Chapter 5: Motivation and Control

In chapter five of Bel Canto we catch a glimpse into the mental struggle plaguing Gen, the studious secretary and tenacious translator. This struggle revolves around the powerlessness Gen feels in regards to his life and his dwindling motivation to do the terrorists’ bidding. These issues are encapsulated best by Gen’s own words midway through this chapter – “It had occurred to him in his life that he had the soul of a machine and was only capable of motion when someone else turned the key.”

A research study by Thane Pittman titled “Informational Versus Controlling Verbal Rewards” demonstrated that the effects of surveillance proximity to the subject causes a decrease in motivation to do the assigned activity.[1] The proposed theory for this was that the subject begins to question if they were doing the activity for themselves or for the person looking over their shoulder. This study was conducted in a high surveillance environment, like the setting of the novel, so that fact alone could be one factor Gen is quickly losing motivation for his forced duties. Before the guards and schedules became lax there was no doubt that Gen was doing this for his survival but now that everything is so much more casual he is starting to question what he’s doing. The reason why Gen even did as he was told in the first place may be partially caused by the Hawthorne Effect which states that people change their behavior when they think they are being watched to which they eventually fall back to previous habits. [2]

At its core control is all about the exertion of external power to influence one’s decision making process. In the book “Personal Control in Action” on page 350 an experiment was described in which women would act as a teacher verbally guiding what they thought were middle school children through a maze. These children were actually responsive or unresponsive simulations that would either demonstrate “high power” meaning high social importance or “low power” as if acting like a victim. This experiment showed that individuals who believe to be lacking power would lash out more to high power children in an attempt to quell a perceived threat.[3]

In my personal view this power model could be likened to the Generals’ abuse of Gen as a secretary and Gen’s resulting “low power” feeling. In the previous experiment the loudness of the participants’ voices were the manifestation of power assertion while in the novel it is the power to force him to do arbitrary tasks. In the previous chapter even the child soldiers did that to some hostages, forcing them to crawl to the other side of the room simply to show their power.

Learned helplessness and the resignation that results is a huge component of Gen’s situation. In a study by Abramson, Seligman, and Teasdale titled “Learned Helplessness in Humans: Critique and Reformulation” the terms “universal helplessness” and “personal helplessness” are explored. Universal helplessness is when an individual is confronted by an unresponsive environment and resigns himself to the idea that whatever they are trying to accomplish is independent of all responses from themselves or from others. People experiencing this believe there is literally nothing anyone can do. Personal helplessness on the other hand is when a person has tried to solve a problem they are having but after repeated failure begins to believe that due to some personal limitation they are incapable of succeeding. [4]

From the previous research into helplessness I believe that Gen’s situation would be considered universal helplessness due to the fact that there has been no mention of him trying to break away from this cycle. One must atleast attempt a solution to fit the theory of personal helplessness but Gen has simply resigned himself that it is a fact of life that he is simply a tool to be used by others.To put it in the words of the study, Gen perceives a noncontingency, an improbability, between his lack of agency, individual will, and the actions he has taken thus far. As a result he created an attribution, a cause, like his inability to act without others in order to explain and rationalize why he has no social presence or social power.

In conclusion, Gen is a plot powerhouse and that strain has been increasing consistently since the very beginning of this novel. From translator roles to secretary duties he has come to the realization that his entire life has been guided by others. All it took was a pair of eyes watching him constantly for him to start doubting if what he was doing was for himself or for those terrorists. Those who have power, like the Generals, also have control and they everything in their power to maintain that control, especially by keeping people like Gen down. At this point Gen is feeling totally helpless, unable to even try to help himself. As the story continues it will be intriguing to see how Gen copes with his fraying mental state.

– Michael Pedersen






One thought on “Chapter 5: Motivation and Control

  1. slaudeman says:

    I think that your path of research is very interesting. You talk a lot about Gen, who I agree is an important character, but I also have to wonder about the stress and demand on the children. Gen becomes an item, almost, in high demand and not feeling capable of refusing to assist anyone. But with those stressors, how would the children react? If we see the adults fraying, how are the younger ones affected by the stress, fear, and chaos? Gen has become a “tool,” as you put it, and he lacks the desire or motivation to break free of his stress. Are the children not in similar situations? I think that it could be interesting to extend your research into the ways in which children react to terrorism. Perhaps there are different ways in which they are affected when children are directly involved with terrorism plots than there are when they have suffered through an attack, and perhaps yet another situation when they are indirectly affected by terrorism?
    Also, while thinking about Gen as a tool, it makes me wonder if Carmen may be able to break him from his misery by giving him motivation to get out of the situation, or even by offering him something to do that he enjoys by asking him to help her learn. I think that the dynamic between the two could become a key focus in Gen’s own plot line and character development. Something else that could be interested to research is the effect terrorism or stressors have on developing interpersonal relationships.

    -Sara Laudeman


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