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Essay: There Must Be a Nicer Way

6 minute read
Frank Trippett

The question comes from the Rev. Donald Wildmon, head of the National Federation for Decency: “Where is the TV show about a modern home with decent people?” The glib answer is: Nowhere. Ordinarily, a crusade to purify the tales shown on the tube would deserve only that short shrift. But Wildmon’s question begs for a more thoughtful response, if only because TV’s gory and jiggly tales are not the only ones that are conspicuously short on niceness. The same can be said of most all the world’s fiction, narrative or dramatic, trash or quality.

True, ostensibly decent people turn up now and then in literature, but they almost never get depicted as being swept away by impulses to sweetness. They are more often set up for a comedown. On one end of the literary spectrum, Hamlet might have been a pleasant fellow if Shakespeare had not handicapped him with that belief in ghosts, plus suicidal and homicidal tendencies. On the other end, given the way authors are, Jack is bound to wind up falling all over himself every time he tries to fetch a pail of water. In truth, the world’s literary and theatrical output, from high drama to nursery rhymes, is as violent and vice-ridden as yesterday’s news. Poet Ezra Pound may have had something of the sort in mind when he said: “Literature is news that stays news.”

Storytellers, like journalists, have never been much for emphasizing the sweet, the decent, the well behaved. Odysseus, to pluck an early example from Homer, was a wife-neglecting troublemaker if there ever was one. Even in the inspired stories of the Bible, people seldom behave very well, beginning with Adam and Eve and proceeding to Cain and Abel and the folk in Sodom and Gomorrah. Contemporary fictions create their own mischief: Portnoy, for example, spends precious little time collecting for the United Fund.

Can nothing be done, then, to satisfy what might be called the niceness market? Surprisingly the answer is yes, something could be done. Somebody could produce a Literature of Niceness to supplement the not-so-nice real thing. In a society that is overloaded with writers, there must be imagination enough to contrive sunnier alternative life-styles for many of the fictional characters who otherwise will endure in the pain, anguish and futile passion imagined by their authors. Why, for one instance, shouldn’t King Lear be seen in some truly golden retirement years, preferably in an adults-only community? And why not a tale in which Othello and Desdemona kiss and make up? Imagine Lady Macbeth joining the Gray Ladies. Or Molly Bloom enrolling in needlepoint class. Or Sir Clifford Chatterley making a successful pilgrimage to Lourdes.

Could not Heart of Darkness be offset by Heart of Lightness, in which Marlow narrates how the kindly Mr. Kurtz dedicated himself voluntarily to training the tribes along the Nile in personal hygiene? Might not The Call of the Wild be counterbalanced by The Call of the Tame, in which a big, clumsy, good-natured dog named Buck goes on a tour of Hollywood homes, including Lassie’s? Who could be offended if An American Tragedy spun off a happy shadow called An American Comedy, in which Clyde Griffiths saves his girlfriend Roberta from drowning and receives a $7.50 reward from the grateful foreman of the factory in which Roberta is considered irreplaceable? Another natural would be Life of a Salesman, in which Willy Loman, 63, invited to take early retirement by his company, finds fulfillment in the neighborhood shuffleboard league.

Indeed, the entire subject merits serious attention. What is clearly needed is a Five-Foot Shelf of Nice Stories. Some initial possibilities:

The Brothers Karamazov. Dmitri, Ivan and Alyosha Karamazov give Daddy a surprise Father’s Day party.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. A good doctor stumbles onto a magical chemical that transforms him into an even better Mr. Hyde, in which guise he organizes fellow townsmen into a bandage-rolling society.

Oliver Twist. A patriotic English boy contributes to prosperity by going on a lowfat, low-protein, low-carbohydrate diet.

Dr. Faustus. Tempted by the devil, the doctor, a chiropractor, finds that temptation rubs him the wrong way and so gives the devil a quick brush-off.

Dracula. An affable count of the title achieves celebrity status in his Transylvania community by becoming the first citizen to show up when the new blood bank holds its first blood-donation day.

Anna Karenina. A pretty young Russian matron gets a certain Count Vronsky interested in stamp collecting and so saves him from wasting his life in passion and frivolity.

The Picture of Dorian Gray. An adventurous young man takes up painting and captures the essence of evil in one great portrait.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Generous Uncle Tom designs and builds a play cabin in the backyard for his favorite niece Eliza.

Tobacco Road. The people in a small Georgia town throw their tobacco products into the main street after Jeeter Lester and his family persuade them to give up smoking, chewing and dipping.

Madame Bovary. Emma, a young Frenchwoman, finds contentment in marriage and work with the Welcome Wagon.

Appointment in Samarra. A young American husband succeeds in pulling himself out of a sulk in time to keep a date with the orthodontist.

Still, one may wonder whether this kind of story has much pulling power. The human spectator’s time-tested preference for the un-nice in stories and drama may be obvious, but the reasons for it are surely not. Aristotle, with an eye on formal tragedy, believed that by identification with the anguished souls onstage, spectators could purge themselves of burdensome emotions buried in real life. William Faulkner more than once said that he created characters in violent circumstances in an effort to get at “the truth of the human heart,” and it may be that many readers and viewers of fiction have some kindred goal.

It was left for Leo Tolstoy to underscore most aptly the mundane reason for mankind’s taste in viewing and reading. Wrote he: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Niceness, in other words, however admired in real life, is inherently repetitious and boring as a subject of fiction. Is it possible that the very weakness that makes the human species difficult if not evil is the main thing that makes it interesting? If so, that is scarcely the only contradiction in the human drama. Alas, one may, plausibly enough, wonder whether humankind, if it had remained in Eden, might not have perished of ennui. —Frank Trippett

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