This is a follow up post to Endless Summer, and I will be expanding on the theme I addressed in that post.
In my other post I talked about fiction that revolves around a child growing into a young adult. Now I want to talk about fiction that revolves around another stage of life–from young adult to spouse.
I know that’s an odd way to look at the romantic element in genre fiction, but I think it is a useful one. For example I want to use one of my favorite films, Alfred Hitchcock’s brilliant North By Northwest. (Spoilers for the film follow).
At the beginning of the film the protagonist, Roger Thornhill, is an essentially adolescent character. Although he is an adult, and a reasonably successful one, his manner is that of an overgrown boy, playful and a little bit silly. We see him in the first scene giving his secretary instructions to contact his mother on his behalf, and, in fact, it is his need to stay in constant contact with his mother that lands him in hot water to begin with. Clearly Roger is comfortable with her apron strings.
Then Roger is thrown into the world of high-level espionage, a world that he is clearly unprepared for. Shortly thereafter he meets Eve Kendall, a beautiful and mysterious woman who helps him to evade the law.
There is an instant steamy chemistry between Roger and Eve, but we are shown that Eve is not what she appears to be and Roger is betrayed, and nearly killed.
These brushes with death serve to make Roger grow up in a hurry. He digs deeper into the mystery, motivated at first primarily by anger at Eve. In the process he meets the professor, a representative of a shadowy government agency. The professor tells him that he was wrong about Eve’s involvement, and that his actions have put her in danger.
Roger accepts responsibility for Eve’s peril and rescues her, hurling himself into action in a way that would have been unthinkable only a few days earlier.
The final scene shows Roger hanging over the edge of a cliff and holding onto Eve to keep her from falling. He pulls her to safety–
–and the scene cuts into him lifting her onto an upper berth in a train sleeper car, addressing her as Mrs. Thornhill and climbing up to join her.
Now, it is common these days to dismiss “the good guy gets the girl” endings as “the girl as prize”, but I think it’s more complicated than that. Eve marries Roger because he has changed from being a youth to being a man who has learned the responsibility needed to be a husband.
It is a transition as great as the changes in Mattie Ross over the course of True Grit. And the ending is mutual. If Eve is Roger’s prize, then he is also hers–she, too has grown as a result of her experiences.
In this light marriage is the next milestone, and like the Coming Of Age story it signifies the end of a story arc. The quest is complete, the adventure is over. The protagonist is no longer able to be reckless or wild, but must settle down to care for a family.
Again, this is not a consummation that permits a sequel. A continuing character can never make that step or the series comes to an end. James Bond (one of my favorite franchise characters but, alas, the perennial frat boy) will never settle down with any of the Tiffanies or Plenties he beds. He couldn’t be James Bond, Soccer Dad.
Granted, settling down and raising a family is not as inescapable as growing from a child to an adult. I do believe, however, that having that as the end result of a character arc gives a story a gravity and finality that is lacking in heroes who simply ride off into the sunset in search of the next dragon.