the movie and the novel (which I havenŐt read yet although I have it at hand) tend to be very cerebral; in an essay on the latter, one Brian Finney starts off thusly:

I want to concentrate on the self conscious use of narrative in Atonement, as this aspect has been seized on by a minority of reviewers to criticize what they understand to be an essentially realist novel that at the end inappropriately resorts to a modish self referentiality. My reading of this novel is of a work of fiction that is from beginning to end concerned with the making of fiction.

But Finney himself is caught up in critical fashion: there is nothing more modish than to think of fiction as being about nothing but itself. Yet there has to be some connection between fiction and life. For Finney, it is a matter of Briony treating life as if it were fiction: ŇWhen she makes public her confusion between life and the life of fiction the consequences are tragic and irreversible except in the realm of fiction.Ó

But the motivation for the lie – BrionyŐs own silly crush on Robbie, and her jealousy towards Cecilia after catching her and Robbie having a quickie in the family library – could have been that of any spoiled brat, without any experience of literature, let alone a vocation for it.

One can easily imagine Briony not having been a writer, and having committed the same appalling act. Making her a writer – she turns out to be the ostensible writer of the novel itself – makes for a better story, but doesnŐt change the nature of her crime. If there is a lesson to be learned from Atonement, it has nothing to do with confusing reality and fiction, but rather with how actions in life as well as fiction have consequences. That is what makes the denouement so devastating, instead of being merely a clever literary/cinematic trick.

On a blog at The New York Times, for an online piece that irreverently and irrelevantly tried to tie the movie version to Hillary Clinton as a ŇpresumptiveÓ candidate for honors, I ventured the opinion that the title of the movie was ironic – there was no way Briony could atone to the dead. One J.H. Russell agreed in spades in a response at the same blog:

Briony is NOT a sympathetic character - she is a hugely selfish character, and my take is that she never felt genuine sorrow for what she had doneÉshe never grewÉthe old Briony was just as selfish as the young BrionyÉshe wrote that book for herself and no one elseÉand she fictionalized the story with a Ňhappily ever afterÓ to make herself feel better about everythingÉwhat a bitch Briony wasÉfeeling sorry for her is the last thing in the world anyone should feelÉpity, maybeÉcompassion, definitely notÉ

We donŐt know what would have become of Robbie and Cecelia but for that malicious bitch. Perhaps they would have been killed in the war anyway, but at least theyŐd have shared some years of happiness. Then again, they might have lived full lives. Yet the uncertainty of these fictional characters is no different from our own: none of us knows what tomorrow may bring – any of us might die of a stroke or a heart attack, or be the victim of a murderer, or get run down by a drunk driver.

While life is indeed chancy, however, it would be foolish to dwell on that, to be obsessed with mischance, with all that might go wrong. It is our job as human beings to live the best lives we can despite the chanciness of existence, and to let others do the same – helping them when we can and, if we cannot, at least not adding to their woes. Sufficient to our days are those sufferings we cannot foresee or prevent. That is something Briony never really seems to learn, and if Atonement truly judges her as Russell argues, it is a fair judgment.

If life cannot always be fair, art should be. But there are different kinds of fairness. One is fairness in the broad sense. Art should be true to life, we are often told – but different artists have different ideas of what ŇlifeÓ is. The most we can expect of them is that they express their own visions of life as honestly as they can. We may love what they say or hate what they say, but we try to give them a fair hearing. By the same token, they should play fair with us if they want to get that hearing. They should even reach out to us by any means necessary.

This is especially true of people who write message novels. When Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle TomŐs Cabin, she wasnŐt trying to write great literature; she was trying to arouse anger against slavery. She went for the heart, her story full of shameless sentimentality. When Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle, he wasnŐt trying to write great literature, either; he was trying to arouse anger against Big Business. He went for the stomach, his story full of shamelessly disgusting details, especially about the meat industry. Stowe and Sinclair alike, obviously, wanted to reach the greatest possible audience, and did.

Message novels can be great literature. In Les MisŽrables, Victor Hugo set out to write an epic of social injustice, yet we remember it now not just for its message but for the story of the redemption of Jean Valjean, his pursuit by the relentless inspector Javert, and his dedication to his ward Cosette. In 1984, George Orwell exposed the true nature of totalitarianism, but we remember it now for the story of Winston Smith, his doomed romance with Julie, and his fatal confrontation with his confidant and betrayer OŐBrien. Both novels were best sellers in their time; they did their job. They have since been filmed more than once, and HugoŐs novel even became a long-running musical.

But high art or low art, honest message novels have to reach a broad audience. And when writers donŐt do that, they arenŐt playing fair by their own supposed standards. Thomas M. Disch, an avant-garde science fiction writer, edited an anthology called The Ruins of Earth, which was presented as an effort to Save the World by warning mankind of its sundry follies. But the stories in it, like DischŐs own, were calculated not to appeal to anyone outside a small and snobbish elite. They were preaching to the choir of a very small church, and thus served no real purpose beyond making the writers feel good about themselves – no nobler a purpose than that for which the fictional Briony Tallis wrote her novel.

Intellectual snobbery motivates any number of literary sins. L. Sprague De Camp, in The Science Fiction Handbook (1953), knew that it wasnŐt playing fair with the reader to tell a story in which spacemen are marooned on a strange planet after their ship is hit by a meteor, repair their ship by heroic efforts – and then get wiped out by another meteor as soon as they take off:

Young writers sometimes commit this kind of fictional mayhem not to entertain the reader but to show what devilishly clever, superior, cynical, ironic fellows they are, who really grasp the blind hostility of the universe. But they merely annoy the reader, who knows about the blind hostility of the universe already and wants a story in which the actions of the people bear some causal relation to the outcome, happy or tragic as the case may be.

I donŐt know what specific examples De Camp may have had in mind. But more than a decade later a young writer named Marc Geston wrote Lords of the Starship (1967), in which the desperate people of a devastated future Earth struggle for generations to build a huge starship to make their escape – and the ship destroys itself on takeoff, as apparently planned by the ancient forces of Darkness. No doubt Geston (then all of 20 years old) thought he was a devilishly clever, superior, cynical, ironic fellow. He is now a lawyer.

The annals of modern literature are full of novels that pretend to express ŇcompassionÓ for humanity when they actually express contempt. The same is true in the visual media: Dennis Potter, who suffered from a disfiguring skin disease, showed the same sort of contempt in Pennies from Heaven, a cynical send-up of feel-good Hollywood musicals. Now perhaps this could be excused by PotterŐs own suffering, and yet Stephen Hawking has suffered a worse affliction without concluding that it was his solemn right and duty to try to make everyone else miserable.

But stupidity and sheer incompetence are more prevalent in popular entertainment when it doesnŐt play fair with, and even shows contempt for its audience. This is especially evident in poorly-conceived movie sequels. Take Legally Blonde II: Red, White and Blonde – please.

Legally Blonde itself was an intelligent comedy that turned the dumb blonde clichŽ on its head. When we encounter Elle Woods, we can tell from the outset that she is frivolous and irresponsible – but not stupid: nobody can fool her about things like fashion. SheŐs got a first-class brain; she just hasnŐt used it for anything important. Her efforts to get into law school to pursue a boyfriend who has jilted her are shallowly motivated yet brilliantly executed. ElleŐs transformation into a dedicated student of the law, and defender of a woman falsely accused of murder, is a joy to behold – yet true to her character.

In the sequel, however, itŐs as if sheŐs forgotten everything she ever learned. The story not only goes back to Square One, but never gets to Square Two.  ItŐs even worse in the sequel to Revenge of the Nerds. The first Nerds movie could hardly be called high art, and yet it had an integrity to it – the nerds overcame their tormentors by being true to themselves. But in the sequel, they forget that and become assholes like all the other assholes. I never wanted to see another Nerds movie after that. There are less troubling but still annoying examples, as in the Indiana Jones movies. One of the most appealing elements of Raiders of the Lost Ark was Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood – just the right woman for a man of action – but in the sequel, she was dumped for a ditzy blonde.

But the worst example of betraying the audience IŐve ever seen was Alien 3. In James CamersonŐs Aliens, Ellen Ripley, having returned to Earth too late for a reunion with her own daughter as she had vowed in Ridley ScottŐs Alien, makes it her business to save Newt – sole human survivor of a colony world infested with the aliens. That commitment, and the heroism Ripley shows in standing by it, makes Aliens an action movie with heart, a rare thing indeed.

Only in Alien 3, we learn that Newt has died in a crash on yet another planet. In real life, this would have been tragic. In drama, it was a crime. If we accept it as real, it makes the entire plot of the previous movie pointless. Yet it was not a matter of Hollywood writers or directors trying to be devilishly clever, superior, cynical and ironic; simply a matter of studio politics and turf battles – the movie went through several writers and directors, all set on putting their own stamp on it. But the effect, if not the intent, was to show contempt for Ripley and Newt -- and for the audience.

One of the reasons, although not the only one, for the decline of daytime soap opera has been the cynicism and contempt shown by producers and writers for characters: not just minor players, but long-established leads like Luke and Laura on General Hospital. One story line during the past couple of years involved the return of Robert and Holly Scorpio after many years – in a story line which so trashed the characters that angry fans got up a petition of protest. It was similarly trashing characters that sank Port Charles, a GH spin-off.  A common syndrome on soaps is musical beds – arbitrary pairings and re-pairings of couples for no other reason than to keep the pot boiling. With the headlines on soap opera magazine covers so much like those on tabloids about celebrity scandals, itŐs small wonder that fans abandon fiction for Ňreality.Ó

People in fiction deserve the same respect as people in real life. Good fiction is one of the places we learn about respect, and integrity, and values. That is not its only purpose, and may not even be its primary purpose. But surely, as with Briony Tallis in Atonement, it can show us graphically how not to live our own lives, and how the kind of lives we lead affect other lives, whether for good or ill. That the way we live our lives matters.

Jan. 11, 2008