Cambridge University Press 2002 icon

Cambridge University Press 2002

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Closure at the level of expectations

At the level of expectations we recognize, by numerous signals, the kind of action or sequence of events that we are reading (revenge, falling in love, escape, murder, a bad dream). Once actions start in a certain way, we expect what follows to be consistent with the overall code. When a beautiful young woman like Cinderella meets a handsome young prince, we expect falling in love to follow. Moreover, we see these two successive events as one part of an overall sequence of events, a genre, which in common language is called "romance" and which often but not always closes with marriage. It may seem coldly inappropriate to speak of such an event involving such lovely people as part of a code, but it is nonetheless true that we learn at a very early age to read and decode not just words but whole patterns like the genre of romance. This is another way to look at masterplots: as coded narrative formulas that end with closure. When the beautiful young woman is relocated from roinance to the genre of tragedy, as Cordelia is in King Lear, we expect a very different kind of closure from romance. Depending on her role in the tragedy, we might well expect the worst. When at the end, Lear finds Cordelia dead in her cell and then dies himself, painful as this is, it fulfills expectations that have been built into the play. You could call it a painful satisfaction.

At least these expectations seem to be "built in" to the play, especially to modern viewers of Lear who come to the play for the first time, having heard what a bleak tragedy it is. But half of what gives life to expectations in narrative is their violation, for which the common word again is surprise. Conversely, directors, screen-adapters, audiences themselves, can force a story to conform to expectations. After all, the earliest version we have of Shakespeare's Lear does not refer to itself as a tragedy. And renaissance audiences, familiar with Geoffrey of Monmouth's King Leir, would have fully expected both Lear and Cordelia to live. So Shakespeare surprised his audience with his version of the story in a way that we can't be surprised since we are so familiar with the tragic version. Later, in 1681, Nahum Tate rewrote the conclusion of King Lear, not only saving Cordelia's life but also marrying her off to Edgar (who may not have been a prince but was certainly well born, unlike his wicked sibling). That version held the English stage for the next 160 years. Purists may object that this ruined the tragedy, but then Shakespeare could be said to have "ruined" Geoffrey of Monmouth's King Leir when he decided to kill both Lear and Cordelia.

With regard to expectations, then, there appear to be two imperfectly balanced needs: on the one hand to see them fulfilled, on the other to see them violated. When, at the end of Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958), Kim Novak falls for real from the mission tower, the audience's lingering expectations that it is watching one kind of romantic thriller — the kind with a happy ending — are rudely violated with a closure that retroactively instates a much darker genre. For some, this makes the film a hard one to see twice; for others, it is a stroke of genius. The extraordinary Dutch film, The Vanishing (1988), cast as a romantic quest to rescue a kidnapped lover, sickeningly violates expectations when the hero is buried alive at the end. Difficult as the film is to watch, however, the conclusion can be seen to be in accord with the dark moral obsession of the hero's deeply disturbed killer. In both of these films (at least for those for whom they work), the surprise of the conclusion casts a light backward over the whole film, giving it a new shape and tone as the sense of surprise wears away and the ending is seen to fit.

Certainly the key to suspense is the possibility, at least, that things could turn out differently. And surprise, which is such a common feature of suc­cessful narrative, is what happens when, to a degree, things do turn out dif­ferently. But for any audience there is a range of what they will tolerate in the way of surprise. When the same director (George Sluizer) remade The Van­ishing for Hollywood in 1993, the producers gambled that a large American audience would not tolerate the original ending. Such at least was Holly­wood's assessment when they gave it a happy ending, but the remake was not a box-office hit either. Meanwhile, Vertigo, which also did poorly when it was released, has aged into a classic and for some is Hitchcock's masterpiece.

So it is important to note that words like "code" and "formula" may work in describing how expectations are aroused, but they fail when applied to narrative itself. Codes and formulas thrive on their inflexibility. Because the Morse Code is always dependably unchanging, it could be relied on in the days of telegraphy. Likewise, the formula for methyl alcohol can be depended on so long as it stays the same. Change it ever so slightly and you've got a formula for something else. Were narrative to operate in the same way, we would have nothing but stereotypes and wooden cliches for our literature, indeed, one could argue that, for there to be any kind of success in narrative, the codes and formulas that go into it have to be sufficiently flexible to permit all kinds of variation in the details. This would include not just variation in the things inessential to the story {setting, supplementary events) but variations in treating the story's constituent events as well. So Barthes was describing not how a narrative necessarily should turn out but what we expect as we read or watch. And, of course, without expectations in the first place we could not appreciate the variations. Yet this brings up a further difficulty with the word "code," since one of our expectations in almost all narratives of any complexity, is that our expectations will turn out to have been anywhere from inadequate to completely wrong. We expect, in short, to be surprised. This is still a dark area in the study of cognition, so in this book, I have avoided the connotations of "code" by using the word "level," as in the phrase "level of expectations."

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