Thus far, the stories we have read have been relevant because of their influence or their many externalities, being commentaries or even propaganda for social, economic, and/or political ideologies. That is about it though. They seem to have very little substance within themselves, and stand only with the help of their contemporary surroundings. Before this class, I had never read Utopian fiction, and I was not expecting that it could be this dull. I’m not saying great fiction can’t have externalities that somehow add to its experience, but I do believe that good fiction must be good in and of itself, without regard to the environment in which it was created.
The Utopian stories we have read have simple characters that exist merely to be placed in an alien environment–a socialist Utopia–and describe it to the reader. Of the chapters and short stories we have read, the one with the closest thing to a plot would be “Dream of a Ridiculous Man.” In this story, the speaker, the Ridiculous Man, breaks convention and actually develops…some…. It’s rather shallow, and no one cares, but it does happen. The means of his changing from suicidal ambivalence to a preacher of good and hope for the future is not the focus of the story, and exists only as a means to carry a “normal” person to a Utopia, talk about it, and make a point that only has meaning outside the story, which he does: he destroys Utopia by simply acting like a normal person who did not grow up in Utopia. My last two sentences could function as a reasonable summary of the entire plot of the story, and have about as much feeling as it did. All the events that lead to the fall of Utopia and the main character’s personal change are not experienced by the reader, we are simple told that they happen. The man’s dream in Utopia is naught but a mix of declared plot events and an anthropologist’s description of an alien culture. We are told that the man falls in love with these people, and that we worships them, just so we will be “surprised” when he ruins everything, but we don’t care that he cares because he was never established as someone worth caring about before the dream. Before the dream, he just walks around waxing ambivalent, yells at some crying girl, and decides to commit suicide. And at the end of the story, when he awakes from the dream a changed man, the only chance of tangible redemption for his previous actions the story has–the crying girl–is done no justice: again, we are simply *told* that he finds her and makes things alright.
Contrast this with another short story about a suicidal man: H.P. Lovecraft’s “Dagon,” which is written as a suicide note (in case of actual interest in this story, MAJOR SPOILERS HERE). The protagonist is established as a man that has given up on life. Haunted by nightmares and memories so painful he could not handle them on his own, he had turned to heroin, but no longer had the money to afford his now strong addiction. Before he kills himself, he writes a suicide note to let anyone willing to listen understand what happened. He was once a respectable, educated man (as you could tell from the writing style of the note), but while serving in the merchant marine during World War I, he had a terrible experience, one that single-handedly broke him as a man. A disaster at sea left him stranded in the middle of nowhere, on a piece of land that looked like seafloor, and that should not have been at that location at all. There he sees many strange things, but the true nightmare was the monster there with him. He does not understand how he ever escaped the place, but the monster forever invaded his thoughts and corrupted his dreams. The years take their toll, and he becomes addicted to heroin. At last, when he is done recounting his story, and is about to kill himself, the door to his room opens, and he sees the monster’s hand reaching around it, pushing it open further still. He panics, breaks down completely, and jumps out the window in a mad attempt to simply put distance between himself and it. In this story, we can actually care about the character. Although we are only told of his initial state, the educated, respectable man serving his country in war, we do experience it indirectly in his educated, reasonably well expressed writing. Most importantly though, we experience his fall: his initial curiosity, wonder, growing fear, and outright terror as he discovers the sea monster. We are not blandly told “and then I saw a scary monster!” as the Ridiculous Man might have put it, instead we experience it with him, from his point of view. Because we experience this important event in his life with him, we can extrapolate for ourselves the nightmares, visions, and gradual breakdown of this unfortunate fellow. We can identify with him, and feel his pain. Turning to heroin becomes the act of a desperate man, rather than that of a fool, and we can sympathize with his utter surrender when he can no longer afford his addiction. When the monster appears at the end, it is ambiguous. The narrator is at this point unobservant and unreliable, as fear has impaired his faculties, but ultimately, the nature of the thing does not need to be told–the reader doesn’t need to be *told* anything. Hallucination or in-the-flesh, what matters is the experience of the vision and the terror the monster evokes in the narrator, not the monster itself.
In Ridiculous Man, the purpose is to make a point to the reader. The narrator doesn’t really matter, the girl doesn’t matter, the people in Utopia don’t matter. The narrator gets whisked away to unknown lands to talk about them. This world is described to us as an example of a better place, and a poor effort is made to make the reader care. The narrator comes out for the better (or so we are told), but the reader doesn’t really care. Even the people around the narrator don’t care! In Dagon, the purpose is to tell the story of the end of a tortured soul. The narrator is good despite his faults, and is relatable. He too gets whisked away to unknown lands, but instead of lecturing on about these lands, we are put there with him, we see what he sees, feel what he feels. The unknown lands of Dagon are there to identify us with the narrator, to understand his suffering, and to help us forgive his addiction. The character is the focus, not the place. And when he dies in one last frightful panic, we understand his terror: we feel it with him, and we care.