116th Annual Conference - Bellingham, Washington
Friday, November 9 - Sunday, November 11, 2018

The Battle to Act: A Literary Analysis of Plot and Agency in a Story About Soldiers

Sandra Sidi, Texas State University

This essay examines the desire and ability of a soldier to act in Shani Bioanjiu’s fiction about Israeli soldiers. Using the work of Robert Caserio, I argue that Bioanjiu’s story “Means of Suppressing Demonstrations” employs features from both the traditional pre-modern plot of action, as well as features from the modernist plot of contemplation and inaction to reflect that the soldier's ability to act is constrained at all times, if not by circumstance and political realities, by an actual book which details exactly when and how a soldier may act at all.

Proposal: 

What happens when a soldier, an agent of action and rescue by definition, is brought into an environment where action is not only penalized, but is simply not possible? In this paper, I explore plot--in particular the desire and ability of a soldier to act--in a story about Israeli soldiers. Using the work of Robert Caserio and George Eliot, I argue that Shani Bioanjiu’s short story “Means of Suppressing Demonstrations” employs features from both the traditional pre-modern plot of action, as well as features from the modernist plot of contemplation and inaction, to present an interesting battle between action and passivity within the context of modern war.

A soldier is uniquely trained to be an agent of rescue, and thus a soldier’s individual desire for purposeful work may be even stronger than in others. However, a soldier often faces additional impediments to this desire—for what an individual soldier might want to be the result of her tour of duty may well be at odds with the military imperatives, global conditions and decades of history that subsume individual desire for resolution. In Plot, Story and the Novel, Robert Caserio identities traditional plot as one where action is used as a means of righting wrong, the character solves problems, and events work toward a decisive climax. In contrast, modern plot recognizes the limits on what any individual may be able to control in the world, asserting that the “rescue act” is “not practicable” (Caserio 94). Rather, the action occurs within the characters.

As George Eliot’s novels reflected a sort of middle ground between traditional and modern plots, in which the protagonist moved from being an agent of action (“rescue”) to one who contemplated and endured, so too does Bioanjiu’s story inhabit this middle ground. In “Means of Suppressing Demonstrations,” Lea is an Israeli Defense Forces officer tasked with preventing violent attacks from occurring on Route 799 running through the West Bank by preventing traffic from passing. Yet there is no traffic on 799. Lea is a soldier, an agent of action, who has nothing to do (Bioanjiu). The story draws on traditional plot elements such as externalized opposing forces, systematically mounting tension (as the Palestinian demonstrators return each day asking for harsher methods) and a protagonist, Lea, with a desire for action that rescues. Yet the story nonetheless maintains strong modern overtones throughout. The “rescue action” happens—Lea arrests a Palestinian boy—but this rescue “happens at the instigation of an external, outside actor,” the Palestinian demonstrator and is ultimately an act incapable of any real rescue or change (Caserio 132). Through employing scenes of soldiers reading their I.D.F. guidebook before acting, Bioanjiu appears to suggest that, for the soldier, the ability to act is constrained at all times, if not by circumstance and political realities, by an actual book of procedures which details exactly when and how a soldier may act at all.

I argue that this modern soldier protagonist reflects the lack of power against societal and historical forces that locates rescue beyond the soldier’s control. “Means of Suppressing Demonstrations” proves succinctly that the world of modern war—as depicted by Bioanjiu—is both traditional and modern, and also neither in the dichotomy that Caserio’s history of plot describes. War solidifies external opposing forces, whose soldiers long to act, yet Bioanjiu depicts action as a feeble faux-rescue that isn’t enough to help anyone, nor even end a battle decisively.

Bibliography

Bioanjiu, Shani. “Means of Suppressing a Demonstration.” The New Yorker. June 25, 2012. http://www.newyorker.com. Accessed on October 5, 2016.

Caserio, Robert L. Plot, Story and the Novel: From Dickens and Poe to the Modern Period. Princeton University Press, 1979.

Karl, Frederick R. George Eliot: Voice of a Century. Norton, 1995.