Patchett’s fourth chapter of Bel Canto describes the hostages’ situation approximately two weeks into the ordeal. Characters begin to exhibit intensified signs of distress while longing to return to the daily routine that they had previously followed in their planned and structured lives. Here I’ll further detail examples of such behavior in an attempt to better understand not only the current mood of the hostages, but also to predict their future interactions.
The power of habit is first demonstrated as early in the novel as Chapter 2, where Fyodorov – a Russian who does not even speak the language of the terrorists – challenges them by giving in to the force of habit and smoking a cigarette. Shortly after lighting his cigarette, “General Benjamin snap[s] his fingers and one of the minions rush[es] forward to take Fyoforov’s cigarette away, but [he] only inhale[s].” “‘Just try,’ he [says] to the soldier in Russian.” In this scenario, the force of habit is so strong that a hostage is willing to die just to satisfy his urges with a smoke one last time. A key piece to remember here is that this happened in Chapter 2 – well before the terrorists lightened up and began letting the hostages casually relax amongst each other and freely dwell about the house. How could the hostage display such courage in a situation as backwards as this one?
According to author Elizabeth Wright of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, “the process of addiction involves an overwhelming motivation to seek out the addictive substance in spite of negative consequences, a loss of the ability to control intake of the substance, and the development of a negative mental and physical state when access to the substance is prohibited” . In other words, Fyodorov simply could not have let himself pass up a smoke – he needed to smoke, and there was no stopping him – not even when his own life was put in danger. Compulsive behaviors and satisfying urges triggers the brain’s “reward system” . “Neuroplasticity and changes in dopamine concentrations in these areas are… responsible for the behaviors associated with addiction.” It is this physical barrier that makes habits and addictions so difficult – and oftentimes impossible – to break.
The terrorists pull the hostages from their daily lives and in doing so also interrupt their daily routines and schedules. Although this doesn’t seem particularly harmful, it is in fact the reason for the accompanist’s death in Chapter 3; without his scheduled intake of insulin he is unable to live. Although the routines of the other characters might not be life-threatening, they certainly are prevalent enough to cause some discomfort when absent. In other words, falling out of rhythm away from older habit is certainly no “vacation,” as Roxanne Coss puts it. Other characters particularly in Chapter 4 begin to show ever-rising levels of stress as the hostage situation pulls into its second week. One possible significant contribution to this stress is falling out of practice of daily routine and habit.
Nansei’s Vice Presodent Tetsuya Kato plays Ruben’s borrowed Steinway piano after Roxanne Coss is determined to exercise her opera voice once again. As Kato begins to play he notices “how strange his fingers felt after two weeks of not playing, as if the skin he wore now was entirely new.” Although Kato is only slightly out of practice, he is still able to play without much trouble. And when he does play, he closes his eyes so that he can “imagine [he] is home, playing his own piano” while “his wife [is] asleep” and “his children, two unmarried sons [are] still living with them.” Kato earns a psychological reward similar to that which Fyodorov experiences in Chapter 2. And although her talent is not demonstrated in this chapter, Roxanne Coss will likely experience some degree of difficulty singing for at least the first few notes she hits.
According to author Leslie Kane of Breaking Bad Habits, “unlearning a habit that you’ve been practicing for 10 or 20 years demands effort and vigilance. Habits are behaviors you’ve repeated so often, you now do them on autopilot. They’ve become part of your comfortable routine, and they often help you alleviate stress” . The hostages now out of touch with their social lives and routines, in summary, are more than likely to experience some degree of stress and discomfort in this new environment. Local contractor Oscar Mendoza begins to believe the hostages will end up dead – he finds positive thinking increasingly difficult and begins to lose hope. This foreshadows how the hostages might behave in future chapters: increasing annoyance, loss of hope, and further separation from reality.
In conclusion, the characters in Patchett’s fourth chapter are behaving approximately as expected given they’ve been separated from the routine and habit of their normal lives. Characters begin to stress and lose hope while losing sight of returning to their outside lives; to return would solve the problem, though that solution at this point begins to seem unlikely from the hostages’ perspectives. These behaviors foreshadow a loss in hope as they remain separated from their families, jobs, and social lives.