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A parable is a simply story that is used to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson. In terms of Jerzy Kosinski’s novel, Being There from a parable perspective says something about identity within the media-centered era while the film adaptation is more of a religious parable that, through allusion, likens Chance to the figure of Jesus Christ.
Identity is a slippery and fluid subject in itself that is almost always constantly in motion, either being expressed or changed. From an outsider’s perspective, Chance in the film is rather hollow because his reactions are observed rather than what goes on in his head. For example, when Chance is seen watching television in the beginning of the film, it’s an older man watching television and just being transfixed by it. The book explains his thoughts and how he believes he’s changing himself when he flips the channels. While neither good nor bad, this leaves the identity of Chance entirely up to perception in the movie. Both mediums show Chance as rather unintelligent since he can’t read or write, but this is where the division on his identity starts to take place. Though innocent, Chance’s identity in the film is rather awkward with long pauses and a clear dependence on television, and though this dependency is illustrated in both mediums, the film’s take on it that may lead to the impression that Chance is mentally challenged; however, the identity of Chance is more fluid in the novel. There are these same pauses, but he’s described as personable and there’s this unified perception that this must be true, therefore there shouldn’t be these silences or long-side glances, such as how in the movie the President is slow to talk with Rand because he keeps breaking off mid-sentence to look at ‘Chauncey.’ Another important point is the split between Chauncey and Chance. “He [Chance] wondered whether a person changed before or after appearing on the screen. Would he be changed forever or only during the time of his appearance? What part of himself would he leave behind when he finished the program? Would there we two Chances after the show: one Chance who watched TV and another who appeared on it?” (61). Chance doesn’t realize this split already took place when he started responding to Chauncey Gardiner, assuming that, “as on TV, he must use his new name from now on.” (31) back in the beginning when EE heard his name wrong. He, Chance, has assumed the role of the one who watches, while Chauncey is the other Chance that engages with the world around him—appearing on TV, in a sense, as Chance’s perception of reality was garnered from television programs and he sees the world through the lens of television, such as when he isn’t sure how to tell EE that he “preferred to look at her, that only by watching could he memorize her and take her and possess her….EE should have no more have wanted to be touched by him than should the TV screen have wanted it” (114).
Chance’s identity within the story orbits around media culture, with him as an empty shell. Neither can he neither read nor write or exhibit any personal growth. From the beginning to the end of the book, he remains a television based creation. For example, when at dinner for the first time with Mr. and Mrs. Rand, “In deciding how to behave, Chance chose the TV program of a young businessman who often dined with his boss and the boss’s daughter” (39), and there’s also the example of how he only looked the President straight in the eye when he shook his hand because he remembered that was how the President looked at others on TV. Chance’s world view, again, is based off TV programs, which is likely why he still has no idea about what sex is. In fact, when he watches a man masturbate, Chance mistakes him for being “certainly ill” (110). The novel hints that Chance could either have a case of erectile dysfunction or simply not be sexually attracted to others because he lacks the knowledge and, as a result, the craving for sex, as he notes that he feels nothing when EE or himself touches his organ. This enforces how Chance only knows intimacy from TV, but not sex because it, at this time, was not explicitly shown on television. To get back to the point—Chance is a two-dimensional person, a “Blank page” as his code-name in Soviet Russia implies, because he lacks these basic emotions and instead relies on TV to educate and solve his problems. Yet, the end of the book has O’Flaherty saying to his colleagues “’that this makes me think of Gardiner as an even better bet….A man’s past cripples him: his background turns into a swamp and invites scrutiny!…Gardiner has no background!….And, as far as his thinking goes, he appears to be one of us.’” (139). because Chance is like unmolded clay. While he was perceived as brilliant and witty before, and still is, those who don’t share in the near purity of Chance’s media-defined identity plan to use him to further their own ambitions. A key shift in the book at the end are the lines, “His own image was gone as well….Not a thought lifted itself from Chance’s brain. Peace fills his chest” (140). This implies that both sides of himself, Chauncey and Chance—the actor and viewer, are being overwritten. He doesn’t need to think anymore because he’s become a puppet and this brings him peace because he’s actually a fragile man that’s isolated in a situation he doesn’t understand, but now there are others who will tell him what to say or curb him towards their own goals. The ironic part is that the fragile and hollow Chance has been lucky enough to rise to the apex of national life mainly because that is who the American people want “being there.”
Chance’s “being there” builds onto the movie adaption by expanding the religious parable that likens Chance to Jesus. The role of the old man that took care of Chance for most of his life, then, is akin to the far-off figure of God. While important to the story of Jesus, God doesn’t take too active of a part in his journey, just as the old man doesn’t in Chance’s. In the words of Franklin, the lawyer who informs Chance he must leave his house, he tells Chance “’However, as far as your former existence in this house is concerned, there just isn’t any trace of you.’” (19). and this is mirrored when the President orders a background check on Chance and the Russian Ambassador Skrapinov also starts to try and dig up anything on him, but “’It’s almost as if he had never existed before.’” (124). which was also true of Jesus, but more in terms of Mary suddenly being impregnated without the loss of her virginity. Jesus just existed inside her womb after the angel Gabriel gave her the news. Like Jesus, who was a carpenter, Chance grew up under a different profession—gardening. However, due to circumstances, they leave their homes and start a journey. For Jesus, it was to spread the word of God, the Father, but Chance’s journey doesn’t come across as that in the movie. Instead of the Bible, the television itself is Chance’s Holy Gospel. Towards the end of the movie when he watched a man and a woman kissing, he enacts it with Eve (EE) and follows the same spinning going on in the scene and then stops when it’s over despite Eve wanting to do more. Chance follows the actions on the TV like commandments to perfection, dependent on it to function. However, just as Jesus had parables, so too does Chant. His parables would be botanical as he never stops making references to gardens and, him being a gardener, it comes across as universally engaging by using metaphors that inquire further discussion, but these metaphors also say something about the world. Ironically, while his parables would be nature orientated, his Bible would still be a television. This likeness is hailed by the media-dominated society that adores Chance. For example, one reporter says to him, “’Thank you, Mr. Gardiner, for what is probably the most honest admission to come from a public figure in recent years.’” (97). in regards to Chance stating that he doesn’t “read newspapers” while choosing not to include the fact that he can’t read. This love for his unique and refreshing views through the use of his botanical parables is comparable to how Jesus spread the word of God through stories and psalms. However, instead of walking to different villages and performing miracles, Chance is appearing on TV to spread the message. A powerful and thought provoking scene in the movie that supports Chance’s likeness to being a Christ figure is the last scene where he is shown to casually be walking across water. While the first instinct may be to argue that the body of water could just be shallow, the film leaves no doubt that Chance is actually walking on the water by demonstrating him dip his umbrella into the water from the tip to the handle, fully submerged. Chance then pulls it out and continues walking, to where is unknown.
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