Drawing the Line

Vonnegut tells us that our favorite stories start at the lowest end of the Good-/Ill-Fortune scale and end in infinite happiness, just like Cinderella. Naturally, not all stories end like this. Not many of our western stories this week find such an appealing path in the remotest sense, for the West is a harsh place that challenges human nature in all kinds of fashions. The fortune of our chosen stories’ characters depend largely on the theme, ideology, and interpretation of the situation at hand. While Vonnegut’s graph does not necessarily give these variables much room for visualization, it is still a useful tool in showing our own interpretations of the narratives offered to us by their authors.

For this exercise, I chose to map out “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky” by Stephen Crane. This story has a bit of a difficult narrative to plot, as the main character, Jack Potter, struggles between a happy moment and a deep anxiety that pervades the happiness. He marries a kind woman while away from his hometown, though he feels it is his town’s right to know who he has married due to his position as the marshal. He feels guilty for not having mentioned the marriage before coming back as a husband to a place in which he is deeply respected. However, he is happy with his new wife, who understands his anxiety and only offers him warm comments and nervous laughter during their trip home. Overall, their mutual company is not filled with as much stress as their minds might feel. In fact, before Potter’s fears surface they are very endearing toward one another. Thus, it may best suit the story to start just above the center of the G-I line, as their marriage alone is a happy one.

As Potter’s anxiety continues, however, he and his new wife are out of place on a Pullman train – something far above their social class. As they sit and speak — and even eat — the people who work on the train mock them as though the newlywed couple were little more than children. They are quietly ridiculed for their lackluster appearance and clear absence of money or prestige, and so their story line dips into the center.

Once they finally arrive in Potter’s town, Yellow Sky, they rush off to his estate in an attempt to avoid running into anyone who will recognize him and question the arrival of the woman. Despite their best efforts, the station-agent sees him and tries to approach them. They run off before getting any closer to the other man, however, which can’t be any better fortune for them.

Meanwhile, a drunken gunslinger is loose, aiming to pick a fight with anyone who will stand up to him. As he wanders the streets, he decides to find the marshal, Potter (although no one in town knows he has come back yet). This foreboding event is clearly wrought with potential misfortune, so as the drunken man, Scratchy Wilson, approaches Potter’s empty house, the latter’s line of fortune dips again.

As the story approaches its conclusion, the line’s motion is up for interpretation by the reader, for the ending is neither conclusively happy nor clearly tragic. Potter and his wife run right into Scratchy Wilson in the street. Scratchy pulls a gun out and challenges Potter to fight. Potter, defenseless and with a thoroughly shocked woman beside him, declares that he has no gun and cannot duel. He even offers Scratchy a free shot to prove it, essentially taunting him. Scratchy doesn’t believe him; he’s the marshal, after all, and therefore always has a gun. The story line has potential to drop as the situation escalates, however I would argue it remains steady up until Potter’s next words, when he is forced to admit that he has no gun because he just got back from San Antonio – with a wife.

With an old Western honor, Scratchy Wilson immediately backs off of the fight, knowing well by now that the marshal is completely defenseless. This relieving situation is clearly a stroke of good fortune, allowing the story line to finally rise to some degree. However, the last man who should have heard first is now the only one to know that Potter got married while away, and while he decides not to shoot, he clearly exhibits disappointment in a man who he and the town deeply respect. With this final expression of what could perhaps be considered failure on Potter’s end, the line takes another dip on the plot – not one so deep, I would argue, that it cancels out their good fortune of Scratchy Wilson not shooting, but certainly a dip that puts them on the lower end of the scale. One could only assume the rest of the town’s reaction once Scratchy Wilson sobers up and laments his encounter with their beloved marshal.

Crane Plot Line

This story does not end happily due to the nature by which Potter’s marriage was revealed. However, other interpretations could give them a neutral – if not better – ending. After all, the new couple did get to the town without open ridicule on the train, and despite their life-threatening encounter with Scratchy Wilson, they made it home without harm. Perhaps after the townspeople discovered Potter’s marriage, they came to accept his independence and opened up to his new wife; they certainly had no qualms with the stranger who hid from Scratchy Wilson in the saloon with them, and they were very forgiving of Scratchy’s behavior, knowing well that he was a good man when sober. Still, that potentially kind reception remains unspoken and unwritten, lying beyond the story’s end. I certainly hope that this sort of scenario is the case for Potter and his wife, but I will hold to the less-than-happy ending that I drew out for this story.

Such narratives are often left open for interpretation, having readers guess what comes before and after. While I don’t see a happy ending for “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky”, someone else might have drawn out a completely different line. One could also interpret the story from another character’s perspective, maybe that of Mrs. Potter or Scratchy Wilson. Did their part of the story end well?

Vonnegut’s graph is a useful tool, but its simplicity is limiting according to how one uses it. Despite the large number of variables, its ability to map and easily interpret the stories it shows make the graph a good means of visually expressing how a reader saw the events and outcome of a story. Perhaps one tale will produce multiple graphs, each one being equally as correct, but the interpretations available only show the story’s ability to adapt to the reader’s perspective. So, while not every narrative an author serves is as clearly cut as Cinderella, it still functions as a thoughtful, well-developed story to its readers.

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