Monday, September 28, 2015

Agenda 21: Emma Sue

Agenda 21, pp. 143-145

Chapter Twenty-Two includes more exploration of the Village, such as a scene of children in the play area singing this oh-so-clever variant on a classic children's song:

Every day I walk my board
Walk my board
Walk my board
Every day I walk my board
For my fair Republic

I realize that this is meant to be creepy, but all I thought as I read it was "That last line doesn't scan at all."

Aside from a new setting, there's one other thing that this chapter brings to the table - character motivation. One of Vonnegut's rules is that every character should want something, but Emmeline hasn't exactly been keeping up her side. For most of the novel thus far, she's been a passive little tabula rasa waiting for someone else to tell her what to do. By this point, however, she has a few motivations. Here's a rough list:

  1. Find Elsa and, if possible, take her out of the Village;
  2. Hot sex with sexy David;
  3. Escape from the silliest dystopian city ever.

Given her behavior over the next few chapters, I think there's another item that belongs there:

  1. Get caught.

Seriously, if Winston Smith had taken this many meaningless risks, he'd have been in Miniluv around page 10. Here's an early example:

"Your responsibilities will include hourly rounds on all the children. Between rounds you'll be stationed in the infants' area."

"With Elsa," I finished.

Now I know what you're thinking: "This isn't a risk. Joan is a friend." Except not five pages earlier, we had this:

[Joan] didn't look at John and he didn't look at her. That must be something that can be monitored.

So Joan was careful not to look at her husband because that might somehow give away the game, and yet we now have Our Capable Protagonist openly discussing the daughter she isn't supposed to know about. Did I mention that, as she altered records, Joan is neck-deep in this and will also be in peril if Emmeline is caught?

Not that it matters, as Emmeline is our Mary Sue and they're never in any real danger.

The literary term "Mary Sue" (sometimes masculinized as "Gary Stu" or "Marty Stu") is thrown around a lot when discussing bad writing, but it's misused more often than not. The term originates in the fanfiction community, where it refers to a type of wish fulfillment character who is connected to all of the official in-universe characters and yet is more important than any of them. The term later found its way into the world of original fiction, where the meaning is a little muddy. People define the term in a lot of different ways; some argue that it has become too broadly defined to be of any use.

To use the most widely accepted definitions: A Mary Sue is a type of highly idealized character - preternaturally skilled, beloved by all (except the villains), and critically, centrally important to everything that happens in the story. S/he is often (but not always) an authorial self-insert, a character meant to represent the author in the story. As a character loved by his/her inventor, a Mary Sue faces no setbacks and no problems that rise beyond the level of nuisances. Above all, the Mary Sue is unique, better than everyone else and unbound by the normal rules.

Let's look at Emmeline. She is consistently depicted as being better at her peers by dint of being "home-raised,"* which is very rare. She has had no real obstacles - all of her problems have been defused in a paragraph or two without so much as a trace of sweat. Most telling, her entire current circumstances - where she is working at a special job while also being married off to a normally chaste Gatekeeper - is a result of a special dispensation. That's right - the evil, tyrannical, mindlessly inflexible future government is breaking its own rules to make Emmeline happy.

"But what about those first few chapters?" I hear you say. "She faced plenty of adversity there." Par for the course, my friend. Remember that those were flashbacks, events that had already come to pass. It's actually not unusual for a Mary Sue to have an arbitrarily traumatic background. Some of them get really grim - Emmeline's history is tame compared to some of the blood-soaked Mary Sue backstories I've seen. Giving the Mary Sue a tragic background is an easy way for the author to gin up some sympathy for a character s/he wants everyone to love. Everything that happens in the present time of the story is smooth sailing. And by the way...

...that's going to be true here, too. It doesn't matter how many times Emmeline acts insubordinate, or speaks out of line, or lets slip something she shouldn't. Nothing bad happens, because she is protected by the power of plot. The plot doesn't call for Emmeline to be dragged off, so she won't be, and that's simply the state of things.

*  *  *  *  *

*Yes, it was "homeschooled" earlier. It will be "home-raised" for the rest of the story. This book was professionally edited and published under a major imprint.

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