The Rescue Fantasy


As I was driving about in my car this lunchtime, the radio station was sending out all kinds of dire weather warnings to motorists to stay indoors unless the journey was absolutely necessary. The weather has been all odd and bizarre lately, and today we are experiencing tremendously strong winds, which bowl across the empty plains of the fen country round about, gathering in ferocity as they travel. Added to this have been some vicious rainstorms. I sat in my car at traffic lights earlier, and could barely see the road ahead for the sheets of water that buffeted the windscreen. The only thing I could see was the line of cars rocking in unison as each squall of rain lashed at our vehicles. Stay at home, the radio told me, or risk ending up like the fifty-five other idiots who had required help from the rescue services already this morning. I thought that was a bit unfair at first; it’s sheer chance, surely, if a tree blocks your path or electricity lines come down on you. But it turned out that the majority of rescues had been of motorists who had insisted on travelling down roads that had been closed because of flooding. So ok, that is pretty stupid really, or at least a Pyrrhic victory of pig-headedness over common sense. But it got me thinking about the whole concept of rescue, and how very rare it is in reality, and how extraordinarily prevalent it is in fiction.


It’s really quite rare to get from one end of a narrative to the other without there being at least one instance of rescue. Not so surprising, when you consider that stories by their very nature either pose a problem to be solved, or record a quest for something that is missing. In both instances the central protagonist will inevitably require help from other people, or just from external circumstances, to reach their final goal, and there is often no end to the altruistic good will of the world when the conclusion of a novel is approached. Lovers spring out of the woodwork to smooth the beloved’s path, intellectual solutions abound and are freely offered, businesses turn around, new adventures beckon, somehow, something comes good, and our hero or heroine experiences the exhilaration of being rescued from the situation that held them a miserable captive at the novel’s start. There are whole fictional genres devoted to the fantasy of rescue: romance novels rescue their female characters from anonymity and boredom, and often from more pending issues of homelessness, debt or depression. The detective story works to rescue the innocent from marauding evil. Even the science fiction novel rescues us from the limitations of reality as we know it. On both the personal and the general level, stories positively bulge with successful rescues. Which is probably why reading a novel like Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth is so very difficult; we’ve come to expect narrative to do its job of delivering salvation, and as Lily’s potential for being rescued dwindles, and the inexorable hands of tragic fate reach out for her, we feel somehow cheated. There’s a point of no return, where we know she’s going down, but we can’t quite believe it.


And yet, this is by far and away the most realistic of scenarios. Rescue is not very forthcoming in daily life, and if we are stupid enough to put ourselves in a situation where rescue by professionals is necessary, we are made fully aware of the economic cost of such an act, and exchange our freedom or safety for an equal amount of guilt. It’s a funny thing, but the cult of the individual that has dominated cultural life since the mid-nineteenth century, never ceases to encourage its people towards ever more regressive and childish pleasures, whilst steadily eroding the bonds of altruism and community that might be able to bear the consequences of indulging in them. That’s to say, we’re not taught to be responsible for ourselves, until something goes wrong. Banks are a classic example of this, with their endless attempts to lure people into debt, and their punitive, draconian manoeuvres with those who have taken them up on the offer. There are ever more dire straits we can get into, but ever fewer ways of extricating ourselves from them.


Sadly I have no jurisdiction with the greedy world of banking, but I can consider the laws of fiction, and wonder why, when it usually gets life so right on its pages, it should, in the instance of rescue, so readily embrace a fantasy. One possibility is that fiction has failed in its Darwinian directive to adapt; novels are challenged in evolutionary terms, lagging behind cultural change and appealing to practises and possibilities that are now out of date. That’s to suggest that in the old days rescue happened, and its absence in the modern world is simply a recent development that authors haven’t quite digested. Well, maybe, but generally fiction outdistances us, ever ready to hold up an unpleasant image in its mirror of the society we’ve created. The other possibility, and one that is harder to think about (requiring more mindbending to see it) is that rescue is simply what narrative does. What is a story but a way of making sense of life, which is intrinsically chaotic and absurd? Stories are theoretical blueprints, to which life is the messy, malfunctioning practice. They show us how things could be, if those things were disposed to be meaningful and significant. So stories rescue us in all kinds of ways – they show rescue in their plot convolutions, so that we may be optimistic about it, and they rescue the reader in that very act from the hopelessness of a world that doesn’t respond and correspond to our needs.


But there’s also a third possibility, which is that the fantasy of rescue has tremendous power over us, and its predominance in narrative is simply a recognition of its sway over our imaginations. It stands to reason, then, that the more vulnerable an individual feels, the more divorced from responsibility and control over his or her life, or from hope and comfort emanating from the external world, then the more powerful the effect of a fantasy of rescue. If our stories are so interested in telling us about rescues, then perhaps it’s fair to say that our culture really needs to look at the opportunities for control, responsibility or help that it provides for its citizens. A fascination with rescue may well be the sign of a culture that feels itself dragged every more steadily towards the brink of disaster.


12 thoughts on “The Rescue Fantasy

  1. You are so good at taking an ordinary life occurrence and relating it to literature. In the two books I have finished this year so far, there were scenes of rescue in both. In trying to think how the narratives would have been had the rescue not been a rescue–the scenes wouldn’t have been as successful. Maybe it just makes for a good story. I like your third possibility–I think it is stressful to be the adult sometimes–to have to be in control and responsible always. We are expected to be self sufficient, but aren’t there times when you wish you didn’t have to be? I have to admit there are many times I wish I didn’t have to be the one to take care of the bills say. It is a fantasy to have someone come and take me away from it. Maybe authors know that and play into those fantasies.

  2. I think the fantasy of rescue is deeply rooted in our religious culture. Just think about words like saviour, messiah, good Samaritan, salvager, guardian angel, etc. Messianic aspirations are always at their highest when a society hits the bottom (Moses during deportation in Egypt, Jesus during the Roman occupation of Palestine, Superheroes during the great depression). Maybe it is a good thing that our fantasies of rescue can be soothed by fiction, otherwise we’d be tempted to elect national-socialist saviours from time to time…

  3. I second Danielle! I’ve just finished Madame Bovary and was thinking, “But Emma wasn’t rescued!” Then, of course, I realised that by having her kill herself at the end, Flaubert was rescuing society and the morality with which she had toyed. I agree that a rescue – a resolution, a climax, a mystery solved – makes for a good story and is at the core of fiction. And life is indeed messier. I think we read for escape, for a rescue from the messy and unresolvable details of our lives.

  4. I’ll third Danielle and second mandarine. And Charlotte makes a good point about wanting escape from the messy details and sometimes unsovlable problems of life. If all novels were as depressing as House of Mirth I don’t think I’d be able to spend so much time reading.

  5. I’m with Danielle too. And I like the idea of Flaubert rescuing his contemporary readers from a shocking reality. I was once lectured by a slightly mad man on Madame Bovary (in Cambridge, in the days when lecturers said whatever they wanted, really, whether it related to what we were studying or not…) and he ended his lecture (which was also echoing Charlotte) with the proclamation that ‘Madame Bovary is ultimately a giant condom, and Flaubert was practising safe sex’. Sorry to lower the tone but you see what I mean.

    Rescue, which to me implies a (re)solution; in a sense the best writing throws us into the deep water but also tosses us a life belt, that we have to find a way of putting on.

  6. Danielle – we are all agreed with your excellent point. Adult responsibility is a heavy burden and to be released from it, even in fantasy, is a very pleasant thing. Mandarine- I hadn’t thought of that, but of course, you are quite right, which probably leads me on to Sylvia next, and her recognition that we hope for destiny to turn out to be the benevolent divine. I suppose as well that if a deity rewards us, that makes us worth rewarding. Charlotte – isn’t it interesting how something is always rescued in narrative, even if it’s not what we expect. I do think that your point about escapism is a strong one. And you’re right Stefanie – too much House of Mirth would make for a very mirthless reading experience! Kathryn, in another time and place you are going to have to tell me who was lecturing you on Flaubert! But I love your point about fiction drowning us and then saving us. We wouldn’t be able to tolerate it’s dangerous fantasies if we didn’t believe that rescue would come.

  7. Interesting that all the examples here are books critiquing society, rather than individual traits or psychology – that to me makes rescue potentially the author’s way of offering a solution or an alternative to the systems and rules depicted. Maybe it’s so common because there are only two ways to go: you can follow Wharton and leave everything irredeemable, or you can rescue your characters to suggest how things could change?

    And rescue may often not be part of reality, but I’d say it’s a near-universal fantasy, much like escape…

  8. I’ve just finished reading a book in which one member of a family of Polish Jews in the 1940s escapes to New York almost miraculously, with Houdini and other escapists and the Golem as his guide. And thereafter becomes trapped. The rest of his family fail to fully escape, his younger brother even goes down at sea, and the entire book becomes a long meditation on bondage and rescue. The yearning to be rescued is there on every page and the characters aren’t shy about where they look for it: any superhero will do. They might not be so hopeful if it hadn’t already happened for one in their midst, but that first early rescue is a model for their faith in possibility. Gimli might say our memory of the Garden is all the hope we need.

  9. I’ve just finished reading Ian McEwan’s novel, ‘Saturday’ in which the Perowne family are rescued from an attack by people with whom Henry Perowne has had an altercation after a car accident when they tail him home and force their way in with obviously nasty intentions. Yesterday morning, there was a item on the radio about gangs who have started to do precisely this. They deliberately architect a minor accident with drivers who are on their own and in areas where there are no other witnesses. They then either demand money on the spot or turn up later at the other driver’s home and threaten them with violence. Unfortunately, in real life rescue has not been as forthcoming and there have been some very nasty incidents. If, like me, you tend to do most of your driving on your own, be warned.

  10. Appropriate Monica – what very interesting distinctions you draw there. Fascinating thoughts I’ll be pondering for a while. David – what an extraordinary book that sounds! Have you ever read Adam Phillips’ Houdini’s Box? It’s a collection of psychoanalytically influenced essays about escape that are absolutely wonderful. Ann – how awful! It’s terrible the things that people think of to do. Thank you for the warning.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s