Iconoclasm in Fiction

Siddharth Mehrotra
4 min readMay 25, 2020

In our time, the emergent schools of thought, in the matter of mythology, are based on the concept of archetypes: i.e., of ideas, motifs, plots, narrative devices, and styles, held in common among otherwise dissimilar-seeming stories. In academic circles, these recurrent motifs are studied as indications of the habits and motivations of the cultures wherein they appear. Among novelists, cartoonists, playwrights, etc., the same motifs appear as a stock of material, on which to draw for inspiration.

In the last few years, a set of anonymous writers have taken it upon themselves to despise such recurrent motifs as ‘Tropes’: i.e., as stereotypes, destructive to the verisimilitude of the fiction.

In the ideal story, according to such disciples of Momus, there should be no handsome heroes, no archetypal villains, no omniscient sages or old veterans, no fair damsels (in distress or otherwise), much less their wiser, braver, dark-complected sisters; no faithful twin or grieving mother, to seek and revive the vanquished hero; no boon companions, no band of friends, no lost loves, no fierce old veterans; no unrequited affections, no loyal side-kicks, no scheming criminal masterminds, no bumbling novices, no wicked witches or evil stepmothers, no deus ex machina, no MacGuffins, no deadly assassins or undisputed champions; no grandiose, poetic boasts, declarations, or lamentations; no songs or verses, even in the narration (let alone the dialogue); no generous kings, no fearless amazons, no true knights, no enchanted weapons; no flashes of insight, no strokes of genius, no surprising solutions to perplexing mysteries; no deadly traps or dreadful superweapons; no secret societies, good or evil; no elaborate schemes, or subtle crimes, or brilliant ideas to defeat them; no jealous rivals, no unsavoury relatives, no treacherous guardians, no rescue of princesses or unexpected luck of widows’ sons; no variety in the illustration of mythical creatures; no speculations on future technology, or wonders of the past; no treasure-hunts or courtly intrigues; no opposing religions or bloody necromancies; no swift reconciliations, no arrivals in the nick of time, no inept villains or adept heroes; no life of adventure, no regular escapades, no last-minute corrections of earlier mistakes; no shocking revelations; no sudden reversals of either character or fortune; no alien invasions, no visual flourishes, no heroic ‘rides’ over great distance in a little time; no return from exile, no jolly sidekicks, no faithful unrequited lovers, no proud parents watching over their offspring after the war; no invincible amazon or tireless Psyche; no fictionalized Ngo Dinh Diem and Mme. Nu, plotting the ruin of all things bright and beautiful; no surprising meanings of predictions and forecasts; no celestial cities or dark fortresses; no bumbling misers or reformed adventurers; no wolfish husbands in sheep’s clothing, such as make a wife regret her marriage: in short, no conventional devices, motifs, or plots. The character-types of commedia dell’ arte, & sim., should all vanish from the stage, and the stirring music meant, in all drama, to set the scene, should fall silent, in favor of some quite different style. Oracles, if any, should either be omniscient, or false; their prophecies must be taken literally; and the protagonists’ bodily needs, however irrelevant to the story, should be mentioned at every opportunity. Every dramatic solution, and reversal of fortune, must be unique, and peculiar to its single, individual play, or at least unrecognizable as the imitation of any predecessor.

The ideal, then, for these proponents of naturalism in drama, is to preserve the three unities at all costs, and moreover to exclude all conventional symbolism and every usual plot-device. Such an ideal story must proceed at a steady pace, without interruptions or reversals, or sudden changes, and yet surprise the reader with a remarkable end.

It may be questioned, Whether any such story exists in the world? And the answer, surprisingly, is affirmative. The works of Henry James, Anton Chekhov, Ernest Hemingway, James Clavell, Hermann Hesse, and the Brontës, to name but a few, supply examples enough. Though some of these do feature at least one conventional motif, it is often well disguised, or so central to the plot, as to appear unique, and therefore to defy classification: a quality so distinctive, as to convert the works of such authors as these, into ‘Classics’, overnight. However little attractive to the popular imagination, at first, the works of these authors are well to be appreciated by refined sensibilities; and all the more so, as proof of their authors’ skill, necessary to create a compelling, credible narrative, without any of the usual devices, and thus all the worthier of respect for the undoubtedly herculean effort of their creation.

In that degree, represented by the works of these and similar authors, the ideal ‘naturalistic’ or ‘original’ fiction (both terms are current) has indeed been achieved. But as if to complicate the matter, such books, if not precisely ‘few and far between’, are small in number, and written only by the most skilful authors. Therefore the true naturalism, or power to tell a unique story without resort to conventional devices, remains to be admired, but not attained, by the majority both of writers, and of the reading public. The desire to cite conventional devices as weaknesses in the story, then, serves mostly to bring attention to the true genius of those able to tell a story without resort to the same devices, and recognition to the difficulty of that task.