Can novels with emotionally repressed, even boring protagonists hold a reader’s interest? In many cases, most definitely yes.
To illustrate how, I’ll first talk about Evan Connell’s Mrs. Bridge, which I read this month. Its title character is not only emotionally repressed and boring but also conventional, conformist, proper, too conscious of manners, timid, obedient, afraid to offend, and often clueless. Her first name, India, is about the only thing distinctive about this white, cliche-spouting, country-club-member woman.
Yet the novel is gripping and fascinating. Why? Well, Mrs. Bridge is superbly written, in an understated way. It has numerous short chapters (some less than a page), which make things go quickly. And there’s lots of subtle satire from the author.
Also, despite India being all the yawn-inducing things listed in my second paragraph, there are other elements to her that draw our sympathy. She is nice, friendly, kind of smart, unhappy, and haunted (India has longings but can’t quite articulate them or do anything about them).
In addition, we understand that she’s of her time (the decades before World War II) and economic/family situation (upper middle class with a workaholic husband) — meaning she was expected to stay home, have no outside job, and employ a housekeeper. So Mrs. Bridge has almost nothing to do to break life’s tedium, especially when her three kids grow older.
Also making the novel interesting are those three kids, who quietly or not so quietly rebel against their humdrum upbringing. Plus India has a few friends and neighbors with a bit of an edge.
One more thing: Readers — who may know people like Mrs. Bridge, even in the 21st century — are curious what will happen to such a character. Connell’s novel doesn’t disappoint, offering closing chapters that seem just right and a last scene that’ll knock your socks off. (After which India’s housekeeper might feel obligated to wash them.)
Now I’ll name protagonists from other novels who are emotionally repressed for reasons that are Mrs. Bridge-like or because they’re the victim of racism or other bias, have a history of psychological or physical trauma, wrestle with a major regret, harbor a secret, or just possess a certain personality. In some cases, they’re emotionally repressed for the entire book; in other cases, they start out fine and then go downhill, or start out troubled and get better. And those characters range from very likable to very unlikable.
A few of the many fictional people with some or much emotional repression include Sethe and Denver of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Matthew and Marilla of L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, Dimmesdale of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Penderton of Carson McCullers’ Reflections in a Golden Eye, Claire of Henry James’ The American, Harry Haller of Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, Gauri of Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland, Maren of Anita Shreve’s The Weight of Water, Lisbeth Salander of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, etc.), the kid Ricky in John Grisham’s The Client, and the title characters of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, George Eliot’s Silas Marner, and Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome.
Who are some emotionally repressed characters you remember most?
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I’ve finished and am now rewriting/polishing a book called Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Writers, but am still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as “Dear Abby” and Ann Landers, and other notables such as Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at email@example.com to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.