Thanks to a bunch of gutless Electoral College electors on Dec. 19, the U.S. will soon have a new President who seems totally sure of himself despite being a vile, incompetent, sad excuse for a human being. So it’s sort of comforting to think of characters in literature who are vulnerable and not so confident despite being nice, smart, and capable.
I’ll name some of those characters and discuss the possible reasons why they’re not Trump-like egomaniacs. Many of the reasons have to do with the knocks they’ve taken in life, not necessarily a genetic tendency toward humility.
As you’ll see, I won’t include many protagonists who are straight white males — a “group” with a seemingly disproportionate percentage of “members” possessing too much conceit and vanity. After all, to be female, a person of color, and/or gay in a sexist/racist/homophobic society can do a number on one’s self-worth.
I thought of this topic last week after finishing the first of Sue Grafton’s “alphabet series” — the absorbing A Is for Alibi. We’re introduced to private investigator Kinsey Millhone — a decent, intelligent woman with an appealing sense of humor. Yet she often beats herself up mentally, even as her “go-getter-ness” and competence rarely falter. Why the self-doubt? Well, her parents died when she was very young, she is twice divorced despite being only in her 30s, and she’s just getting by financially (being tight on money hardly boosts self-esteem in our material world). Also, she’s a not-always-respected woman in a mostly male field — especially so in 1982, when the novel was first published.
Contrast that with Philip Marlowe, a male private investigator of the 1930s who does NOT have confidence issues — as I found when just reading Raymond Chandler’s compelling “hard-boiled” novel The Big Sleep. But the skilled, cynical, slang-slinging Marlowe has much more integrity than The Big Bleep: Donald Trump.
(The many people who recommended I read Sue Grafton and Raymond Chandler are thanked in the comments section.)
Other admirable protagonists lacking Trump’s off-putting boastfulness include Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre — who is average-looking, unloved as a child, and spends years in the awful Lowood school where some of the shivering and underfed students become sick enough to die. The smart/resilient Jane’s confidence is almost never totally shaken, but there are certainly moments of despair before she reaches the dramatic ups and downs of her adulthood.
Adolescence can be tough for even the happiest of characters, but Irie Jones of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and Molly Bolt of Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle face sexism and other serious stuff that partly undermines their sense of self-worth. The brainy, biracial Irie struggles with racism, her weight, and unpopularity at school, while the strong-willed Molly has a rocky relationship with her mother and is a discriminated-against lesbian during a more homophobic time (the novel was published in 1973).
A couple of white guys with confidence issues? One is Silas Marner, who is so buffeted by life (a “friend” frames him and takes his fiancee) that he becomes a recluse and a miser. Yet he has a good heart, which becomes especially obvious in the heartwarming second half of George Eliot’s novel. Another is Philip Carey, whose psyche is undermined by being an orphan, getting co-raised by an emotionally cold uncle, and having the disability of a club foot in W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage. So it’s not a total surprise when he becomes masochistically enamored with an unlikable woman who treats him badly. Yet, at the same time, the decent Philip works toward entering a helping profession (medicine) — which is certainly more than someone like Trump would ever do.
Your favorite characters who are nice, smart, and capable but vulnerable and not very confident?
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I’ve finished writing a book called Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Writers, which will probably be published during the first quarter of 2017. But I’m 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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.