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The Role of Characters

A slightly too long introduction

It has been brought to my attention that the inclusion of this particular essay on the site is a little perplexing to the uninitiated reader. Comments ranging from, "but this is the worst piece of crap I've ever had the displeasure to read," to, "wow did you really write this crap?" have led me to the conclusion that some further explanation is necessary in order for more people to get the joke.

I had assumed that the original introductory blurb would be enough to tip people off that I was well aware of how poorly written the essay is. Being written in a forty five minute period at four o'clock in the morning and receiving a grade of "D" generally aren't points of pride, but I suppose being the only non-fictional essay currently on the site it may come across as being stuck up on the refrigerator, so to speak, for everyone to see how great it is.

There are very probably only about twenty people who actually would have understood the significance of the essay without further explanation. It was for them that it was originally posted. Note the "Back by popular demand!" beginning the introduction. A full ten percent of my intended audience was dismayed to find this essay had disappeared in an earlier incarnation of the site. So I present the following anecdote in the hope that the next time this page disappears a few more people might have reason to demand its return.

English class my senior year in high school was of the advanced placement variety which meant that not only did we take a test at the end of the year which would give us college credit if we did well, but also that we had an arguably harder course load than our classmates in the English classes of the honors variety. I would argue that it was actually much easier, but then that's probably because I never actually did much work anyway.

You see, it was pretty straight forward, we would read a book, we'd write an essay on it, and then we'd discuss it in class until it was time for a new one. This would happen once every two weeks or so. There was no test taking or homework or any of the other normal time wasting exercises that teachers typically put you through. Other than the essay, there was really no way for the teacher to tell if we had done anything at all. I suppose you might argue that he could figure it out during the class discussion, but that's where a well cultivated reputation for being quiet is very useful. I also find that it is fairly difficult for a teacher to solicit commentary from me when I am asleep.

So it happened that as usual I had not read the book and the essay was due the following day. This particular time it was Oedipus the King which I had actually read several years earlier for another English class, so I considered myself way ahead of the game. I sat down to think of a topic on which to write an essay. I couldn't think of anything. Oedipus the King is actually a fairly short play and I had a copy on hand, so drawing a blank for essay topics I decided to read it. And I did - twice. But I still couldn't think of a damn thing. By this time it was fairly late at night, midnightish maybe. I decided I was just way too tired, that the one thing that would really help would be a good nap. So I set the alarm for four o'clock and proceeded to sleep.

Waking unhappily to the sound of my alarm, I sat back down to write my essay. I still couldn't come up with anything. My mind wandered and I recalled two weeks earlier. I was stuck in a similar predicament trying to think of something to write about The Mayor of Casterbridge. In that case my solution was to just not do it. While it was a deeply satisfying solution on many levels I realized that I wouldn't last long in the class if I continued the trend of not doing essays at all. Anything at all, I thought, would be better than doing nothing again.

My friend had joked, when we were discussing essay topics for The Mayor of Casterbridge that I should write on the topic of turtles.

"But what do turtles have to do with the book?" I asked, having not even purchased a copy of the book let alone read it.

"Nothing at all," was his reply. "Just write about how they have nothing to do with anything that happens at any point in the book. You can quote any random passage you like and discuss the profound effect that turtles aren't having on it."

We both agreed that it would make for a brilliant essay, but neither of us were inclined to write it. Two weeks later, however, in my hour of desperation, or rather my forty five minutes of desperation, it seemed like just the thing. I still wasn't inclined to write about turtles though. I decided characters would be a more legitimate sounding topic and using the same concept I quickly typed up the essay you see below.

The following day I handed in my paper, relieved to have had something to hand in. As usual our teacher collected the papers, picked five essays (based mainly on whether or not he had already chosen one of that particular student's essays before) and made photocopies of those five for the entire class. As the photocopied essays made their way down the rows there was an unusual amount of sniggering, giggling, and laughter accompanied by glances in my direction. It seemed fairly obvious by the time I received my copies that my essay had been chosen for discussion. It was also obvious that the teacher was completely unaware of the content of my essay, having chosen it based on the fairly legitimate sounding title and the fact that he had not previously discussed any of my work. He quickly found the source of the commotion and started reading, his face slowly reddening and odd squeaking noises escaping through his nose as he tried to hold back his laughter.

As he finished he regained his composure and sensing which essay the class wished to discuss first, he asked whether I would like to read it aloud myself or allow one of my classmates to do the honor for me. I declined to read it myself, choosing one of my friends eager to take on the task. He began, each sentence punctuated by scattered smirks and giggles. But before he could finish the second paragraph the teacher interrupted, saying very seriously "I don't think this is funny. I don't know why anyone is laughing." There was an audible sound of sphincters tightening as half the class sat up straighter in their seats, assuming dour looks of studious attentiveness, hoping desperately that the indiscretion of their enjoyment of my ridiculously awful essay wouldn't somehow lower their own grade by a fraction of a point. My friend continued, still laughing (though with some restraint) as he read. He was stopped again; this time warned that someone else would have to read if he couldn't control his laughter. So someone else read.

It's probably worth noting at this point that the essay on its own really isn't that funny. It really is very poorly written, poorly considered and only barely meets its primary goal of taking up the space of one side of a piece of paper. But in the context of the anecdote I'm currently relating: a top level English class in a private Catholic prep school where expected essay topics tended more towards the effects of post-modernist thought on this or that subject, this was the rough equivalent of watching people get kicked in the balls. That is to say, fairly hilarious.

As the reading finished I felt some relief at the prospect of attention finally shifting away from myself and my essay (which I hadn't expected to gain any attention in the first place) and on to the next student's paper. Any further discussion of it seemed an obvious waste of time, so I (along with many others, I suspect) was fairly surprised when our teacher indicated that we would continue on with discussion and criticism. I suppose he didn't have much choice. Simply moving on to the next essay and allowing that mine had been a joke, not worth discussing, would have been an admission that the joke was on him, as he had been the one to pick my paper out of the pile and make photocopies for everyone. A rigorous criticism and discussion as well as the previously mentioned sphincter-tightening admonition were likely the best way to save face and maintain a semblance of authority, given the situation.

I still believe that any kind of serious criticism of the essay completely misses the point, essentially becoming an exercise in pedantry. But to give you an idea of the types of things that people found to discuss, I'll present a few choice criticisms and discussion points, choice, that is, in the sense that they are the ones that I remember.

Really the only positive point brought up was the fact that I was able to adhere to the "five paragraph essay" format. To be honest, that was the only way I was able to stretch such a tenuous concept, probably best expressed in a single sentence, into an entire essay.

Other criticisms included my use of the word, symbiotic, the critic arguing that it was out of place and almost certainly some sort of attempt to make the essay sound more intelligent. Considering that my fallback plan was to write five paragraphs of "blah blah blah" I think it's safe to say that the intelligence of the essay was the farthest thing from my mind. If the word is out of place it merely reflects the amount of proofreading that took place, which is to say, none.

Also pointed out was my choice of quote. I could have picked any line from the entire play; such was the beauty of the concept. I did in fact open the book randomly to find the quote and did not realize until it was pointed out in the discussion how completely appropriate it happened to be.

And the last bit I remember was my friend commenting that his favorite part was "Without them the play would be much shorter and much more boring." His favorite part of that being "much more boring" with emphasis on "more," the clear implication being that the play was still fairly boring as is.

As you might expect, when the bell rang and class was over the teacher asked me to stay behind for a chat. He informed me that at best I could expect a grade of "D" on my paper. He also suggested that I might want to transfer down to an honors level English class. I flatly refused. There was no way I would allow myself to be cast down to toil with the hoi polloi memorizing vocabulary lists and cramming for tests. More importantly there was no way I would miss out on the AP exam that would give me the opportunity to skip a semester or two of more English classes in college. He admitted that he wouldn't force me to transfer if I didn't want to.

As I was leaving he said, "I understand why you wrote the paper that you did. With only three papers this quarter, receiving a 'B' on the first one and nothing at all for the second one, you obviously did the math and realized that no matter what you got on this third one, you could still only get an 'F' for the quarter."

"Yes," I agreed as I walked away.

He gave me far more credit than I deserved. The thought had never even crossed my mind. Had I realized it counted for nothing, I probably would have skipped it and had a good night's rest. Luckily I'm not that smart, so enjoy the essay. Or not. I mean, it is pretty bad.


Back by popular demand! One of the most profoundly deep examinations of a play, ever. Written between the hours of 4:00 am and 4:45 am on October 17, 1994, this essay earned me a solid "D" in Advanced Placement English class. Special thanks go to Leo Hamelin and Adam Fox.


Brendan Andersen

10 / 17 / 94

The Role of Characters in "Oedipus the King"

Characters play a very important role in the play "Oedipus the King" by Sophocles. Without characters, the play would lack a certain dimension and be very difficult to read. The presence of characters in the play make it more easily understood. If characters did not appear in the play it would be close to impossible to understand it since everything that takes place is through the words of the characters. Also if there were no characters the outcome of the play would be different. The significance of characters in the play is very obvious. Without them the play would be much shorter and much more boring. The role of characters is very important to the play.

Characters make the play possible just by the virtue of existing. If they did not exist the play would not either. If the play did not exist then the characters would not either. The characters and the play are codependent and need to have a symbiotic relationship to ensure their mutual survival. A lack of characters in the play would make very difficult reading and perhaps more difficult viewing. A lack of characters would necessitate some other device to be used and a substitute has not been found that replaces the role characters play in a play. An example from the play is when Oedipus was speaking to Teiresias: "I did not know then you would talk like a fool­or it would have been long before I called you". If there had not been any characters in this play, this could not have happened.

If the play did not have characters the outcome would be much different. All the actions and conversations could not have taken place without the use of characters. Characters made the play and its tragedy possible. Without characters nothing could have taken place. They made it possible for Oedipus to kill his father and have sex with his mother and for everything that was bad to happen. If Jocasta or better Oedipus did not exist within the context of the play everyone would have been much happier and the tragedy could have been avoided. Even if the herdsman who saved Oedipus as a child did not exist or the messenger from Cithaeron the tragedy of the play would have been avoided and made for a much happier ending. This clearly shows how important all of the characters are in the play. They each have an important role and contribute to the final outcome of the play. Even the non-speaking characters such as Oedipus' daughters, Ismene and Antigone, play important roles in the play. The characters make the play and its' tragedy possible.

The significance of the role characters play is fairly obvious. They make the play move along by delivering the plot and its developments very quickly and accurately. There is no better way of doing this in a play. This makes characters necessary in order to have a play at all since it would probably be very boring without them. The length of the play would also be affected by a lack of characters. It would most likely make the play much shorter and would consist of very little. Characters are very necessary especially in a Greek drama such as this. Very few stage props or sets were used and depended on the characters for all the actions and focus of the play. Characters are necessary in order to have a play.

Characters play a very important role in "Oedipus the King" as in most plays. They make the play possible and able to take place. They greatly affect the outcome of the play. They keep the play focused and through them one can understand what is happening. Characters are perhaps the most important aspect of the play or at least a vital part of it. Without them there would be no play at all.

Copyright © 1997-2021 Brendan Andersen