Sooner or later, in any attempt to explore the deeper patterns which shape storytelling, we are brought up against one central, overwhelming fact.

This is the way in which, through all the millions of stories thrown up by the human imagination, just two endings have far outweighed all others.

In fact we might almost say that, for a story to resolve in a way which really seems final and complete, it can only do so in one of two ways.

Either it ends with a man and a woman united in love. Or it ends in a death.

A Few Examples

Each of these stories below shows a hero being tempted or impelled into a course of action which is in some way dark or forbidden.

For a time, as the hero embarks on a course, he enjoys almost unbelievable, dreamlike success. But somehow it is the nature of the course he is pursuing that he cannot achieve satisfaction. His mood is increasingly checkered by a sense of frustration. As he still pursues the dream, vainly trying to make his position secure, he begins to feel more and more threatened--things have got out of control.

The original dream has soured into a nightmare where everything is going more and more wrong. This eventually culminates in the hero's violent destruction.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Dr. Jekyll, the outwardly respectable medical man with a dubious secret life discovers a potion which will enable him to split into two personalities, one his normal 'light' self, the other the dark and deformed Mr. Hyde. At first it is exhilarating to be able to escape at night into his Hyde-self, indulging in all sorts of nameless wickedness, then to return safely to his Jekyll-self by day. But gradually the Hyde-personality begins to take over, committing a succession of crimes, culminating in a particularly horrible murder. Jekyll has already found he is increasingly unable to control the switches between his light and dark personalities. Now he finds himself trapped forever in his alter-ego state, and on the run from the police, his friends, everyone. In a state of total despair, he kills himself.


The learned scholar Faust, eager for 'forbidden knowledge' and the mastery of occult powers, sells his soul to the devil. At first he is given glimpses of all sorts of marvels and wonders, and wins a great reputation. But gradually the insubstantiality of the visions he can conjure up begins to pall. Worse, Faust senses that the time is drawing near when he must pay the price--until, amid mounting horror, he sees the moment arrive when he is carried down to hell by demons, to face everlasting punishment.


Humbert Humbert, the outwardly respectable scholar, has long nurtured a secret passion for very young girls. One day, when he is looking for lodgings, his obsession finds its ultimate focus when he sees sprawled on a suburban lawn the 'nymphet' of his dreams, Lolita. He takes a room in the house and marries Lolita's widowed mother, in order to be near the object of his 'dark' desires. The mother then discovers the secret diaries to which he has confided his obsession; she runs out of the house distracted with horror, and is killed by a passing car.

Humbert thus becomes Lolita's guardian, and he and his compliant ward then embark on a wild, dreamlike journey around America, enjoying forbidden sexual pleasure in a succession of motel rooms. But gradually the two fall to quarreling and, as they settle in a little town where Lolita returns to her schooling, a mood of terrible frustration sets in. Humbert becomes dimly aware of another man hovering around, a playwright called Quilty, who seems to threaten his possession of Lolita like a kind of shadowy alter ego.

To get away, Humbert takes Lolita off on a second journeyed across America, this time more like a nightmare than a dream, as it seems increasingly obvious that the mysterious Quilty is following them; until one day Lolita disappears, kidnapped by Quilty. After some years of lonely misery Humbert eventually discovers what happened to them both. Lolita, grown up and married to someone else, no longer bears any relation to the little girl of his illicit fantasies. In a state of horror and distraction, Humbert vengefully tracks down Quilty, the alter ego who had robbed him of his dream, and murders him in cold-blood. He is arrested and, after learning that Lolita has dies in childbirth, himself dies in prison on the verge of his execution.

The Tragic Theme in its most basic form

1. Anticipation Stage: the hero is in some way incomplete or unfulfilled and his thoughts are turned towards the future in hope of some unusual gratification. Some object of desire or course of action presents itself, and his energies have found a focus.

2. Dream Stage: he becomes in some way committed to his course of action (Faust signing his pact with the devil, Humbert causing the death of Lolita's mother which enables him to enter on his affair) and for a while things go almost improbably well for the hero. He is winning the gratification he had dreamed of, and seems to be 'getting away with it'.

3. Frustration Stage: almost imperceptibly things begin to go wrong. The hero cannot find a point of rest. He begins to experience a sense of frustration, and in order to secure his position may feel compelled to further 'dark acts' which lock him into his course of action even more irrevocably. A 'shadow figure' may appear at this point, seeming in some obscure way to threaten him.

4. Nightmare Stage: things are now slipping seriously out of hte hero's control. He has a mounting sense of threat and despair. Forces of opposition and fate are closing in on him.

5. Destruction or Death Wish Stage: either by the forces he has aroused against him, or by some final act of violence which precipitates his own death (murder or suicide), the hero is destroyed.

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