One of the interesting qualities of story is the idea of change. Some action is taken or something happens and the result is inexorable. The audience can do nothing to “save” the principle character. All we can do is “read” about Connie’s removal from the home in “Where are you going.” We can’t interrupt the action of Antigone and inform Creon that he will lose his son and his wife because he failed to “know” the consequences of his actions. Shouldn’t King Lear have known better than to divide his kingdom up? Should we not have known that space travel kills people? Should Oedipus have simply ignored the answer?
The idea that we would want a character to display sophrosyne as a value in story is at odds with what we know about Creon, Oedipus, the gods, Antigone, and most characters in story. We know that Creon isn’t going to display coolheadedness or any sort of golden mean. We need Creon’s arrogrance, just as we need a confused Hamlet and a pridefilled Coriolanus. But this is just one element.
The other element is our reaction to the story that comes from the principles. Hopefully we won’t repond by laughing and leaving, but that something about the tragedy proves either true or captivating, yes, like watching a trainwreck. Do we “need” to see the children not just eat their way out of a cage but also step forth into the dark wood where “we know” the hungry antagonist waits.
This returns me to the story once again. Creon makes his edict and stands by it, thinking himself in the right as the “state” made manifest, the state on whose side Ares has smiled, the state that must take a “moral” stand against the actions of Polynices. But do his reactions to the sentry and to Antigone “reveal” him as a corrupted leader or a coward? Is his original intent corrupted?
Another example. In Suttree, now being covered by Susan Gibb, the principle has money sent to him by a relative. The reader knows what he’s going to do with it. I can’t remember how much but Suttree hides some of the money for safe-keeping prior to the night of waste, in a place where he will forget while drunk or keep hidden from theives. The rest of the money will be lost. We know that something horrible is going to happen. Still, as we read, we hope it won’t.