I’m currently reading a book called Great French Short Stories. It is a collection of famous short stories by famous French authors. The first story is “The Legend of St. Julian the Hospitaler” by Gustave Flaubert and I read it a few days ago. The story is interesting, if predictable. The main play of the story is between three competing prophesies, which all seem to come true, but as always, one is truer than the others. Now, prophesies are sometimes a very easy tool for authors to use. They’re a sort of Deus Ex Machina, making it easy to come to a foregone conclusion without much explanation. Of course, how much the author leans on the prophecy to cop out of writing the story is important, and Flaubert doesn’t lean too much. The story grows, largely ignoring the prophecies and silently fulfilling them, till the last and most important one.
This is where I feel there’s a flaw. Not in the story per se. The story is quite nice, but in… something.
See, I’ve mainly seen prophecies in science fiction and fantasy stories. In science fiction, prophecies are like ‘fixed points in time and space’, as Doctor Who calls them. They’re independent of external factors, least of all ‘God’. In fantasies, prophecies come from darker sources and often are convoluted. A prophecy may not get fulfilled in the exact way as it is said and the author often takes a roundabout way of explaining how the prophecy was indeed fulfilled. Anyone who’s read Harry Potter or watched Alt+Shift+X explanations of Game of Thrones knows this.
But Flaubert has written what to me seems to be religious fiction. In this, all prophecy and all of the story line flows ‘from God’ and thus, while the conclusion is inevitable (the title of the story is a strong hint for the ending), there is, for the longest time, the illusion of free will and coincidence in the story, thus leading to some chaos and some probabilistic chance that the prophecies might not get fulfilled. Flaubert shows off these vagaries beautifully, all the way up until a fatal line towards the end of the second part of the story. The line is –
Since there were no animals, he would willingly massacre humans.
Here’s my problem with this line –
- Flaubert has knowingly or unknowingly given away the climax. We all know what it’s coming to, thanks to the prophecy, but how and when would it happen is supposed to be a mystery all the way up till it happens. So why introduce this idea that since this did not happen, therefore, the prophecy will be fulfilled. We don’t need that!
- This line itself seems to show that there is no choice here. Yes, this moment is leading to the fulfillment of a prophecy, but till now, the protagonist fulfilled other prophecies unknowingly and as a side-effect of their actions. Why then, must this one prophecy need to be ‘set up’ and executed in this uncontrollable manner? Perhaps what Flaubert is showing is that this prophecy is controlled and executed by God and so there is no scope for variance. That it will happen just so, in hindsight. This line is why I want to put this story not in science fiction or fantasy or any of the other myriad forms of stories, but in religious fiction. The acts that follow are almost involuntary and directly cause the fulfillment of the prophecy, instead of indirectly, and after this, the only recourse available to the protagonist is repentance and turning towards God. It were much more natural if the entire story were unchanged and this one line removed, because in my eyes, this story tells us that God has directed this evil of “massacring humans” in order to then redeem the protagonist. Why must the rest of the story be by chance and natural while this part is supernaturally controlled?
People who have read this story, what are your thoughts on this?
Side note – Once every year or so, I remember that a long time ago, I purchased a device called the “Chromebook Mario” from someone on eBay when I was living in Boulder. He did not seem to have any use for it and wanted to part with it simply because one of the keys was broken and that somehow made the device ‘less pristine’. I got it for cheap. I remember that I still have it, so I find it, charge it, fire it up and play around with it. I do a lot of things in the browser, but not everything, so it can never be my primary device. It’s just an interesting thing to play with. What surprises me is that every time I fire it up, it has updates for me and yet, every time, the speed and performance I get from ChromeOS seems to not have changed. My logins change and need syncing, my extensions change and need setting up, and then I reboot the device to update the software.
But it comes back quickly and works like a charm! Kudos to Google for making this excellent device and supporting it for so long (I currently own a Mac on which Chrome specifically warns me that the browser version I’m running is no longer supported and I need to update the OS and then Chrome to get the latest security features). I wrote this post on the Mario and can perhaps use it as a writing-only device, if only it didn’t also have all the trappings I’ve come to associate with the Internet (the first tab I always open in a browser is my RSS reader).