This theme could include almost every work of fiction and many works of
nonfiction. Leland Jacobs defined story as “one or more characters on a quest”.
Exploring that concept with readers may show them another way of looking at and analyzing
books. It can also provide an outline for writing their own stories.
Finding the characters and defining their quests is usually the easy
part. In most stories the quest is stated somewhere early in the text. In some, however,
the quest is implied.
The character or characters on the quest are not always successful.
Sometimes they just plain fail, usually learning something on the way. Other times they
fail to achieve the original objective but get something else instead. Sometimes they
achieve their aim but are unaware of it. Other times they think they achieve their goal
but do not really do so. Sometimes more than one quest is going on at the same time by
various characters in the book. Occasionally the goal can only be achieved by one, and
others are thus thwarted in their quest. In other books and stories, disparate characters
join in a common search. Students can start categorizing familiar stories along those
In Tom Sawyer Aunt Polly’s quest is to raise Tom to be a
respected member of society. Tom’s quest is to outwit Aunt Polly, run free and explore
the world. Huck’s quest is to retain his freedom. These might be represented graphically
in this way:
The diagram shows that, if Tom gets his way. Aunt Polly can’t get
hers but Huck’s quest is independent of both of them. Since Tom Sawyer is
episodic, many chapters can be seen as individual quests. For instance, in “The Glorious
Whitewasher” their are several quests which can be defined and plotted in different
If we define Aunt Polly’s quest in this way, everybody is a winner.
If, on the other hand, we define Aunt Polly’s quest as “to punish Tom”, the result
and the diagram is different:
In this set up, Aunt Polly’s quest and Tom’s are at cross-purposes.
If she is successful, Tom is not and vice versa. Since Ben’s quest and Tom’s are
parallel, they can both be winners.
Carrying the quest analysis further, if a character in a story sets out on a quest and the
story simply tells how he or she did it, the story is apt to be boring. Most writers put
in barriers, abettors and interveners to make the plot less simplistic and more.
interesting. They can be identified in a diagram as well. In the diagram above, Aunt,
Polly is an intervener in Tom’s quest. Ben Rogers is an abettor. Usually, but not
always, abettors and interveners have their own quests which can be shown or ignored in a
Looking at a novel or short story in this way can be an aid to thinking about the
motivations of any and all characters within. Students may wish to show their stories
content graphically in terms of quest in a form similar to this:
Charting a story along these lines could provide a new means of
analysis. The same outline could serve as a way of setting up a story yet to be written.
If students first conceive of a character and delineate that character with some
descriptive phrase they can then imagine what that character could conceivably want. By
placing the character at the top of the page and the goal at the bottom, and deciding
whether not their character is going to be successful, they can then picture the story
about be written in terms of a quest. Deciding what obstacles the character will encounter
and what characters and events will help that character, the writer can work with them on
the page. The result could be a working outline for the story. Of course there can and
probably should be other characters with congruent or divergent quests so similar outlines
could be developed for them. Some young authors might find writing easier after using such
This graphic analysis is not the only means of contrasting and
comparing books about quests and journeys. The motivation behind the quest is worth
discovering and discussing: Is it selfish? high-minded? a search for things material or
otherwise? Are those undertaking the quests doing so willingly or under duress? Are the
abetting or intervening characters well-developed or cardboard characters there for a
single purpose? Is the plot realistic? idealistic? fantastic? And, what happens as a
result of the journey? Are people better off? Is the person on the quest better off?
Most fairy tales are quests of one sort or another. Snow White seeks
refuge from her stepmother and a way to achieve adulthood on her own. Rapunzel seeks a
rescuer from her cruel imprisonment. Jack seeks the treasures at the top of the beanstalk.
Cinderella wants to go to the ball. Her abettor is the fairy godmother; obstacles are the
lack of costume and conveyance and the actions other stepsister and stepmother. Encourage
students to make a similar quest analysis of different fairy and folk tales.
As with other themes, the setting up and use of a chart may make
the reading clearer and suggest opportunities for dialogue. The chart for quests may start
Students might, as a result of investigating the theme of quests in
literature, chose to think about their own quests: do they have a goal? do they have long
and short-term goals? what are they doing to achieve them?
Compiled by Erin Bouma