Setting and character portrayal, not plot, are essential elements of fiction: The Assault and Chronicle of a Death Foretold
Setting and character portrayal play monumental roles in conveying themes as well as the author’s purpose in literature. In The Assault and Chronicle of Death Foretold, Mulisch and Marquez use these techniques to illustrate the dynamic within groups as well as the impact of society on an individual. In these works of literature, setting and character portrayal help the authors critique society and convey major themes, while plot plays a minimal role, thus proving that setting and character portrayal are more essential in literature.
In both works, the setting plays a critical role in shedding light on the society the novels exist within, and through this major themes are developed. For example, The Assault takes place in Holland, and one of the defining characteristics of that society is its violence. The novel details events such as Anton’s “house burning inside and out” (p 28) and it becomes apparent to the reader that war is a constant there. Violence and war are major part of their culture and its effect is nowhere more prevalent than in Anton’s life. The entire novel focuses on how Anton deals with his post-traumatic stress, and the reader watches as he struggles with processing his emotions and accepting his past. This ultimately develops into one of the main themes of the novel- embracing the past. Through Anton’s struggle Mulisch illustrates to the reader that society has a profound effect on an individual’s past and present.
In Chronicle of a Death Foretold the setting revolves around the backwards culture of a town and its effect on the individual lives of the townspeople. Their culture penetrates all aspects of their lives, and the major plot points center around their traditions as set by their society. Bayardo returns Angela to her family because of tradition, and the Vicario brothers feel obligated to commit murder because of the “horrible duty that’s fallen on them” (p 57). Traditions and rituals rule the town, and they shape the lives of the people. The oppression the townspeople is obvious, and through this Marquez critiques their society, forming one of the main themes of the book. In both works the setting revolves less around a physical location and more around the society in which they live. Furthermore, in both novels the setting serves as the inciting incident and propels the plot forward. In The Assault the war torn society is the reason Anton’s family was killed and in Chronicle of a Death Foretold their traditions result in Santiago’s murder. In both of these cases, the setting allows the author to show the reader the darkside of society. Ultimately, setting plays a critical role in literature because it allows an author to delve into a society and provide a commentary on it.
In both novels, character portrayal, particularly of the minor characters, plays an indispensable role in developing the themes and conveying purpose. In The Assault, Mulisch displays the dynamic between groups and society through minor characters in order to show the reader that even when in a group, responsibility to do what is right still falls on the individual. This can be most appropriately seen in the character Schulz. As a member of the Nazi party, he is clearly the “bad buy”, yet he sacrifices his own life to save Anton when he “pulled [him] out from his hiding place under the steering wheel and dragged him to a ditch” (p 48) during an air raid, and this surprises the reader. It is accepted in the novel, at least in the beginning, and in our society in general that the Nazis were evil, yet Schulz, a Nazi, traded his own life for Anton’s. The dichotomy of the reader’s expectation and the characterization provided by Mulisch is striking. Mulisch uses this contrast intentionally to convey his message that an individual exists outside of their group and that they make their own choices. Mulisch conveys to the reader that an individual ultimately must take responsibility for themselves and that their individual choices must still contribute to the greater good.
In Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Marquez makes a similar point, also through a minor character, explaining how an individual can break away from society and make their own choices. In the novel, the town encourages the Vicario brothers to murder Santiago, some actively and some passively through their inaction. Clotilde, however, breaks this tradition by doing everything in her power to prevent the murder. As a woman in a patriarchal society, Clotilde has limited influence, but she still attempts to get them drunk by “selling them of a bottle of cane liquor” (p 54) so that they are too intoxicated to murder Santiago. Ultimately, her plan fails, but Clotilde gains the reader’s respect for trying. The reader finds it maddening that there is no meaningful attempt from the townsfolk to prevent the murder, and Clotilde’s effort, albeit unsuccessful, is refreshing and stands out. This indirect characterization displays Clotilde’s courage, and due to the positive tone through which her actions are conveyed, Marquez encourages the reader to do the same. Marquez is making a similar point to Mulisch and illustrates that while individuals might have limited power, they have control over their decisions, and are responsible for themselves and for contributing to the greater good. In both works, character portrayal plays an indispensable role in developing themes. Through characterization and tone, the reader gains insight into the author’s purpose and helps display to the reader that the responsibility towards the greater good falls onto individuals and that sometimes, they must go again society. This major lesson learned through character portrayal epitomizes how vital of a role it plays in literature and in revealing an author’s intentions.
In both works, the plot is relatively insignificant and serves as little more than a premise through which the authors explore their respective themes. In The Assault, the plot is dull, focusing only on how Anton deals with his post traumatic stress from a singular event in his childhood. The lone plot point with even a hint of excitement is in the very beginning when Anton loses his family, but following this the events are mundane and center around him meeting minor characters such as Fake Ploeg Jr. and Takes. The narrative in The Assault meanders through Anton’s life, bringing the reader’s attention to smaller conversations as opposed to major life events such as his marriages or the birth of his child. Because the plot is dull, emphasis is placed on individual conversations, usually with minor characters, that impacted Anton’s life. As result of the sub par plot, Mulisch focuses on conveying themes through other avenues such as the indirect characterization gained from these conversations.
Similarly to The Assault, Chronicle of a Death Foretold centers around a single event, with the plot rarely deviating from it and focusing on what happened leading up to and after it. The plot is told through a non-linear narrative structure, and this allows Marquez to focuses on various aspects of the before and after from multiple points of view. The emphasis is mainly placed on the before because it provides an explanation for the tragic events and this entices the reader. Furthermore, it also helps convey one of the main messages of the novel. By focusing the events leading up to Santiago’s murder, Marquez stresses the importance of why things happen. Overall, in both works, and in literature in general, authors are rarely interested in the events themselves, but rather the fallout. How the characters deal with conflict and the authors indirect critique of it is where the readers learn the lesson, and this is usually conveyed through character portrayal and incited by setting.
In conclusion, setting and character portrayal are essential elements of literature, while in comparison, plot is not nearly as significant. As can be seen in The Assault and Chronicle of a Death Foretold, setting provides a reason for the major conflicts in a novel. The reader sees Anton harmed by the traumatic events of his childhood as caused by his society, and as well as Santiago murdered in an attempt to up hold archaic traditions. How the characters deal with this conflict and how the author conveys this through character portrayal reveals the author’s intended message. In The Assault, Schulz is viewed favorably by the reader, and through this Mulisch conveys that an individual must hold onto their humanity, even when apart of a group. Chronicle of a Death Foretold conveys a similar message through Clotilde by showing that an individual is still responsible for their own actions and they sometimes must break away from a group for the greater good. Plot, on the other hand, serves as little more than a vessel through which the authors convey their message, and is therefore insignificant in terms of literary importance compared to setting and character portrayal.
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