Christina’s World – On Struggle and Story

Christina's World by Andrew Wyeth Andrew Wyeth (American, 1917-2009). Christina’s World, 1948. Tempera on gessoed panel. 32 1/4 x 47 3/4 in. (81.9 x 121.3 cm). Purchase. Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © Andrew Wyeth

I was talking with an author the other day. We were discussing cover art, and the subject of Andrew Wyeth’s iconic painting “Christina’s World” came up.

Not that we wanted to use that piece, but we wanted to evoke the same feeling.

What’s so evocative about “Christina’s World”? Well, I’m not an image person so much as a story person, and for me, it’s the central figure’s determination, her yearning.

The actual Christina — the model for the body (though not the head) in the painting* — was a paraplegic who refused to use a wheelchair; she moved around the farm that she and her brother lived on solely through the use of her arms.

Why were we discussing this? Well, obviously, its an incredibly evocative image. More to the point, Nicole Sykes, the author I’m working with, was born with cerebral palsy. Speech is a challenge for her. She has partial control over her left hand, but doesn’t use her right. Her mobility is provided by a motorized wheel chair. She speaks — and writes — by tapping a large keypad with the back of her left fist; speech is synthesized in Stephen Hawking-like bursts.

And she’s written a memoir. A funny memoir.

It takes me a huge effort of will to write, even on good days. If I had to do it with only the use of one hand — and the back of the hand at that? I can’t imagine it. I’m awed by Nicole’s determination. Like Christina’s determined yearning in Wyeth’s painting, Nicole’s determination moves me.

And — me being me — that got me thinking about heroic narrative.

The classic epic sagas — Gilgamesh or Beowulf — feature heroes who barely seem to break a sweat.  They impose their will on the world around them, and trumpet their own prowess. Even when — in each of those tales — the hero runs up against the insurmountable obstacle of death (Beowulf, his own; Gilgamesh, that of his friend Enkidu), he faces it head on, shoulders square.

When I read those classics as a student, I found them vaguely dissatisfying. It wasn’t until my daughters read them that I realized that the problem is that there is no struggle for these heroes. Oh, they battle, but really? The reader (or listener) never really worries for them.

Odysseus, on the other hand, struggles. His plans are constantly dashed — often literally — on the rocks. He is attacked, seduced, captured… And yet what he really wants is to return home. Even when he’s happily shacked up with the demigoddess Calypso, he wanders down to the shore, staring off toward Ithaca, toward Penelope and Telemachus.

I know I’m not alone in finding that a more compelling story. To be human, to be alive, one must struggle. For a story to compel us, it must feature both a desire — what actor’s call an objective — and an obstacle to that desire.

The desire can be epic — to return home after war through a sea  of monsters and nymphs — or it can be heroic on a smaller scale — to tell a story without the use of a mouth or  fingers. Either way, the desire and the will to achieve it make the story worth reading.

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