Narrative Form in The General

There are two primary sources of motivation in Buster Keaton's The General (1927): Johnny Gray's desire to recapture the affection of Annabelle and to physically recapture his locomotive, "The General" from the Yankee spies who stole her. In tracing Gray's attempts to satisfy these desires the plot manipulates the story information to cue spectator expectations, resulting in the production of curiosity, surprise, and suspense.

The plot may be divided into five major segments: exposition; the journey north; in the enemy camp; the journey south; the battle and its results. With the exception of the central segment (in the enemy camp) there is an almost symmetrical arrangement of events. In the north and south journeys events, such as the water tower, track obstructions, and sidetracked trains, occur in roughly the same physical location in the film, but in reversed order. The reversal cues the spectator to expect a repetition of some events on the return trip, and this repetition strengthens the relationship between the parts of the film.

Curiosity generally results from the plot presenting an effect but withholding the cause. During the exposition of a narrative curiosity can also be created by the plot presenting a situation with a number of possible outcomes. The exposition section of The General provides enough story information so that the spectator expects that Johnny will somehow end up in uniform and regain Annabelle's love, but there is no restriction on the means for him to achieve these goals. This lack of restriction allows the spectator to develop alternate expectations and curiosity results as to which path he will take.

Surprise results from the plot cueing one expectation and presenting a different result. In the opening scene, after the children have followed Johnny into Annabelle's parlor and are seated, watching the couple, Johnny stands and puts on his hat, cueing the spectator (and the children) that he is about to leave. When he opens the door an holds if for the children, nothing suggests that he will not follow. This expectation is denied when he closes the door after the last child, removes his hat, and sits back down.

Suspense is created by the plot cueing an expectation and then withholding story information to delay its confirmation. In the Northern camp Johnny has entered the headquarters in search of food. We expect that he will be discovered, although we hope that he will not be. There are several opportunities for discovery--he is in sight of soldiers with their backs turned; he barely has time to hide beneath the table when the officers come in to discuss plans; being burned by the cigar, and so forth. Each event cues the expectation of discovery, and each event delays the confirmation of that discovery, until he avoids discovery altogether, and escapes.

The narrative of The General uses the repetition of events with some variation to present a fairly closed structure. The major expectations that have been cued are all satisfied: Johnny gets "The General" back; is given the uniform he needs to win back Annabelle; and does win her back. The strong closure provided by the narrative leaves the spectator with no doubt that the story is over.

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