“Get to true identity” is not always happy

Last week we explored the story concept of

Get to true identity.

The examples we cited-Huck Finn, Bogey in Casablanca, Thelma and Louise-all got to be who they really were by the climax of their stories. And their endings (and I count Thelma and Louise’s in this category) were happy.

But true identity doesn’t always equate to riding off into the sunset. Ask Oedipus. Ask Shane. Ask Jake Gittes.

Jack Nicholson as Jake Gittes in “Chinatown”

These latter tales are tragedies. To me, that makes them a loftier form of fiction, even a transcendent one. But they are definitely not fun finishes.

When Oedipus, king of Thebes, gets to his true identity, i.e. the fate-doomed stranger who has killed his father and married his mother (and thus is the source of the god-spawned pestilence that is destroying his beloved city), his world collapses. In agony, he plunges stakes into his eyes.

When Shane gets to his true identity-a gunfighter who can never turn the page to become a normal person and live a regular life-he is forced by his own sense of honor to “ride on,” leaving behind not just the people he has come to love but his last chance at happiness.

And our private detective J.J. Gittes? The best anyone can tell him at the tragic end of his tale is, “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” 

The Greeks had a word for it.


The moment when a character in a drama realizes their true identity. In Greek tragedy, this moment coincided with the peripeteia, the “reversal of fortune.”

At this moment in the drama, we in the audience realize that the true engine of the story is not Oedipus or Shane or Jake.

The real hero is the gods.



The unseen, unknowable forces at work in all aspects of human endeavor. 

This, however, does not negate the principle of 

Get to true identity.

It simply adds another, deeper dimension to it.

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift,

nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches

to the intelligent, nor yet favor to men of knowledge;

but time and chance happeneth to them all.

“Get to true identity” is not always happy.

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  1. Joe Jansen on September 2, 2020 at 5:51 am

    “…but time and chance happeneth to them all.” Thanks, Ecclesiastes.

    Makes me think of a favorite line from Marcus Aurelius: “Alexander the Great and his mule driver both died and the same thing happened to both.”

    I’m often more moved by the story where fortune turns south for the hero. Ned Stark gets his head lopped off. Llewelyn Moss gets shot up in a seedy motel room.

    Brian dives into the ocean to save his teenage daughter, whom he does save… but at the cost of his own life.

    I like today’s post for what it reminds us about one function of story. To entertain us? Sure. To suggests scripts that might be running (or which we might choose to run) in our own lives? I think so. To remind us that sometimes, love does not conquer all, we don’t get the girl, or we miss that last-second shot at the buzzer. It’s part of the deal.

    Best exchange in Chinatown:

    “Mulvahill! What are you doing here?”

    “They shut my water off. What’s it to ya?’

    “How’d you find out about it? You don’t drink it. You don’t take a bath in it. I know. They wrote you a letter. But then you’d have to be able to read.”

  2. Michael Greco on September 2, 2020 at 8:32 am

    Terrific blog, thanks Steven! I love that trifecta: Oedipus; Shane; Jake Gittes from Chinatown.

    [SPOILER … from 1973]
    The year before [Chinatown] was release of another film Robert Towne wrote, ‘The Last Detail.’ Jack Nicholson and army cohort shipping a young cadet Randy Quaid to the brig to serve a 6-years court-martial sentence imposed for crime of stealing $40.00. Along the way they show him how to live. [Re-]Invigorated, he flag-signals that he is going to escape, and, to your point: they have to wrangle him and deliver him to the brig per orders.

    All my scripts should end with so much pathos! Cheers, Mick

  3. Andrew+Lubin on September 2, 2020 at 9:11 am

    Not everyone gets a happy ending? Life can be a bitch? Oh my; who knew?

    Yes, bad things happen to good people, but instead of bitching and moaning, perhaps being true to your identity is getting up off the deck and trying again. And yet again. It’s not fun, and it’s certainly not easy, but what better way to be remembered by family and close friends.

  4. David Shiang on September 2, 2020 at 9:18 am

    There are different endings to the story of Oedipus. In at least one version, he did not blind himself, and he continued to rule. Sophocles took existing material and fashioned it into the tragedy that we know today.

  5. Jonathan Chiswell Jones on September 2, 2020 at 9:34 am

    I like the Marcus Aurelius quote which I haven’t heard before. It is after all the one inescapable fact of life that we not going to get out of this place alive. How does that knowledge, and I don’t mean ‘piece of information’, change our life? Wherever we go, we shall be travelling light, and if we are going nowhere, where does that shadow fall?

  6. Brad Graft on September 2, 2020 at 10:00 am

    I recall a couple of lines in Janet Burroway’s “A Guide To Narrative Craft” that seem to be on point. She says (paraphrased), in regard to the climax / Act 3: “Keep in mind what your hero loses by gaining (or achieving his/her end-of-story goal). Or conversely, what your hero gains by losing (not achieving his/her end-of-story goal).

    As Steve notes with Shane (agreed, best Western ever). Shane achieves his end-of-story goal in winning the gunfight at the climax (and “gains” his “true identity” as gunfighter), but he: “can never turn the page to become a normal person and live a regular life-he is forced by his own sense of honor to ‘ride on,’ leaving behind not just the people he has come to love but his last chance at happiness.” This is what he loses.

    As Joe notes above. This: “remind(s) us that sometimes, love does not conquer all, we don’t get the girl, or we miss that last-second shot at the buzzer. It’s part of the deal.”

    • Joe on September 2, 2020 at 11:08 am

      Brad, I like the gain-by-losing // lose-by-gaining perspective.

      You know what scene I’m thinking of? In Gates, Ch 17, when Arete saves the life of Rooster’s infant son by getting Dienekes to claim the child as his own. Sacrificing her own honor and her husband’s honor to save a child.

      The elder Medon speaks: “Let’s have a look at this little bundle.”

      “The elder nodded, approving. He caressed the babe’s crown once in tender benediction, then turned back with satisfaction toward the lady Arete and her husband.”

      “‘You have a son now, Dienekes,’ he said. ‘Now you may be chosen.'”

      “My master regarded the elder quizzically, uncertain of his meaning.”

      “‘For the Three Hundred,’ Medon said. ‘For Thermopylae.'”

      Can you imagine how Arete must have felt? Either: “She’s a Spartan woman and she knew well the trade she was making.” Or, “My god! What have I done?”

  7. George Carpenter on September 2, 2020 at 10:24 am

    I think this is an interesting idea. And I think that it is extremely important to remember that ultimately our fates are up to God. That being said, I do not think that the journey to true identity is a journey that has to lead to tragedy and that there can be a beauty in losing a previously cherished mask that was hiding the truth for you.

    The only challenge I see here is that I think it is up to us as artists and humans to find the beautiful meaning in even the darkest of circumstances. If we sense a tragic ending or even come to a tragic ending ourselves it can be tempting for a Resistance mindset to set in saying, “I am doomed anyways. It is my fate no matter what I do. It all means nothing. I never should have tried. Etc. Etc.”

    Fate may be extremely hard to digest but nihilism is not the outcome or meaning of reaching true identity.

    I rarely comment on here and I feel like I am just grasping at an idea and it is meant to be shared respectfully. Hope this makes sense.

    • Joe on September 2, 2020 at 11:30 am

      Those are thoughtful comments, George. I agree that it’s for us to find meaning in the darkest of circumstances. I’m not sure if ‘beautiful’ always applies, but the *meaning* part is more enduring. I’m thinking to two Holocaust survivors and the meaning they found in the aftermath of their experiences.

      Viktor Frankl, of course, with his classic book, “Man’s Search for Meaning.” An often quoted line of his goes something like, “What will give light must endure burning.”

      Another, Eva Moses Kor (who died last year) and her twin sister Miriam were 10 years old when they were shipped to Auschwitz and were subject to the “twins experiments” conducted by Josef Mengele. I saw her speak in 2016, and took notes while she described how she had decided to forgive him. Not for him, but for herself. She said:

      “So I forgave him. And it felt like I had gained power over the angel of death. I realized that if I could forgive him, I could forgive everyone. If it doesn’t work, I thought, you can always take your pain back.”

      It still brings a tear to my eye, reading it. If SHE could forgive what was done to her, who am I to cling to petty grievances and slights?

      I don’t know. I suppose there is a form of beauty in what she made out of her circumstances toward the end of her life. It’s certainly full of meaning.

      Keep commenting. Your thoughts totally make sense.

  8. Brad Graft on September 2, 2020 at 11:33 am

    Joe– Per his episode three video, Steve may have needed some prodding from his two editors to get the “these are the last tears of mine” Spartan woman scene… But he nailed that strong, Chpt 17 Arete scene all on his own!! SF

  9. Margret Dugan on September 2, 2020 at 12:02 pm

    Not always happy, but gives the reader that moment of, “What if this happened to me?”

  10. Wilza Neves Silva on September 3, 2020 at 6:44 am

    Concordo plenamente com seu texto, me reconheci nele. Mas parafraseando Ariano Suassuna sou uma “realista esperançosa” então, se entrei pelo cano na vida, minha única chance é sair do outro lado, e assim sigo! Quando se passa por alguns infortúnios na vida, isso não necessariamente é de todo ruim, fica o aprendizado, a precaução, e dependendo da higidez psíquica do indivíduo é possível sublimar. A felicidade plena não é possível, mas tudo bem, conseguimos conviver com isso, para mim o mais importante é ter consciência disso. Olha, eu o conheci por vídeo recentemente, e estou encantada, virei fã! Mas aqui no Brasil é muito difícil encontrar seus livros, raridade e nem todos foram traduzidos para a língua portuguesa, e eu com meu inglês tupiniquim ainda não me atrevo a ler tudo in english porque perderia muita coisa de conteúdo. Um abraço de sua mais nova admiradora! Wilza Neves.

  11. susu on September 24, 2020 at 12:27 am

    The article is easy to understand, detailed and meticulous! I had a lot of harvest after seeing this post from you! I found it interesting, your article gave me a new perspective! I have read many other articles on the same topic, but yours convinced me! fireboy and watergirl

  12. Henry Jacksone on August 24, 2022 at 7:05 am

    I am a person who is always looking for self-improvement, improving myself, and trying to make myself better. This is the same idea behind “get to true identity”. We all want to improve our lives and become better people in general. It’s not just about being happy; we also want to make sure that we are living our best lives possible. I will have to visit https://www.careersbooster.com/ website now so that I could complete my work timely. The problem with this concept is that there are some people who think that they should be happy all the time, even though they know they don’t deserve it.

  13. Henry Jackson on December 27, 2022 at 5:54 am

    I need to read resumewriters review now.

  14. Jammy Aceie on February 24, 2023 at 2:03 am
  15. Hello Neighbor on May 6, 2024 at 7:43 pm

    You can relax with some fun games

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