Freedom & Entrapment In Storytelling

John Ritchie - Rogues in Bond 1873

In stories, characters change. The change may be tiny; it may be massive. Apart from the degree of change, there is another way of thinking about the nature of your main character’s arc: Do they end up more free at the end than they were at the beginning?

I am free and that is why I am lost.

Franz Kafka

We must live with the ambiguity of partial freedom, partial power, and partial knowledge. All important decisions must be made on the basis of insufficient data. Yet we are responsible for everything we do.

Sheldon Kopp

It was better to be in a jail where you could bang the walls than in a jail you could not see.”

Carson McCullers, The Member of the Wedding

What I have come to learn after many years of studying, thinking and writing about power and oppression is that there will always be factions of marginalized people who do not want collective liberation from the oppressive systems we live and die under.

Sherronda J. Brown, Refusing Compulsory Sexuality: A Black Asexual Lens on Our Sex-Obsessed Culture

If you don’t accept that bodily autonomy is an essential unconditional liberty, it’s a waste of time talking to you at all. No other liberties survive without that one, more fundamental than property rights: if you don’t own yourself absolutely, you own nothing.


PH.S.: Do you think that in your [short] stories you have room to develop a true character, do you think the characters of a short story have the same vital energy as the characters in a novel? Have they got the same requirements as far as the writer is concerned?

V.S.P.: [Short stories] have a very different requirement [from novel length works]. For instance, a full‑length portrait in a novel by Tolstoy of Prince Andrew may only appear in a novel. It is intricately examined. It is examined morally, socially, with a good deal of detail, because such writers are generally describing not simply individuals but a state of society in which they live. And doing so, how they evolve from this society, or escape from it.

V.S. Pritchett interview
The Symbolism of Flight in Literatu...
The Symbolism of Flight in Literature

Yuval Noah Harari writes in 21 Lessons For The 21st Century that all stories are basically about the victory of mind over matter. Howard Suber says something similar in his book on film: That every movie could be called ‘Trapped’.

Is it true that in every single story, a character is gets stuck somewhere?

Gaston and Josephine, trapped in a barn
Gaston and Josephine, trapped in a barn

Erich Fromm, in The Forgotten Language, explains that there is a ‘manifest’ and a ‘latent’ layer to most stories. This is the terminology Freud used when describing dreams.We might call them ‘literal’ and ‘symbolic’ layers, except Fromm’s terminology is better — in a story like Jonah and the Whale, the ‘literal’ layer has its own weird logic, so it feels a bit weird to call it ‘literal’. When Jonah can’t stand it inside the whale and starts praying to God for release, this is a plot point characteristic of neurosis.

An attitude is assumed as a defense against a danger, but then it grows far beyond its original defense function and becomes a neurotic symptom from which the person tries to be relieved. This Jonah’s escape into protective isolation ends in the terror of  being imprisoned, and he takes up his life at the point where he had tried to escape.

Erich Fromm

Home is not where you are born. Home is where all your attempts to escape, cease.

Naguib Mahfouz
Weird Tales v03n03 (1924-03) escape
Weird Tales v03n03 (1924-03) Houdini the escape artist

In Breaking Bad there is a character who Walter White pays to go to prison in his place. For this other guy, prison is its own kind of freedom — freedom from the worries of the outside world. Jimmy “In-‘N-Out” Kilkelly has become institutionalised, which means he understands prison laws better than he understands society’s laws. All characters desire freedom, including “In-‘N-Out” Kilkelly. Another example of someone who seems to crave imprisonment is the main character in King Rat, but again, that’s only because he has ironically found his own kind of freedom within the workable constraints of imprisonment.

While others talk about being ‘trapped’ and ‘victory of mind over matter,’ ‘victory of mind over matter’ is also a type of ‘freedom’. As noted above by others, Most stories move a character from entrapment to freedom. This is especially true of children’s stories.

However, not all stories have happy endings. In life as in fiction, not everyone ends up free.

Dugald Stewart Walker illustrator, Sara Teasdale (1884-1933) writer, 'Rainbow gold; poems old and new selected for boys and girls' 1922-6
Dugald Stewart Walker illustrator, Sara Teasdale (1884-1933) writer, ‘Rainbow gold; poems old and new selected for boys and girls’ 1922-6

There are two kinds of freedom: positive and negative liberty, or “freedom to” and “freedom from.”

Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex by Angela Chen

You’ll miss your freedom.

E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web

We in this room have no private properties. Perhaps one or two of us may own the homes we live in, or have a dollar or two set aside – but we own nothing that does not contribute directly toward keeping us alive. All that we own is our bodies. And we sell our bodies every day we live. We sell them when we go out in the morning to our jobs and when we labor all day. We are forced to sell at any price, at any time, for any purpose. We are forced to sell our bodies so that we can eat and live. And the price which is given us for this is only enough so that we will have the strength to labor longer for the profits of others. Today we are not put up on platforms and sold at the courthouse square. But we are forced to sell our strength, our time, our souls during almost every hour that we live. We have been freed from one kind of slavery only to be delivered into another. Is this freedom? Are we yet free men?”

Carson McCullers, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter


There are three main ways characters move between entrapment and freedom in stories, with complicated variations on these.

1. Entrapment to Further Entrapment to Freedom

Shawshank Redemption is a standout example of the Entrapment to Greater Entrapment to Freedom arc. Heartwarming stories will take a character along this particular journey.

2. Entrapment to Greater Entrapment to Death

The character never breaks free. They may descend into madness.

No law requires art to be “pleasing.” A story that raises expectations, then shows why they can neither be satisfied nor denied, can be as illuminating.

John Gardner, The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers
Baffling Mysteries cover art September 1952

The lyrics of “Flow” by Crooked Colours describe a certain psychological entrapment, often brought on by love:

“I took off from paradise
And I landed in the jungle…”

Hamlet is the standout example of this arc, and is therefore a tragedy. Yuval Noah Harari describes how The Lion King is a modern Hamlet:

The 1994 Disney epic The Lion King repackaged this ancient story for modern audiences, with the young [WEAKNESS] lion Simba standing in for Arjuna. When Simba wants to know the meaning of existence [DESIRE], his father — the lion king Mufasa — tells him about the great Circle of Life. Mufasa explains that the antelopes eat the grass, the lions eat the antelopes, and when the lions die their body decomposes and feeds the grass. This is how life continues from generation to generation, provided each animal plays its part in the drama. Everything is connected, and everyone depends on everyone else, so if even a blade of grass fails to fulfil its vocation, the entire Circle of Life might unravel. Simba’s vocation, says Mufasa, is to rule the lion kingdom after Mufasa’s death, and keep the other animals in order.

However, when Mufasa is prematurely murdered by his evil brother Scar, young Simba blames himself for the catastrophe, and racked with guilt [ENTRAPMENT] he leaves the lion kingdom, shuns his royal destiny, and wanders off into the wilderness. There he meets two other outcasts, a meerkat and a warthog, and together they spend a few carefree years off the beaten path. [MYTHIC JOURNEY] Their antisocial philosophy means that they answer every problem by chanting Hakuna matata — no worries.

But Simba cannot escape his dharma. As he matures, he becomes increasingly troubled [GREATER ENTRAPMENT], not knowing who he is and what he should do in life. At the climactic moment [BIG STRUGGLE] of the movie, the spirit of Mufasa [ALLY] reveals himself to Simba in a vision, and reminds Simba of the Circle of Life and of his royal identity. Simba also learns that in his absence, the evil Scar [OPPONENT] has assumed the throne and mismanaged the kingdom, which now suffers greatly from disharmony and famine. Simba finally understands who he is and what he should do [ANAGNORISIS]. He returns to the lion kingdom, kills his uncle, becomes king, and re-establishes harmony and prosperity. The movie ends with a proud Simba presenting his newly born heir to the assembled animals, ensuring the continuation of the great Circle of Life [NEW SITUATION].

So, in repackaging Hamlet for contemporary kids, Disney turned the story into a happy one, with the Freedom to go forth and keep building family at the end.

But apparently, this is how The Lion King almost ended.

Sometimes, however, death is meant to be a freedom in itself. “The Little Match Girl” broke my heart as a preschooler, but I didn’t live in an 1800s culture in which death is meant to be better than living a life of poverty. Andersen meant her hypothermic death as a happy ending because the little girl got to see her grandmother again in Heaven.

Even today, some cultures would consider death a type of freedom.

Mabel Lucie Attwell - Peter Pan
Mabel Lucie Attwell – Peter Pan

3. Entrapment to Temporary Freedom to Greater Entrapment or Death

If you want to create a heartbreaking drama, bloody hell, use this one.

The Wrestler fits in here.  I find this arc even more tragic than the arc of a tragedy like Hamlet, because we had a glimpse of how Randy’s life might have looked had he made different choices. He was so close to achieving a lasting relationship with Stephanie and with Pam. If only he hadn’t blown it. If only. This arc invokes the strong emotion of regret.

In the temporary freedom phase, there will very often be some flight symbolism to show the audience how great things could be.


…It would be a violation of progressive politics if you don’t pay your babysitter a living wage. I don’t think it is a violation of progressive politics if you as a woman are the one who makes your kids’ babysitting schedule. I think those are two different things.

Q: For me the question of sexual empowerment is a question of freedom versus happiness. It seems a goal of pro-sexual freedom is so that people can have a sex life of their own making, which is freedom. Then there’s a separate idea, which I don’t think either of you are embracing, but I feel like it’s unspoken in our culture, which is that if you do all of these things you’ll be happy. But I actually think your ability to do something is separate from your happiness doing it. Pro-sex feminism does not owe you good sex, just like marriage equality does not owe you a good marriage. Is it possible to divorce the two ideas from each other, that being able to do something is different from enjoying that thing? Is bad sex the price we pay for those choices?

A: I think you at any point in history could be in a relationship with a god-awful person. In fact it was much more likely that you would be in a relationship with a god-awful person fifty years ago when women had far fewer options and were far more stigmatised for being single. So let’s just clear that up. I don’t think that sex is getting worse. What I think is that there’s a bigger gap between our expectations for sex and relationships and the stubbornly bad sex and relationships that we’re still having. I think we have all this info, these resources, all this “empowerment”, and yet we’re still seeing some of the same patterns.

After Dobbs: What Is Feminist Sex?, The Argument, NYT, Wednesday 28 September 2022

If you listen to the theologian and philosopher St Augustine, real freedom doesn’t mean the right to do anything whatsoever. It means being given access to everything that is necessary for a flourishing life — and, it follows, being protected from many of the things that ruin life.

Alain de Botton, here

Scientific Evidence That You Probably Don’t Have Free Will from io9

What Does It Really Mean To Be Free and Equal? — A talk by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

John Everett Millais - Princess Elizabeth in Prison
John Everett Millais – Princess Elizabeth in Prison

A story about colonials or settlers captured by Amerindian or aboriginal tribes and live among them for some time before gaining freedom. These are often autobiographical. Example: A Narrative of the Captivity and Restauration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson. This late 17th century story is about how Mary was captured by Indians and had to live with the Wamanoag tribe. There are also fairytale examples, for instance the category of fairytales about wild bears who have a child with a woman. For more on that see my post on “Cortes Island” by Alice Munro and scroll down to the bottom, because Munro’s modern short story has a basis in North American fairytale.


Describes stories about desperate characters escaping from confinement. POW camps of the First and Second World Wars are common settings. These stories make use of the narrative techniques of suspense and psychological horror. Examples: The Tunnellers of Holzminden by H.G. Durnford, The Wooden Horse by Eric Williams. Any story about escape falls under the broad category of escape literature. Further examples: Stephen King’s novella “Rita Hayworth” by Stephen King, Shawshank Redemption, also by Stephen King, The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas, part one.


A story about a slave’s life. Commonly includes the capture, punishments, daily enslavement, and ends with the escape to freedom. Like literature of escape, it is commonly the story of one’s own life. Examples: Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Oroonoko by Aphra Behn, the work of Frederick Douglass.

I sometimes wonder whether the act of surrender is not one of the greatest of all – the highest. It is one of the [most] difficult of all… You see it’s so immensely complicated. It needs real humility and at the same time, an absolute belief in one’s own essential freedom. It is an act of faith. At the last moments, like all great acts, it is pure risk. This is true for me as a human being and as a writer. Dear Heaven, how hard it is to let go – to step into the blue. And yet one’s creative life depends on it and one desires to do nothing else.

Katherine Mansfield, Katherine Mansfield Letters And Journals: A Selection

Header painting: John Ritchie — Rogues in Bond 1873