Contrast can be used to show the movement of the main character (protagonist) in a novel, film or story. In other words to show character development. An excellent example of this is in the O'Henry story "A Matter Of Mean Elevation" in which the main character changes as she goes from the top of a mountain to the bottom.
In the O'Henry story Mademoiselle Giraud, an opera singer, has been performing with a travelling troupe in Venezuela and one day is kidnapped by a band of Indians who live high in the Andes. Six months later, an American named Armstrong finds her and rescues her. In the mountains she has been treated like a princess by the natives and she acts like one but her demeanor begins to change as they come down out of the mountains. As they begin their descent, she removes her leopard-skin robe because it is getting warmer:
"It seemed a trifle incongrous now. In the mountains it had appeared fitting and natural. And if Armstrong was not mistaken, she laid aside with it something of the high dignity of her demeanor. As the country became more populous and significant of comfortable life he saw, with a feeling of joy, that the exalted princess and priestess of the Andean peaks was changing to a woman - an earth woman, but no less enticing. A little color crept to the surface of her marble cheek. She arranged the conventional dress that the removal of the robe now disclosed with the solicitous touch of one who is conscious of the eyes of others. She smoothed the careless sweep of her hair. A mundane interest, long latent in the chilling atmosphere of the ascetic peaks, showed in her eyes..."
The closer she gets to sea level the more earthy she becomes. She loses her demeanor of an "exalted princess and priestess" and she begins to come alive again. "A mundane interest, long latent in the chilling atmosphere of the ascetic peaks, showed in her eyes." Notice how many elements of the symbolism of mountain tops and the symbolism of the earth we have previously discussed are utilized in the story.
The O'Henry story is certainly not an isolated example of mixing place and plot in literature. The structure of many great works of literature depend on place contrast for the core of their drama. Leonard Lutwack notes a few examples in The Role of Place in Literature. In the Illiad, the warfare in the work is reduced to the Greek camp, the Trojan city and the plain outside the city walls. The action and plot of the Aeneid occurs in three places: Troy, Carthage and Italy. Three of E.M. Forster's novels are built on a triad of places with the most familiar being the mosque, the cave and the temple in The Passage to India. In Lawrence's Sons and Lovers, the home, farm and the town are three places where Paul Morel experiences three kinds of love. In The Great Gatsby, Fitgerald chooses New York City, the Long Island suburbs and the ashy wasteland as a place between theses two major places of the novel.
The Hemingway biographer Carlos Baker advances an interesting thesis about the famous novel A Farewell to Arms. Baker feels that the total structure of the novel turns on a contrast of two places: the mountain and the plain. The image of life and home is on the mountain, Baker notes, and the image of war and death is on the plain. Baker says in his book Hemingway: The Writer as Artist:
"The Home-concept...is associated with the mountains; with dry-cold weather; with peace and quiet; with love, dignity, health, happiness, and the good life; and with worship or at least the consciousness of God. The Not-Home concept is associated with low-lying plains; with rain and fog; with obscenity, indignity, disease suffering, nervousness, war and death; and with irreligion."
In a place perspective, the plot of Hemingway's Farewell to Arms can be viewed as an effort of the hero to escape from the plains and go into the mountains.
But in addition to contrasts of place, also of symbolic importance is how the central character moves through these places. Leonard Lutwack summarizes the variety of these movements in The Role of Place in Literature:
"...traveling in a circle, or going out from and back to the point of departure (Odyssey); traveling a straight line to a selected point (Iliad); visiting a number of points along an endless line (the picaresque novel); going from the periphery and back (the quest narrative, like Gawain and the Green Knight); moving up from depths to heights and falling from heights to depths (the hourglass plots of Thais and Sister Carrie); progressing from confinement (The Stranger), or from confinement to open space and back to confinement (The Portrait of a Lady)."
The action may also become more and more concentrated towards a central place. Lutwack terms this a centripetal force in literature and observes that Conrad's Heart of Darkness is a striking example of this type of movement. The story moves from the broad expanse of the Thames River estuary, across the sea to the coast of Africa and then down ever-narrowing shores of the Congo River to Kurtz's Inner Station.
In addition to its close connection to plot and drama, place contrast can also be used to show the relationship of the protagonist with the other characters, particularly the antagonist. In this sense, the protagonist might be symbolized by various place elements while the antagonist might be symbolied by other place elements. In Bronte's Wuthering Heights, two houses, one "on that bleak hill-top" and the other in a pleasant valley, are the poles of antithetical sets of characters. Lutwack notes that the contrast of characters in terms of their dwelling-places is so frequent in Henry James as almost to constitute a stereotype.
The chart below was previously used to suggest proper alignment of the various place aspects between a protagonist and antagonist in a story. It might also be used to show contrast between the two characters.Elements Hero Antagonist
Physical Place Mountain Valley
Time (Yearly) Spring Winter
Time (Daily) Sunrise Sunset
Space Above Below
Weather Clear Stormy
Psychology Joy Depression
Whereas the journey of the protagonist through the story could very well be a journey from a mountain top to the earth or a valley, this could also represent a contrast between the two characters.
Another use of contrast is in the personification of nature and setting up the personified parts against each other. In Moby Dick, Herman Melville gives elements of nature a masculine and feminine personification. Interestingly enough, he switches the traditional symbolism associated with the element of air (masculine) and water and sea (feminine) in the beginning of the book:
"It was a clear steel blue day. The firmaments of air and sea were hardly separable in that all-pervading azure; only, the pensive air was transparently pure and soft, with a woman's look, and the robust and man-like sea heaved with long, strong, lingering swells, as Samson's chest in his sleep. Hither and thither, on high, glided snow-white wings of small, unspeckled birds; these were the gentle thoughts of the feminine air; but to and fro in the deeps, far down in the bottomless blue, rushed mighty leviathans, sword-fish and sharks; and these were the strong, troubled, murderous thinkings of the masculine sea..."
This personification of nature, a personification by the contrast between masculine and feminine, provides a powerful character in the story.
During the course of a story, the inner psychology of a character must change in order for there to be drama. And since psycholgy is effectively symbolized by place, the places need to change as the psychology of the character changes.
The author of a story needs to create a structure for incorporating place with traditional elements of story such as character, plot, theme, and premise. One of the basic observations which can be made about a narrative is that it has a linear time dimension and this time dimension moves from a beginning to an end. Therefore, the basic structural division of place elements move within this two-part division.
Utilizing this division, the two part division becomes one of place contrast between the beginning and the end of the narrative. In other words, there is a "place" where the narrative begins and a "place" where the narrative ends.
The defining element of place is the protagonist. The beginning of the narrative starts in a particular place the protagonist is in and ends in a particular place he/she has arrived at through the story.
The basic division necessary for movement and its resulting contrast is the two of beginning and end of a story. Cinema and drama utilize a division into three parts called Act I, Act II and Act III. Syd Field was one of the first writers in Hollywood to explore the three act structure in his book Screenplay. The three part screenplay structure that Field explores is broken into the following parts with the following actions introduced in each of these parts:
Act I (Set Up)
- Primary problem
- Major characters
- Crisis (turning point)
Act II (Confrontation)
- Subordinate story
- Character tangents
Act III (Resolution)
This cinematic structure of Act I set-up, Act II confrontation and Act III resolution follows closely the divisions of traditional drama structure.
Strucutral movement is viewed in a different perspective by the great mythologist Joseph Campbell. In Campbell's famous book Hero With A Thousand Faces, the journey of the hero in narrative is put into a different type of structure. Instead of calling the various parts set-up, confrontation and resolution as Field does, Campbell finds the structure in departure, initiation and return. This structure contains the following elements:
- Call to Adventure
- Refusal of call
- Supernatural aid
- Crossing first threshold
- Belly of the Whale
- Road of trials
- Meeting with the goddess
- Woman as temptress
- Atonement with father
- Utimate boon
- Refusal of return
- Magic flight
- Rescue from without
- Crossing return threshold
- Master of two worlds
- Freedom to live
This strucutre is not merely an academic theory. Rather it has found its way into popular culture. George Lucas was a friend of Campbell's and used Campbell's Hero in structuring the Star Wars films.
After the division of a narrative from two to the three part structures of Field and Campbell, the next division is into individual chapters for novels, or scenes for films or plays.
We can better see the various divisions of structure and their relationship to place by viewing the following charts. The chart shows the basic beginning and end structure and within this structure some of the aspects of place that we have discussed.
Notice the major contrasts of place which are set up at the beginning and at the end of the narrative. As an example, the narrative might begin in a valley near a lake on a rainy night with a character who is cold. It might end on a mountain on a clear day with a character who is warm.