Spoiling the Plot

by Mark Gibson
ENCR 481

In this paper, I am going to discuss the idea of "spoiling the plot." Certainly, this is a somewhat dicey subject on which to be taking a serious, critical position. Um, I don't know how to handle this, exactly, but would someone please hand conventional wisdom a tissue? My respect for your olfactory prescience, sir, is as always. . . Yes, well, further along, I will, in fact, be asking questions of whether or not great works of literature can be "spoiled." But, you see, it all relates to this fundamental misconception--excuse me? Actually, I had rather hoped that the audience responses could wait until the end--there's an organic growth to these things, you understand. . . No, but, quite right, there will probably be something coming up with a tinge of moral judgment in it. With a word like "spoiled," I'm afraid it's virtually inevitable. But to resume? . . Now wait, I can see that I've gotten you all upset. Do I really have to reveal everything here at the beginning? It's not just going to be a paper about popular culture! Yes, yes, we're all quite proud of our academic X-ray vision (I got mine from Barthes, too). Oh, and I've seen this before, thank you--it's somewhere in that bootleg translation of Le Plaisir du Texte, if I remember: left out before the annihilating stares of literary critics, the little, fragile word "plot" will seem to accrue phantom letters until it gradually resembles "p-o-t-b-o-i-l-e-r." But, pardon my French, can't we entertain that this might be due more to the coloring of our glasses than to the object being studied? And no, I refuse to take sides between Tom Clancy and Charles Buckley. . .

Discussing the spoiling of plot in a rarefied, intellectual tone is indeed difficult because the issue falls so squarely across the great divide between the "popular" and "serious" literary landscapes. Obviously, the circulation of unspoiled plots matters a great deal in mainstream, American culture. (Witness the extensive media "conspiracies" surrounding films like Psycho and The Crying Game, or Queer Nation's 1992 picketing campaign against Basic Instinct, during which protesters attempted to deter potential movie-goers by revealing the film's ending). Elite culture, on the other hand, has quite unambiguously turned its back on plot:

"Reading for the plot," we learned somewhere in the course of our schooling, is a low form of activity. . . Plot has been disdained as the element of narrative that least sets off and defines high art--indeed, plot is that which especially characterizes popular mass-consumption literature: plot is why we read Jaws, but not Henry James. (Peter Brooks, 3-4)
I will not devote this essay to the quixotic task of defining plot in universally acceptable terms--rather, I will follow the lead of Teresa De Lauretis by suggesting that we might best conceive of plot as a "mechanism of coherence" (187), a discursive syntax identifiable primarily for its reliance on temporality. I will further assert that some texts are, by authorial intention, more plot-contingent--i.e., more "spoilable"--than others. Picaresque novels, lyric poetry, and philosophical arguments cannot truly be "spoiled," in the usual, colloquial sense, unless they are retold or paraphrased almost word-for-word. The case appears altogether different, however, for other genres, such as jokes and formal, detective mysteries. Everyone recognizes that with jokes, in repeated encounters, the possibility of deriving pleasure from their causal construction fades fairly rapidly. The two-line joke, in fact, perhaps comes the closest of any genre to embodying pure plot: a desire for completion is raised, and then immediately gratified.

Yet in outlining these generic distinctions, we seem to have made an incidental, but almost indisputable, qualitative judgment. From the literary categories listed above, one might reasonably begin to doubt how "serious" a message can be advanced by texts that rely heavily on their plots as a mechanism of discourse. We shall be confronting further reasons to question emplotment as an ordering principle, but already, to defend plot seems to be to align oneself with explicitly lowbrow concerns.[1] Spoilability, on the surface, appears inversely proportionate to artistic merit. . . at least according to the standards by which twentieth century "high" culture and academia have traditionally defined it.

Literary modernism came into being as almost catholically anti-plot. Peter Brooks has identified the period beginning with the birth of Romanticism and leading up until the end of the nineteenth century as being a "golden age of narrative" (xi), a time in which the working out of plot seemed--in the historical imagination--to be the most natural way of understanding how human life acquires meaning. It is against this tradition that most modernist writers--most "highbrow" writers, that is--reacted.[2] Virginia Woolf famously expressed that life is best envisioned not as a symmetrically ordered series of gig-lamps, but as a "luminous halo" (153-4). She likewise stated that plot is a "tyranny" imposed on the author by his readership, a view which is prevalent to the present day. In Aspects of the Novel, E. M. Forster shows a similar disdain for plot, and perhaps reveals his classist bias on the subject when he claims he is too "priggish" to enjoy the mysteries of Arthur Conan Doyle (138). Forster praises the aplotted narratives of Andrˇ Gide as his model for the future of art, and he gives a neat, Nietzschian summation of the sentiment behind the plot against plot: "All that is prearranged is false" (152). Many recognized, modernist figures from around the globe have participated this anti-plot mentality (Borges, Robbe-Grillet, Nabokov, James, even Alfred Hitchcock), such that an animosity toward plot seems perhaps the only identifier required for appealing to avant-garde status. And the impulse continues to shape much of postmodern theoretical activity.[3]

However, contemporary critics such as Susan Sontag, Wayne Booth, and Seymour Chatman have tried to clear a space for a revaluation of plot, of the symbiosis between form and content which Sontag refers to as "the erotics of narrative" (14).4 Chatman seconds Terry Eagleton in pushing for a rebirth of the Aristotelian discipline of rhetoric within the wandering hulk of contemporary, literary criticism (40). Having described the root of this Rhetoric of Fiction as "the communicative means to suade," Chatman elaborates,

I say 'suade' and not persuade to emphasize, as Aristotle does, that rhetoric concerns the urgings of a text, the "available means," rather than its ultimate success or failure with real audiences. . . The practical effect of texts on public attitudes is more properly a subject for the social sciences. (42)
A fuller understanding of the "available means" of textual discourses would appear to be enlightening, as much of our information about the world, despite our skepticism, still comes to us in the form of narrative (Brooks, 7). The unprecedented ascendance of the cultural industries in our present historical period has concurrently made the reading of texts more strikingly preconditioned than ever before. Gerald Graff ties the present, academic fascination with theories of intertextual predeterminism with the suggestion that
"texts in themselves" would have become harder to distinguish from the interpretations made of them in a mass-communications culture in which texts do come to us "always already" prescreened, so that we often know what texts mean before reading them. (5)
In our culture, the "spoiling" of texts is not merely a matter of journalistic ethics, but a constitutive feature of our everyday experience of the world.

The knot I wish to untangle is the following. The spoiling of plot--a phenomenon I will eventually describe in greater detail; for now, let it simmer--cannot be considered a relevant concern for textual analysis if we can conclude either (1) that the experience of reading is not crucial to interpretation, or (2) that the syntax of plot is an inherently insufficient means of forwarding progressive statements--of producing "openness," if that is how we choose to assign artistic value. If this latter supposition is the case, then little more can be "spoiled" except a given text's ability to entertain. Also in need of addressing is our basic intuition that a truly "great" work of literature should be able to satisfy more than one kind of interest. People read for different pleasures and in different contexts, and this does not change the "intrinsic" quality of the text being read. In reply to my own devil's advocate, I would like to argue that although it can be misapplied, plot is in essence a value-neutral mechanism of coherence--and an indispensable one, in that we interpret all works as being plotted [5]. I maintain furthermore that it is a mechanism, because of its temporal nature, that can be neutralized, "spoiled," or in some measure made invisible. Thirdly and consequently, I intend to establish that the spoiling of plot or blindness to plot by critics, textual penumbra, and other authorities in a great many cases does not so much describe phenomena (or categories of literature) as create them.

One seminal, critical text that would seem immediately to recommend itself to our attention is Cleanth Brooks's spoilingly-entitled "The Heresy of Paraphrase" (1947), in which he argues that all paraphrases are heretical to the meaning of a literary work. Humor aside, Brooks's attack against paraphrasing can be pragmatically adapted to validate the importance of plot to narrative interpretation: Sontag and others would approve of his emphasis on the marriage between form and content.[6] But on the more basic issue--whether extratextual glosses "matter"--Brooks comes out quite clearly on the negatory side of the fence. What hinders his position and the bulk of Anglo-American criticism that has followed suit is that Brooks takes for his paradigm the rhetorically "atemporal" genre of the lyric, a discourse that formally strives "for an ideal simultaneity of meaning" (Peter Brooks, 20).[7] This perspective has tended to lead to discussion of narratives which focus on "questions of 'point of view,' 'tone,' 'symbol', 'spatial form', or 'psychology'" (Peter Brooks, 4)--and not, for example, the plot. "The Heresy of Paraphrase" explicitly denies the rhetorical ability of art to make suasive statements. Brooks's criticism considers only the intra-textual workings of poetry. . . a logical extension of his belief that texts determine interpretations (which are always subordinate), and not vice versa.

This is where Brooks's concentration on the lyric impairs the ability of his criticism to make sense of narrative, discursive strategies. Brooks excludes from his purview expressly didactic fictions (such as fables) in order to bolster what Seymour Chatman calls "esthetic rhetoric" over its always-paraphrasable correlative, "ideological rhetoric" (44). But for "spoilable" fictions, as we shall see, ideological rhetoric can be advanced most strongly through esthetic rhetoric--specifically, through their plots. (Henry James's "The Beast in the Jungle" is an excellent example of this, one which we shall be turning to shortly.) Brooks's argument not only denies that "ideological rhetoric" exists, but it also errs--as many critics would now agree--in its insistence that interpretations are always extrinsic to the "essential" meaning of a text. Brooks himself intimates both a fear and a recognition of the power of interpretative acts to determine meanings when he insists,

We can very properly use paraphrases as pointers and as short-hand references provided we know what we are doing. But it is highly important that we know what we are doing and that we see plainly that the paraphrase is not the real core of meaning which constitutes the essence of the poem. (180, my emphasis)
In his essay "Narrative and the Unofficial Interpretive Culture," Gerald Graff makes quite a convincing case against Brooks, effectively demonstrating how "dust jackets and other epiphenomena of the unofficial interpretive culture" (9) mediate and determine the meanings that readers later ascribe to texts. Graff fully confronts the irrespectability that this topic carries among "people with pretensions of culture" (6): a major challenge of his essay is that the maintenance of a synthetic contrast between "high" and "low" culture is the animating force behind this prejudice. Rather than waxing moralistic over the supposedly "heretical" nature of blurbs, reviews, and gossip, Graff underscores the central role they play in how all readers categorize and interpret literature.

Graff's article is beginning to show us how the pre-interpretedness of a text--bearing in mind our specific interest in the spoiling of plot--might change the meaning of that text, might cause a person to infer a different implied reader. In his essay, "End Sinister: Neat Closure as a Disruptive Force," Peter Rabinowitz performs a fascinating analysis of how cultural and physical packaging generates readings of texts that validate those works' prior, critical reputations. Taking the situation of the popular but now forgotten nineteenth-century American writer E.D.E.N. Southworth as his example, Rabinowitz charts how a reputation of "conventionality" and "sentimentalism" (126) can predispose readers to interpret her works such that those expectations of inferior craftsmanship are realized. Only readers who are conditioned to consider Southworth as a good novelist, Rabinowitz contends, will be prepared to read the "neat closure" of her novel Allworth Abbey as intentionally subversive. The inverse situation applies our readings of established classics like Moby Dick, which leads Rabinowitz to conclude that "Perceived quality may be as much a result of canonization as its cause--and that should give us reason to wonder what we are really talking about when we think we are talking about literary merit" (129).[8]

Rabinowitz's particular interest is the assumptions that most readers carry with regards to endings, a conditioning or instinct which leads us to read expecting that the author will reveal his or her intended meaning somewhere up ahead, usually most explicitly at the moment of closure (121-4).[9] Rabinowitz highlights the large measure of self-interest that governs the way that academia encourages readers to value texts that resist "closure," or backwards-constructed, self-explanation:

What is canonized in our high culture, rather, is the text which is "not yet coherent". . . There are, of course, many reasons for this, some of which are undoubtedly tied to the spiritual sensibilities of our age. But some of them are pragmatic, even economic as well: "not yet coherent" texts are both easier to teach and easier to write about, and they thus fulfill certain practical demands of the institution of literary criticism. (123- 4)
And because readers will go on to read "not yet coherent" works as artistically valuable, the canon which needs an elite to interpret it can ensure its own perpetuation. In his essay "Are Narrative Choices Subject to Ethical Criticism?," Wayne Booth enthusiastically confutes this dogma that a text's ability to undermine conventions, "to threaten us where we live" (72), increases with its "openness." Booth points out that all criticisms which invoke political objectives are necessarily ethical, and surveying the champions of literary "openness" as the perfect means for introducing readers to "otherness," he notes,
"Otherness" is another fashionable term these days--so fashionable that one wonders whether some of its defenders don't have in mind something quite un-other, something quite thoroughly tamed to perform tricks for modernist lion tamers. Nobody has quite said yet that we have met the other and it is us, but this adaptation of Pogo may prove dangerously apt. (72)
Using famous and invented examples, Booth shows how "closedness" can actually increase the demands on readers. Along with Rabinowitz, Booth indirectly suggests to us that plot and heavily-plotted genres might be held in low critical estimation by (classist) convention only. The spoiled text--or the text where the discourse of plot is less accentuated--may certainly be more "open", but from this we cannot conclude that an "open" interpretation (formalist, thematic, semiotic) will make "better" sense than one which concentrates on the temporal dimension of its textual rhetoric.

I have been saying that an advance knowledge of a plot might change how we read, and I have doubtless given the impression that I feel that "unspoiled" readings come closer to apprehending authorial intentions than "spoiled" ones. Incidentally, Peter Rabinowitz defends the merit of performing "authorial readings," as this probably still describes the most widespread interpretive practice, both inside and outside of academic circles (121). I do agree that a professional reader would not be worth her salt if she could not imagine what her reading experience might have been like, had she not known the events of the narrative in advance. But although I will not commit myself to saying that "spoiling" should be avoided on principle--that is, in fact, not my thesis--I will go so far as to assert that the logic of plot, unlike all other kinds, can only be suasive if it is experienced "innocently." After a plot is spoiled, it can be studied objectively, to be sure, but its power as a rhetorical mechanism has been negated. Peter Brooks helps support this claim when he argues, with heavy indebtedness to Sigmund Freud and Walter Benjamin, that our awareness of our own temporality, of our death-to-come, leads us to interpret all narratives with the "anticipation of retrospection" (23). Knowing the moment and circumstances of our own death would change the meaning of our lives, just as knowing the ending of a mystery novel would confer a different perspective on all the events which precede it.[10] Spoiling the plot matters, and often, in our interpretively overdetermined culture (and especially in academia, where the situation is more intense), we may not be completely aware of the effect that that knowledge has had on our reading. In particular, it might prevent us from questioning the interpretive strategies and alleged dichotomies that separate "high" and "low" culture.

I would here like to begin an examination of a modernist work for which a prior knowledge of the narrative progression would clearly defeat its ability to advance an ideological statement through its plot. I have chosen this particular text for two reasons: first, to show how actual and otherwise-compelling interpretive methods which do not take into account the plotted nature of the author's discourse can lead to deficient readings; and second, to show how the discourse of plot can be employed, quite viscerally, to criticize the "plotted mentality" itself. This, I hope, will help serve to convince the most ardent opponents of narrative thinking that the tool is not so inflexible that it cannot be turned upon itself.

The text is Henry James's short story, "The Beast in the Jungle" (1909). For reasons of space only, I will assume that my readers are already familiar with the text, although I have included a Masterplots narrative summary in the appendix. (And I will forego any comment on what this does to the ostensible integrity of my position.) The widespread critical aversion to plot may owe something to the fact that the subject obligates us to talk about individual readers' subjective responses (e.g., how strongly I identify with the main characters, etc.). The rhetoric of plot is structurally determined, certainly--this is the one thing that enables us to analyze it--but how that rhetoric suades any given reader is highly dependent on his or her intertextually conditioned expectations. Chief among these is, of course, whether or not the plot has been spoiled. In my own, "unspoiled" experience with this story, I was duped--or one might say "undone"--by the plot in precisely the way that James would have hoped. Desiring primarily to reach the tale's conclusion, I failed, like Marcher, to see the springing of the Beast for what it was, when it occurred. My stupidity and my confidence that "something was going to happen"--James's title forces us into collusion with his story's inertial hero--made the ending viscerally suasive: it "threatened me where I live," as Wayne Booth would say. The narrative was only able to do this, I feel, because I had shared Marcher's waiting and expectation as a temporal phenomenon. The success of the story does not completely depend on an obliviousness to its outcome, of course (although even readers who correctly intuit the nature of the Beast cannot be entirely certain they are right until the final page). However, a prior knowledge of the tale would cancel our ability to experience its plot as an esthetic discourse, to "let it do its work on us." As James Phelan observes, this short story is unusual for its paraphrasability:

[Marcher] is rare among protagonists of realist fiction in that his mimetic component can be adequately described by a single statement: he is the man who fails to live by waiting for life to come to him. (68)
It is therefore possible to "spoil" Marcher and likewise the story, because if we are aware of this beforehand, we will be less likely to identify with the protagonist as strongly, since our experiences will no longer be reflective. In an admittedly exaggerated hypothetical, an English student "poisoned" by the Masterplots summary could finish this story with the thought, "What an imbecile," turn to Tennyson's "Ulysses" later that afternoon, and spend the next five years engaged in a meticulous, semiotic analysis of the two works and thereby "miss the point" entirely, given the ideological messages that the two authors were trying to convey. A wise man once said that esthetics often convince people when ideology does not.[11] With this particular story, Henry James demonstrates his own adept understanding of the temporal and narrative process by which things "can reach us only through the beautiful circuit and subterfuge of our thoughts and our desire" (James, 32). Plot is a trap, but it can trap us for good or ill.

The "point" of "Beast in the Jungle" is anti-plot--viz., don't live your life like a backwards-constructed narrative--but to ignore that plot is the medium through which that message is conveyed does a disservice to the text as it exists. Attacking the brand of interpretation he labels as "thematizing," Phelan takes up several readings by the respected critic Robert Scholes to point out how his "archetypal" or "psychomythical" explanations of narratives like "Beast in the Jungle" "come at the expense of textual details" (75). To keep from seeming a pedantic quibbler, Phelan demonstrates how a reading that keeps Scholes's observations in mind yet gives prominence to the narrative progression produces an interpretation which is not only "better", but one which is sufficiently different to contradict that of his colleague (73-9). This is not simply a matter of one critic being more brilliant than another: Scholes's failure is directly attributable to his method because, as Phelan notes, "thematizing makes all narrative aspire to the condition of allegory" (77). Scholes's conclusions, though intriguing, are demonstrably incorrect, and this has to hurt the value of his interpretive methods. A criticism that is by design more willing to pay attention to the plot and to sully itself with "how regular people actually read things" might "discover" different meanings in texts--meanings, I submit, which are more structurally traceable to the texts themselves than those which the preservers of knowledge within the academy are pre-disposed to seeing for reasons of self-legitimation. It is time for more literary criticisms based on the act of reading, as opposed to re-reading. The latter method, although it can have tremendous value, is the most assured first step of "getting the plot out of one's system." And when that happens, a critic can lose sight of the springboard for what then becomes his own creative impulse.

Enough of these classics, let's talk some trash. Specifically, I want to devote the rest of this paper to the subject of the movies, since the proliferation of motion pictures in modern culture has radically transformed our contemporary conceptions of plot. Noting how we have become "too sophisticated as readers of plot to quite believe in its orderings," Peter Brooks conjectures that part of this sophistication "no doubt has to do with the cinema, a form that is consubstantial with temporal successiveness and has made the syntax of plot so available it seems to offer no further challenges" (314). Film easily completes the Proustian task--so arduous for written texts--to present a narrative that has "the shape of time" (21). Even in its experimental incarnations, we see that non-interactive film is inescapably Newtonian compared to written genres; while a bibliophile like Roland Barthes can skip pages and woolgather when he pleases while reading a paperback novel, with film, we are each slave to the unidirectional arrow of time and a predetermined temporal duration. But because in film, the form and content are so intrinsically fused, many critics have joined popular audiences in declaring it to be the late twentieth century's most vital and important of art forms (Sontag, 8). Debate continues on whether the medium's extreme "closedness" serves to close minds or to make us free.

Robert Ebert, while discussing the film Vertigo at the University of Virginia, commented that the purpose of any art, from cave drawings to motion pictures, is not to make autobiographical or philosophical statements; rather, it is the artist's way of expressing, "I was here. This is what I saw." This is a less stuffy way of saying that art cannot be paraphrased or reduced: one can almost hear some ghostly applause coming from Cleanth Brooks. But Ebert's comment is also interesting because it emphasizes what so many people think of first when they think of film--namely, that it is primarily a visual medium. But, as I mentioned above, it is also a highly temporal one, and what a given filmmaker "sees" about the world might be as much if not more reflected in a picture's temporal esthetic than in its visual one. Vertigo is an excellent movie to discuss in this regard, for several reasons. First, Alfred Hitchcock is one of few directors whose name is synonymous with a particular genre and style (his films are more appreciably his vision than they are anyone else's [12]). Second, Vertigo duplicates the esthetic strategy of James's "Beast in the Jungle," in that Hitchcock forwards a message against plot (albeit a less grand one) through the vehicle of plot itself. Finally, among narrative storytellers Hitchcock is perhaps one of the most conscious of what it means to "spoil the plot," a phenomenon which is enacted in Vertigo, and the impetus behind Hitchcock's publicity campaign for his later picture Psycho. With Psycho, Hitchcock inaugurated both the "movie with a secret" and the art film (Ross, 12), and in the decades since, he has walked the tightrope of academic respectability between "high" and "popular" culture. One of the probable reasons that Hitchcock is given any consideration at all outside pop culture departments is that he, like James, is a modernist storyteller who uses plot to condemn his audiences' own narrative thinking.

Vertigo is simultaneously a highly plotted movie and a movie which couldn't care less about its plot. Hitchcock often talked about what he called the "McGuffin," the gimmick about which his entire story circled, but in the end was totally irrelevant to what was really going on. (One example of a McGuffin is the bottle of rare earth in Notorious--it doesn't really matter what's in the bottle, so long as everybody believes it's important. Another visual McGuffin is the stolen money in Psycho.) [13] Vertigo, at first glance, seems to be a movie without a McGuffin, until one realizes, as Ebert points out, "The plot itself is the McGuffin." If one is expecting a conventional narrative, then many "essential" scenes seem to be flagrantly missing from Vertigo. We never learn if the criminal is ever captured, when Scotty accepts the job to follow Madeleine, or even how he gets down from that drainpipe in opening sequence. Hitchcock simply doesn't care: his movie is not about a murder, but about sexual obsession. Nevertheless, he knows that the audiences hunger for narrative continuity, and Hitchcock is counting on that hunger; if we is focused on the plot--the search for the female Other, the "smoking gun" solution to the "sad Carlotta" mystery--, as Scotty is, then we will miss the point, just like Scotty does. Hitchcock structurally manipulates his viewers to put us in Jimmy Stewart's shoes, just as James did with Marcher. The long-shots of Kim Novak in the first reel are constructed to arouse the audience's curiosity, to force us to objectify and fetishize the "elusive" Madeleine. And because the film's "available means" formally compel one to identify with Scotty, his breakdown when his love-object is taken away powerfully coincides with the stunned reaction of most viewers. This is the "How can the leading lady be dead, when the movie's only half over?" response that Hitchcock would re-tool and heighten in Psycho. The 1990's equivalent to Scotty's short trip to the mental ward might be Fergus's (Stephen Rhea) vomiting immediately after "the big surprise" is revealed in The Crying Game. Lo, the peril of the viewer who identifies too closely with the protagonist! The intended, rhetorical effectiveness of plot does depend almost universally on a reader's identification with the characters, but we can see this is not entirely a matter of the mood or personality of the interpreter. [14] The suasiveness of plot can be traced to structures within texts and their presentation, but let me reiterate that it is also alterable (and in the broadest possible sense, determined) by readers' intertextual expectations.

And so Vertigo's bigger surprise--in fact, the more unnerving one--comes the second time the story feels like it's over, when Judy reveals the solution to the mystery over twenty minutes of screen-time before Scotty, the private investigator, catches up with her. Hitchcock clearly knew what he was doing with this experiment in pacing: in the Boileau-Narcejac novel D'Entre les Morts on which the film is based, the whodunit assumes its conventional place on the last page. But what Vertigo does is actually much more interesting, since this "premature" revelation--and we might think of Sontag's "erotics of narrative"--immediately changes the central consciousness of the picture from Scotty to Judy. During the final ascent up the church tower, our sympathies have long drifted from the now-lunatic Scotty: he is only just now discovering what we have known some time. Over the course of the film, Hitchcock pulls the audience through the stages of a romantic obsession, and then he abruptly shifts perspectives to the object-become-subject, so that we are horrified when Scotty lashes out in humiliation and anger. We watch this sequence still preserving the memory of what it was like to "be" Jimmy Stewart. . . In Vertigo, Hitchcock awakens us to the terrifying potentials of our own existences. If its plot is unspoiled, the film analyzes us.

Vertigo clearly drips with misogyny, but before we consider whether phallocentrism is a hazard of all plotted discourses, let us try to imagine what a "spoiled" reading of film would be like. (This is not very hard for viewers who have seen the picture more than once.) On the level of character, our narrative engagement changes to a game of "When is Madeleine Judy? When is Judy Madeleine?" Scotty no longer vents and voices the confusion we feel ourselves; his attempts to "piece it all together" tend to come across as humorously futile--even annoying. Out of all the narratological binarisms that critics have tried to wrench together in their definitions of plot, [15] Hitchcock perhaps provides the most illuminating pair for discussing "spoilability" when he draws a distinction between "suspense" and "surprise" (Truffaut, 51). A brute, illustrative example of surprise is four men sitting around a table, when suddenly, a bomb goes off; in a suspenseful version of the same scene, the audience sees from the start that there is a bomb under the table, and then it may or may not go off. I don't want to push this distinction too far, but suspense relies much more heavily, and for a longer duration, on our expectations, on causality. If the conclusion is revealed, it changes the way that we interpret. Ebert notes that most contemporary film-makers, unlike Hitchcock, have turned to surprise instead of suspense as their chief means of entertaining audiences. A film like Jaws is actually rather hard to spoil: knowing when the shark is going to appear certainly takes some of the fun out of it, but a misanthropic critic would have to reveal every single time the fish is going to surface and all the corresponding details in order to significantly diminish the pleasure we can take from the plot. This is why I earlier grouped the picaresque novel along with other genres that are not plot-contingent: they are predicated more on "what happens next" than "what happens at the end". (And with Jaws--the example is arbitrary--a viewer can still derive significant pleasures from the presentation). Vertigo works with suspense; therefore, it is more spoilable.

The misogyny in Hitchcock's film feeds the fire of a growing debate among feminist artists and critics as to whether patriarchal discrimination is an intrinsic component of narrative structure itself. Susan Friedman navigates the contemporary controversy in her essay "Lyric Subversion of Narrative in Women's Writing," in which she notes,

In A Future for Astyanax, for example, Leo Bersani argues that the order imposed by the plot, particularly the realist plot, replicates the social order designed to repress desire. . . Agreeing with Roland Barthes that the "Oedipus story proper" is "paradigmatic of all narratives," [Teresa De Lauretis] argues that this paradigm presumes a male subject whose desire to answer the riddle of the Sphinx--the riddle of a WOMAN--generates the narrative. (163)
This phallocentric paradigm of narrative desire seems to govern the majority of fictional texts, from Oedipus Rex to Vertigo to Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler, where it is used self-consciously. And I should mention here not only have historians and anthropologists have grown highly suspicious of emplotment (P. Brooks, 314-5), but that liberals of all agendas have attacked narrative for its supposed, authoritarian legitimation of the status quo. Jon Thompson has described how Agatha Christie's novels work through the same concern as "high" modernist narratives (130)--the questioning of social identity constructions--but the difference between them is significant, since the naming of a "scapegoat" at the end of a Christie novel relieves the reader of any pressure to apply these fears to the world beyond the page. According to this thinking, all conventional (i.e., popular) narratives are essentially reducible to a game of fort/da, which explains why audiences find them so pleasurable.

But closure doesn't have to have this effect, as Rabinowitz and Wayne Booth have noted. Returning to the feminist debate, film-maker Yvonne Rainer has remarked (ambivalently) that in her artistic evolution, she has found herself turning more and more to the "solid anchoring" of narrative conventions in order to explore feminist themes (8). And in "Strategies of Coherence," Teresa De Lauretis calls for a time to move beyond "the common project of radical, independent, or avant-garde cinema of the 60's and 70's--namely, the destruction of narrative and visual pleasure" and proposes that narrative- and Oedipal- based texts have more opportunities for advancing radical social statements (187). A vindication of narrative is a vindication of plot, and a sign that we should pay closer attention to it.

This is precisely the point at which to introduce The Crying Game -- a film touted by its admirers for playing against the Oedipal logic of audiences' narrative assumptions. As critics, we are obligated to examine this Neil Jordan picture from an intertextual standpoint--not only because, like all texts, the film is incomprehensible except in terms of the conventions it respects and violates, but because, at least while the movie played theaters, one's experience of it was "utterly indissoluble from the hubbub surrounding it" (Lugowski, 31). Whether or not a viewer is pre-informed that Dil is a man will clearly have a great effect on whether or not he or she--but mainly he--is viscerally suaded. This is a case where Graff's secondary interpretive culture clearly plays a major role. And with a media campaign virtually identical to Psycho and, in essence, the same secret--transvestism--The Crying Game would seem to be a limit text for questioning whether "conventional form and liberal content can indeed promote social change" (35).

Does CG defuse the homophobia that is narratively embedded in Hollywood films like Psycho? The movie's progressivism is certainly of a limited nature, as many critics have pointed out. Its portrait of homosexual relationships as being "straight, with strongly adopted male and male roles" (Michel, 30) is both a necessity in order for the surprise to "work" and a distortion of social reality. Additionally, most transvestites are not, in fact, gay, and the accidents of the plot relieve the audience from having to think of Forrest Whittaker's likable character as homsexual. So who "spoiled" more, the critics who gave away the plot, or the creative team that produced this film?

Plot is a language, and like all, it is limited. And so I don't think that anything valuable is achieved by "spoiling" the plot of texts like the Crying Game. Or in pretending that plot is a weak or indecorous feature of artistic works. It is hard to tell whether Alex Ross is attacking the film or the phenomenon surrounding it when he connects The Crying Game's "plot-line that dare not speak its name" with the social status of homosexuality in Western society as a kind of "open secret" (12). Ross's insinuation that CG conspires in this trend is, at its face, ridiculous, since the movie would seem so obviously to work against the demonization of "off-center" sexuality present in films ranging from Psycho to Silence of the Lambs. But the best readings do take intertexual communications into account, as I have been insisting, and Ross is looking in the right places. Hollywood's negative portrayal of homosexuality in recent films such as No Way Out and JFK and the sympathetic resistance of pop stars like Michel Stipe and Morrisey to "come clean" about their sexual orientation (Ross, 12) certainly provide some of the more relevant contexts for discussing this particular film. The exact nature the "unguessable secrets" in our society, and what we feel we can and cannot say, even to ourselves, and in what contexts, is certainly worthy of investigation. So rather than dismissing plot out of hand, we should promote criticisms that scrutinize how an insistence on unspoiled plots in mainstream culture and the insistence that plot doesn't matter by elite culture--as well as the feeling that the two spheres are fundamentally and qualitatively dissimilar--combine together to create a landscape out of which the "real" meanings emerge. To speak authoritatively about our culture's narratives, we have to know the territory. And there is plenty of room for pioneers of plot analysis between the poles of Tom Clancy, "the James Fenimore Cooper" of our times16, and Charles Buckley, the dauphin of ultra-patrician William F. So there. The End


  1. It is no coincidence that the only publications that discuss "spoiling" plot as a taboo are magazines such as Mademoiselle (90:76+) and the ever-amusing The Writer, which frequently contains invaluable suggestions to novelists such as "Amnesia provides an effective suspense opening" (Rockwell, 16).Back

  2. According to a critic such as Theodor Adorno, writers committed to realism and linguistic referentiality (e.g. Agatha Christie, Ford Madox Ford, Katherine Mansfield) are artistically anachronistic. I.e., they are not "modernists." (Thompson, 25-6) Back

  3. "I am referring to antinarrative programs promoting notions of jouissance (Kristeva, Barthes), libidinal dispersal (Lyotard), unbounded diffˇrance (Derrida), or the undifferentiated affectivity of a subject free of identification and (self)representation (Deleuze)" (De Laurentis, 193). Back

  4. Novelists such as Umberto Eco and A. S. Byatt also risk losing their postmodern status by re-embracing the "amusements of plot" (Eco, 60). Back

  5. Wayne Booth notes in "Narrative Choices and Ethical Criticism" that all stories, regardless of the source of interest--"Will she kill him? Will he find God?. . . Will this promise of a really masterful style be maintained?"--are read as being plotted, in so far as they "will first arouse and then gratify a thirst for something that is in fact quite determinate, surrounded by unlimited indeterminacies and potential questions about them" (67).

    N.B. Terrence Rafferty's review of Basic Instinct (1992): "When it's all over, we realize that the only suspense that Basic Instinct has produced effectively is a weird kind of ideological suspense. Will the movie take its smarmy misogyny all the way, or will it pull back in the end? It goes all the way" (13). Back

  6. "Unless one asserts the primacy of pattern, a poem becomes merely a bouquet of intrinsically beautiful items. . . The artist does not first intuit his object and then find the appropriate medium. It is rather in and through his medium that he intuits the object" (Brooks, 178, 183). Back

  7. For an elaboration of the "atemporality" of lyric poetry, see P. Brooks, p. 20-1.Back

  8. Rabinowitz does not assert that all value judgments of literature are totally relative. The accelerated editing process and low production values for most "popular" genres surely contributes to the perception that those genres are intrinsically less valuable. However, our predisposition to read them expecting artistic inferiority has a significant influence on what it is then possible for us to see. Back

  9. Rabinowitz associates this interpretive ontology with New Criticism, although many other thinkers (Freud, Walter Benjamin, and Alexander Argyros, among them) have claimed that it is a biologically innate predisposition. Back

  10. Consider how knowing the conclusion of a Sherlock Holmes story will cause a reader to endow otherwise "insignificant" details--the stopped clock, the position of a cigarette, the dog which did not bark--with meaning. Also note the forceful example to be found in Jean-Paul Sartre's comments on the biography L'Enfance des hommes illustres. "These children," he comments, "thought they were acting and talking at random, whereas the real purpose of their slightest remarks was to announce their destiny. . . I read the lives of those falsely mediocre children as God had conceived them: starting at the end" (171). Back

  11. Mark Gibson, "Spoiling the Plot" (1994), p. 11. Back < name="12">
  12. Hitchcock's tight control over his films, from storyboarding to the costumes, is legendary. Back

  13. For the story behind the word "McGuffin," see Truffaut, p. 98-9. Back

  14. For an excellent study of the relationship between characterization and plot, see James Phelan's Reading People, Reading Plots: Character, Progression, and the Interpretation of Narrative (1989). Back

  15. Fabula and sjuzet, histoire and rˇcit, Roland Barthes's proairetic and hermeneutic codes, etc. Back

  16. Mansfield, B1 Back


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