Destroying the Imago of the Protagonist
SHERMAN ALEXIE’S “CLASS”
One way to consider the ego of a protagonist is what I call the imago. Each of us creates a self-image, or imago, of ourselves, which includes both how we would like to look at and identify ourselves and how we would like others to look at and identify us. This self-image is intimately tied to our ego, to our sense of self-worth. It tends to dominate our presentation of ourselves in public or social interactions and, to a certain extent, in our private interactions. Most of us also have a secret life or self, one that often contradicts, in very interesting and revealing ways, the self-image of our public and private life.
Seen in this light, our public self-image is a facade, a simplification. It hides key aspects or facets of the self. Some of these things one consciously hides. But there are also facets of the self that one does not know one is consciously hiding.
As the protagonist pursues the goal and runs into failure and frustration and difficult choices, these blows of reality make the protagonist aware of his limitations, his foibles and faults. Each blow then chips away at the protagonist’s imago, at his projected self-image.
Here’s one way to picture this process: The protagonist goes around carrying a cardboard projection of his ideal self and presenting this projection to the world. As the story progresses, the events of the story, the reaction of the world to his plans, his internal struggles all serve to chip at and tear away this cardboard projection.
In various great works of fiction, by the ending, that cardboard projection has been utterly destroyed and what is revealed is the naked self, so that the reader or audience sees, as Lear puts it, the “poor, bare, forked animal.” If most successful stories or plays do not reach this tragic nadir—or zenith—most will still generally succeed in presenting the reader with an understanding and portrait of the protagonist that goes beyond or behind the protagonist’s imago and, by the end, reveals new truths about who the protagonist truly is.
Sherman Alexie’s “Class” is a useful example of a story where events chip away at the imago of the protagonist until he is forced to admit who he truly is and not who he wishes to be. The story also demonstrates how, in a short story, the use of a three-act structure does not mean that all three acts are presented in equal detail.
In myth and the classic three-act play structure, the first act involves the protagonist’s introduction to and taking up of the goal—or, as Joseph Campbell calls it, “the hero’s journey.” This journey usually starts with the hero living in a kingdom or land where something is amiss, where things are fallow or not flourishing—a plague, corruption, an evil king. Such a situation can also serve as a metaphor for the hero’s psychic stagnation, from which the hero is called on to undertake a journey or task, a heroic goal.
Campbell says that in many myths it takes two invitations or calls before the hero assumes his task. In psychological terms, the first call loosens the hero’s psyche and prepares him to be ready to take up the task at the second call (the unconscious hears the call even if the conscious puts it aside). Once the hero undertakes the task or journey, the first act ends.
The second act involves struggle and doubt as the hero makes progress toward the goal. There is often a point in the second act where the hero fails and/or falls into darkness and despair.
The third act is the final battle, the setting or situation in which it becomes clear whether the hero will succeed or fail in reaching the goal.
Often, short stories retain their brevity by focusing mainly on the third act, the final battle. This is true of Alexie’s “Class.”
In the opening section of “Class,” Edgar, the protagonist narrator, meets a woman at a white middle-class party—they’ve just been discussing the shrimp appetizers and whether cayenne goes with lobster—and the woman asks him if he is Catholic. The two flirt and dance around this question, and in the process, it’s noted that the woman is blind in one of her blue eyes; this blind eye is a result of a childhood accident in which her brother attempted to stab another sister with a pencil and the sister ducked and the brother struck her instead.
At one point the narrator reveals that the woman is also blond and, more importantly, is “the tenth most attractive white woman in the room.” He then explains the relevance of this fact: “I always approached the tenth most attractive white woman at any gathering. I didn’t have enough looks, charm, intelligence, or money to approach anybody more attractive than that, and I didn’t have enough character to approach the less attractive.” (Note here that the narrator has found a solution to the conflict between two desires: I want to be with the most attractive white woman versus I don’t want to face rejection.) In mythic terms, Edgar’s kingdom is fallow because he is not in a relationship.
Shortly after the narrator lets us into his thoughts on his choice of women, the woman says to him, “You’re Indian.” The scene at the party ends with this conversation:
“I’m Edgar Eagle Runner,” I said, though my driver’s license still read Edgar Joseph.
“Eagle Runner,” she repeated, feeling the shape of my name fill her mouth, then roll past her tongue, teeth, and lips.
“Susan,” I said.
“Eagle Runner,” she whispered. “What kind of Indian are you?”
“Never heard of it.”
“We’re a small tribe. Salmon people.”
“The salmon are disappearing,” she said.
“Yes,” I said. “Yes, they are.”
In the very next paragraph Edgar tells us about getting married to Susan McDermott in a Catholic ceremony. Three dozen of Susan’s friends and most of her coworkers attend. But her brother and parents, Edgar informs us, “stayed away as a protest against my pigmentation.” Members of Edgar’s law firm, who are seemingly all white, attend, and one of them, whom Edgar knows only through work, comes up just before the ceremony and announces, “Hey Runner . . . I love you, man.” The only member of Edgar’s family he has invited is his mother, who, he explains, “was overjoyed by my choice of mate. She’d always wanted me to marry a white woman and beget half-breed children who would marry white people who would beget quarter-bloods, and so on and so on, until simple mathematics killed the Indian in us.”
Though my students sometimes do not see this, the wedding is the end of the first act, which involves the announcement of the goal. The goal Edgar engages is his wedding vows: to stay married to Susan.
Often when the hero takes up the goal, it entails leaving the old kingdom for the new. In many mythic tales, this transition is easily marked because the tale involves a journey. Having gone beyond the borders of the old and entered the new kingdom, the hero experiences a sense of exhilaration. He discovers new powers inside himself, powers that had lain dormant while he was in the old kingdom. He encounters new perceptions—a new landscape—and his various senses are heightened and his experiences intensify, as often occurs when we travel.
Alexie’s story skips this period, the honeymoon (or perhaps the premarital courtship). Instead, within the first year of being married, the protagonist discovers that his wife is having an affair with one of his coworkers; while searching her closet, Edgar finds a box of love letters and reads one of them. The story itself doesn’t examine in any detail how Edgar chooses what to do next. He simply decides to keep “the letters sacred by carefully placing them back” and not reading the rest of them. Seemingly for this reason, he chooses not to confront his wife directly about the affair. Instead he decides to seek revenge. He offers that he could have sought revenge by sleeping with one of her coworkers, as she has done, but instead, as a form of retaliation, he starts sleeping with prostitutes when he goes on business trips.
All this information is conveyed very quickly within about a page. From the standpoint of story structure, it’s useful to understand that for Edgar the discovery of his wife’s affair presents him with a dilemma, a choice between irreconcilable desires. His wife has had an affair and kept it secret. He finds out about the affair by accident/stealth, and he keeps that knowledge secret. He says that he doesn’t talk to her about the letters because they are sacred, so, in his mind, the irreconcilable conflict is between talking with his wife about the affair or violating something sacred.
But in my view, Edgar is lying to himself: he simply doesn’t want to talk to his wife because doing so would force him to confront in an intimate way how he feels—“brokenhearted, betrayed”—and because he’d rather not go through the painful and difficult process of trying to communicate with her. At the same time, he still feels betrayed and angry so he acts on those feelings by sleeping with prostitutes; he then helps himself ameliorate his own violation of trust and intimacy by deluding himself that he’s been more honorable than she has because he doesn’t embarrass her by sleeping with one of her coworkers.
Edgar tells himself several lies here: the surface lies are that he cares about the sacredness of his wife’s letters, and he’s trying not to embarrass his wife. Even if he does care about the sacredness of his wife’s letters, however, he’s using those feelings to tell a lie to himself about what he wants to avoid. Thus the deeper lie is that he would rather avoid talking honestly with his wife about how he feels about her affair; he would rather eschew the painful difficulties of trying to work toward a new intimacy. In short, he would rather avoid the labor necessary to make his marriage work.
I realize that what I’ve just said sounds a little psychobabblish. But what Edgar probably ought to do, what might be the therapeutically sound choice, isn’t the most crucial point here in terms of the creation of story. Debating what Edgar ought to do is more the stuff of English lit. classes and not the focus of a fiction writer.
But it is important to keep in mind how Edgar’s lies reveal his character. If Edgar had read all his wife’s letters and confronted his wife, he would be someone else. If he hadn’t decided to seek revenge through sleeping with prostitutes, he would be someone else.
But this all seems fairly obvious. For a writer, what’s more useful is how all this illustrates a basic principle of story. As I’ve said earlier: faced with irreconcilable desires, a protagonist will want to deny the irreconcilability of those desires, will want to deny the reality those irreconcilable desires represent. To do this, the character will lie, first to himself and then to others, about the irreconcilability of these desires. Once a lie is told, it automatically sets up a mechanism of tension and forward narrative movement: How will the lie be revealed and what will happen as a result of this revelation?
Again, it should be noted that Edgar’s decision to sleep with prostitutes takes place quickly and without the extensive analysis I’ve just done. Alexie decides instead to focus more attention on the second act of his story—the sleeping with prostitutes. In this section, most of the writing centers on the occasion when Edgar decides he has reached the point where he will sleep with one last prostitute. Revealingly, he wants this last prostitute to be an Indian woman.
In terms of pacing, the portion of the story about Edgar’s wife’s affair and his decision to sleep with prostitutes takes one page and the procuring of the last prostitute and his experience with her takes three pages. Rather than in narration, this latter section is executed in a scene mode. In other words, from a pace of narration that covers a couple years in a page, Alexie switches to a mode where most of the movement is moment by moment. This allows him to focus very specifically on the ways Edgar is both humiliated and frustrated in his quest for an Indian prostitute:
“A-1 Escorts,” said the woman. A husky voice, somehow menacing. I’m sure her children hated the sound of, even as I found myself aroused by its timbre.
“A-1 Escorts,” she said again when I did not speak.
“Oh,” I said. “Hi. Hello. Uh, I’m looking for some company this evening.”
“Where you at?”
“Yeah, they have whirlpool bathtubs.”
“Water sports will cost you extra.”
“Oh, no, no, no. I’m, uh, rather traditional.”
“Okay, Mr. Traditional, what are you looking for?”
I’d slept with seventeen prostitutes, all of them blond and blue-eyed. Twelve of them had been busty while the other five had been small-breasted. Eight of them had claimed to be college students; one of them even had a chemistry textbook in her backpack.
“Do you employ any Indian women?” I asked.
“Indian? Like with the dot in the forehead?”
“No, no, that’s East Indian. From India. I’m looking for American Indian. You know, like Tonto.”
“We don’t have any boys.”
“Oh, no, I mean, I want an Indian woman.”
In certain stories, a protagonist will start out with a conscious goal. Then, through the course of a story, a previously unconscious goal emerges. The most obvious form of this is the traditional wedding comedy where the groom or bride-to-be discovers, as the person proceeds toward the wedding, that he or she is actually in love not with the betrothed but with someone else. In a way, that too is the surface plot of Alexie’s story. Edgar starts out at a party trying to bed the tenth prettiest white woman in the room. He then marries her and thus sets himself the new goal of remaining married to this white woman. But along the way he discovers that he also desires to sleep with an Indian woman.
Again, following the principle of frustrating the protagonist, Edgar doesn’t succeed in his initial attempt at fulfilling the goal. The prostitute A-1 Escorts sends turns out to be “a white woman wearing a black wig over her short blond hair.”
Thus ends the second act, which occurs after eleven pages. The next eleven pages describe the third act of Edgar Eagle Runner, the final battle. It turns out that “Class” is a short story that runs very quickly through the first two acts and then is most detailed in its depiction of the third act. In several Raymond Carver stories, particularly those focused on relationships, such as “Chef’s House,” the first paragraph or page will run through the first two acts; then the story itself focuses on the third act, the final battle, the time when it will be finally clear whether the protagonist reaches his goal or not.
The setup for the third act of “Class” is the dark night of the second act, but that dark night takes place briefly in a page, that is, at a fast narrative pace. Edgar and his wife conceive a child who dies “ten minutes after leaving Susan’s body.” Eventually they resume having sex until one night, while making love, Edgar discovers that Susan’s one good blue eye is as dead—devoid of any spark of interest—as her blind one. Edgar gets up from the bed and goes out for a drink and ends up at an Indian bar. The story’s third act begins at the bar, and the narrative pace slows to a moment-by-moment account.
In the nearly empty bar, Edgar encounters two characters: Sissy, the bartender, and Junior, who is playing pool and who, to Edgar, looks like Chief Broom from One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Edgar assesses Junior as someone who “could have killed [him] with a flick of one finger.” Almost immediately Junior confronts and sizes up Edgar as an unwanted intruder: “I’m sick of little shits like you. . . . Fucking urban Indians in your fancy fucking clothes.”
At first Edgar tries to placate Junior, until Junior goes into a diatribe against Edgar that ends, “Go back to your mansion and read some fucking Teletubbies to your fucking white kids.” Partly in reaction to his lost child, Edgar comes back at Junior with a “Fuck you” and only Sissy’s hopping over the bar and coming between them with a pistol temporarily stops them from fighting. She explains to Junior that she’s intervening not to save Edgar but to save Junior, who will go to jail “forever” the next time he is arrested.
But Edgar persists in his desire to fight, and he steps out into the alley where Junior is waiting and promptly gets knocked out. He comes to in the storeroom with his head in Sissy’s lap and finds that his nose is broken and that Junior has cut off one of his braids.
When Edgar makes a pass at Sissy—recall his goal to sleep with an Indian woman—she is insulted and attacks his sense of presumption: “I just want to know, man. What are you doing here? Why’d you come here?” To which he feebly replies:
“I just wanted to be with my people,” I said.
“Your people?” asked Sissy. “Your people? We’re not your people.”
“Yeah, we’re Indians. You, me, Junior. But we live in this world and you live in your world.”
“I don’t like my world.”
“You pathetic bastard. . . . You sorry, sorry piece of shit. Do you know how much I want to live in your world? Do you know how much Junior wants to live in your world?”
Of course I knew. For most of my life, I’d dreamed about the world where I currently resided.
In the bar, Junior functions as an obvious antagonist for Edgar and there is literally a final battle (one of the seminal characteristics of a classic third act). Junior serves to humiliate Edgar’s wounded sense of manhood, but he also serves as a figure in a triangle between Edgar, Junior, and Sissy (triangles are often inherently more dramatic, unstable, and tension filled than dyads). At one point Junior tells Sissy, “In another world, you and I are Romeo and Juliet,” and Sissy replies: “But we live in this world, Junior.”
Sissy’s role is to point out to both men the reality of who they are and their place in the world. She is, to use a term from Saul Bellow, a reality instructor, and this is another useful element in thinking about how, as a writer, one can think about the relationship between other characters and the protagonist: the other characters can teach the protagonist about the nature of reality, can show the protagonist who the protagonist truly is (and not who he thinks he is).
In the course of the story, Edgar has come to understand the truth of his marriage and what his desire to enter the white world and to be married to a white woman will cost him: his connections to other Indians and the community which he has been working so hard to escape.
Rather than confronting this irreconcilable conflict of desires—I want to enter the white world and be at home there versus I want to remain an Indian and be connected with other Indians—Edgar has deluded himself into believing that he could pursue one side of these conflicting desires without losing the other or without having the other matter. That is the lie he has been telling himself. Thus the unconscious goal, which emerged in the second act—to sleep with an Indian woman—remains unfulfilled. In his failure, Edgar is revealed as a man unable to live with the choices he has made. He has lied to himself about the requirements of his quest: to stay married to Susan, the tenth most attractive white woman in the room.
It could be argued that the bluntness of Sissy’s dialogue with, and chastisement of, Edgar is a little too on point. There’s not a lot of subtext here. But I would argue that Alexie succeeds partly because the comedy of Edgar’s humiliation is so funny and on point and partly because he’s pointing to class divisions and contradictions within communities of color that are often ignored. Then, too, perhaps it’s hard not to feel that a certain amount of self-criticism and self-investigation occurs through the character of Edgar—after all Alexie himself now lives the middle-class life of a very successful writer as opposed to anything resembling the lives of Junior and Sissy.
If there is a certain resemblance between Edgar and Alexie, clearly Alexie is able to separate his identification with the character from his job as a writer. That job is to expose what lies beneath the imago of his protagonist by creating impediments and conflicts in the protagonist’s quest to pursue his goal. Indeed, one senses a certain delight on the part of the writer in the ways he humiliates and humbles his protagonist, in the ways he takes apart Edgar’s imago.
At the end of “Class,” Edgar goes home and crawls into bed with his wife, and when she asks, “Where did you go?” he replies, “I was gone . . . But now I’m back.” Through the events in the story, through the difficulties he has faced in both his conscious goal—to be married to Susan—and his emerging unconscious goal—to sleep with an Indian woman—Edgar has been forced to recognize who he has become and what his pursuit of his conscious goal must and has cost him. He has stopped lying to himself, at least for now, and his story therefore has reached its conclusion.