More About Contrast and Juxtaposition

Strong contrasts and startling resemblances are the major structural principle in collage. But they also have more general applications.

Then/now pairings, mirroring events and characters, and the Rule of Three have already been discussed in earlier chapters, in terms of how they can be used in plotted fiction. They can also become the main strategies of works with little or no plot. Such stories depend on the energy of like/unlike pairings, on the same principle that red is redder against a bright green background, or that a cardinal seems especially vivid pecking in the snow.

Often this technique will be combined with revelation, which I'll discuss in a minute, to show that things aren't as they seem—unmasking hypocrisy, shattering illusions people have about themselves or others, or showing perhaps that apparently dissimilar people are more alike either than they'd guessed or would like to admit. A bookish minister working among convicts with serene detachment who discovers in himself a capacity for cruelty or a love of the power he has over his flock, might be the basis of a contrast story.

I discussed earlier the story "Good Country People." The plot, though minimal, is effective—a traveling Bible salesman steals a woman's artificial leg on pretext of seducing her. But the antagonist is what he is all the way through the story—we readers (and the protagonist) just don't know it until the end, because he's a hypocrite. And the protagonist always had an inflated sense of her own cynicism and insight into people; again, she and we don't discover her real naivete until she meets someone far more cynical and shrewd than she is.

In other words, the story is a process of revelation of static things, rather than something actually happening, short of the theft that provides the story's resolution. It's a contrast between false cynicism and the real thing, two attitudes, two states of be-ing—and that's the dynamic of the story far more than its plot is.

Another story, Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown," has a similar pattern. Brown has faith in the goodness of his neighbors in colonial New England and the center of that faith is his love for his wife. He meets the devil, who tempts Brown with the claim that commerce with the devil is quite commonplace. The devil asserts that not only have Brown's ancestors been "associates" of his, but all the respectable townspeople, Brown's friends and neighbors, are corrupt as well. He invites (tempts?) Brown to spy on a witches' sabbat, where Brown sees arriving the respectable townspeople in whom he had such faith. He is even given reason to suspect that his wife has participated in the satanic celebration. He runs away in horror and the experience poisons his whole life thereafter: he doesn't trust anybody, including his wife, not to be of the devil's party, believing himself the lone holdout, the one righteous man in his community. The devil didn't convert Brown—or did he?

Contrast—seeming and being. That's what drives this classic story.

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