Monday, June 16, 2008

Call Me Ishmael

I have no idea where or when, but at some point I read the claim that all stories begin one of two ways: "A stranger came to town," or "I {he, she, they, etc.} set out on a journey." I couldn't fall asleep last night, so instead of counting sheep, or counting weeds in my yard, I lay there trying to figure out whether or not this is true. Does every story really begin one of those ways?

Set aside all memoir, biography, and autobiography - generic convention means all of these begin with the setting out on a journey. To narrow this down, I worked my way though a syllabus for a 20th Century American lit class I once taught. Here's what we have:

Sister Carrie: she set out on a journey
In Our Time: he set out on a journey
Their Eyes Were Watching God: a stranger came to town, then they set out on a journey
The Sound and the Fury: everyone avoided setting out on a journey, except Caddie, and her setting out ruined everything
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: strangers who had set out on a journey came to town
On the Road: I set out on a journey, then kept journeying trying to replicate the joys of that first journey

In terms of the fiction from that class, the journeys have it. But then I realized that's because I was teaching American literature, which is classically about journeys, movement, lighting out for the territory. The Europeans are much more the "stranger comes to town" types.

Here, though, is the question of the day: can you think of a story that doesn't begin either of these two ways?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hmmmm. I know that Snoopy always starts off his stories with "It was a dark and stormy night...." But that probably doesn't qualify as literature.