Is the main character a knight in shinning armor or a total sleaze?
March 27, 2013 12:44 PM   Subscribe

Need recommendations for short stories or a book (with short self-contained sections) whereby a character's actions/motives could be considered in two very different ways depending on what you thought about the character going into the story (i.e., if I gave you some background first) The best example I can think of is of a man either being genuinely nice to a woman or only pretending to do so in order to get her number. This is for a psychology experiment.

We're looking to run a psychology experiment in which we make up a false background for a fictional character that radically changes how participants will understand their behavior. Ideally this will be available in audiobook format and will be short'ish (30 minutes). We've come up with some candidates (Chekhov's short story "An Avenger" for instance) where we could conceivably convince one group of participants that the main character was a kind and doting husband who did not deserve to be betrayed by his wife, and another group we convince that he was a terrible and abusive husband who drove her to another man. Basically, we're looking for more stories like this. We've been mining the greats like Chekhov and some plays by Harold Pinter, but nothing is perfect yet. Do you have any suggestions for a tight, 2-3 character short story where the main character's behavior could easily be interpreted in multiple ways? For instance, they act arrogant or mean, but if we told you that they had just lost their child, for example, you would have a very different read of the story.

We're looking to stay clear of humor, genre fiction or anything too complicated. Thanks!
posted by Smegoid to Media & Arts (20 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
This one was making the rounds of facebook a while back. It's certainly not classical literature, but your "for instance" made me think of it.
A doctor entered the hospital in hurry after being called in for an urgent surgery. He answered the call asap, changed his clothes and went directly to the surgery block. He found the boy’s father going and coming in the hall waiting for the doctor. Once seeing him, the dad yelled: “Why did you take all this time to come? Don’t you know that my son’s life is in danger? Don’t you have the sense of responsibility?”

The doctor smiled and said: “I am sorry, I wasn’t in the hospital and I came the fastest I could after receiving the call…… And now, I wish you’d calm down so that I can do my work”

“Calm down?! What if your son was in this room right now, would you calm down? If your own son dies now what will you do??” said the father angrily.

The doctor smiled again and replied: “I will say what Job said in the Holy Book – “From dust we came and to dust we return, blessed be the name of God”. – Doctors cannot prolong lives. Go and intercede for your son, we will do our best by God’s grace”

“Giving advice when we’re not concerned is so easy” Murmured the father.

The surgery took some hours after which the doctor went out happy, “Thank goodness!, your son is saved!” And without waiting for the father’s reply he carried on his way running. “If you have any question, ask the nurse!!”

“Why is he so arrogant? He couldn’t wait some minutes so that I ask about my son’s state” Commented the father when seeing the nurse minutes after the doctor left.

The nurse answered, tears coming down her face: “His son died yesterday in a road accident, he was in the burial when we called him for your son’s surgery. And now that he saved your son’s life, he left running to finish his son’s burial.”
posted by vytae at 1:02 PM on March 27, 2013

It's a long shot, but the movie "The Astronaut's Wife" is one that I've fought with friends over.

If the character played by Johnny Depp is what his wife (played by Charlize Theron) thinks he is, then it's a chilling story about alien invasion.

If he isn't, then it's a horrifying story about a crazy woman who destroys everything based on weird hunches.
posted by xingcat at 1:10 PM on March 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

I'll suggest J.D. Salinger's "A Perfect Day for a Bananafish." Different (made-up, exaggerated) backgrounds that I'd suggest for Seymour Glass:

1. The main character, Seymour, has just returned from WWII and is suffering from PTSD. He is unable to be around large groups of people. Before leaving for the war, he was a devoted husband and father to a young girl. While he was fighting overseas, his daughter tragically died.

2. The main character, Seymour, is a pedophile.
posted by to recite so charmingly at 1:24 PM on March 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

In The Glass Menagerie, the gentleman caller can be sympathetic if you think he's a nice guy in a bad situation or a dick if you think he's just shining Laura on.
posted by Weeping_angel at 1:29 PM on March 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

In the Graham Greene novella The Tenth Man, a man befriends/woos a young woman living in a beautiful house that her late mother left for her.

The man had been a prisoner of war who drew the short straw in a decimation. The woman's mother, a fellow prisoner, agreed to take his place in exchange for his house.
posted by payoto at 1:47 PM on March 27, 2013

I really, really wish I could remember the name of this film.

There are two young boys and a father who is intensely religious. He believes himself to be a demon hunter and leads the boys into missions in which they must kill various people. One of the boys revolts and is placed in solitary confinement by the father to reform his thinking. How this turns out depends on how reliable you think the narration is.

I can't remember who the lead actor was. I thought it might be Kurt Russell, but it doesn't seem to be. The title isn't "Repulsion" but it is something very like that.
posted by tel3path at 2:00 PM on March 27, 2013

And of course, Eugene Onegin being all postmodern and shit already in the 1820s.
posted by tel3path at 2:02 PM on March 27, 2013

I'm sorry, I guess a screenplay and a novel in verse don't really match the description of "short story".
posted by tel3path at 2:09 PM on March 27, 2013

tel3path, are you thinking of Frailty?
posted by dlugoczaj at 2:10 PM on March 27, 2013

I always wondered about Peeta in the Hunger Games in this way. Was he really in love with Katniss, or did he start out canny and cynical, playing it for the cameras, knowing the only way to win was to make her believe he was for real. Not sure it is what you are looking for.
posted by yogalemon at 2:10 PM on March 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

dlugoczaj is right, the film is Frailty
posted by tel3path at 2:13 PM on March 27, 2013

Exercepts from Catch 22 where the characters motivations aren't directly referenced during the action? As far as I remember there is no explanation given for yossarians motivations in poisoning the squadron in the passage in which it occurs. He could be a spy or a madman, it's not explained till later. Or maybe earlier.
posted by fshgrl at 2:39 PM on March 27, 2013

Classic 19th c. example: The Turn of the Screw. The governess is either dealing with a genuine haunted house, or she's severely delusional (and responsible for at least one child's death).
posted by thomas j wise at 2:56 PM on March 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

George Saunders' short story Puppy is like this.
posted by theuninvitedguest at 3:55 PM on March 27, 2013

Seconding The Turn of the Screw. In fact, Henry James loved ambiguous stories: In "The Lesson of the Master," we're not sure whether the Master told the narrator to go abroad because he wanted him to hone his talent or because he wanted him out of the way so he could woo the love interest; in another story ("The Abasement of the Northmores," I think), a dead author's wife's belief in his genius may or may not be right.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 4:08 PM on March 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

Perhaps you could take some excerpts from the play Doubt? It's left deliberately unclear as to what happened between Father Flynn and the young boy.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 4:23 PM on March 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

Not high literature, but the book 'Girl Friday' by Jane Green has a character 'Steve' that fits this. The main character, Kit, is set up with him by her friend Tracy. Turns out that 'Steve' is Tracy's boyfriend and they're setting up a scheme to fleece Kit's boss. I just listened to it on audiobook, and I imagine you could play the phonecall when Tracy calls Kit to tell her about the uber cute guy at yoga called Steve that she 'has to meet', and then the initial meeting.

You will probably have to read the rest in order to get the full story to explain it to the class, for which I apologise (unless, or course, you like trashy chick lit).
posted by kjs4 at 6:36 PM on March 27, 2013

Thanks everyone, going to read up on some of these!
posted by Smegoid at 7:01 AM on March 28, 2013

Heh, there's an episode of Buffy in which we alternate between our "real world" of the series, in which she's a Chosen One who has to fight huge and terrifying monsters all the time, and an insane asylum, in which her life is much more normal and she's just having these weird hallucinations. Which one would YOU believe? Probably if you provided that script without the series context, it would make for lively debate (consequences of being wrong in each reality are markedly different)...
posted by acm at 8:26 AM on March 28, 2013

Marla Singer in Fight Club. Book or movie, short little excerpts from either. Your view of her, and her relationships to others, is drastically changed by the end.
posted by RainyJay at 11:20 AM on March 28, 2013

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