U.S. Senator John McCain occasionally talks humanely and “maverick-y.” But the Arizona Republican, until July 28, almost always voted with far-right members of his party — including worst-human-being-on-the-planet Donald Trump. So the words of war hero McCain (who bravely refused release from a Vietnam prison when fellow POWs without influential fathers didn’t get the same offer) are usually worthless.
Well, maybe not totally worthless — when it comes to spurring blog ideas. I began writing this post after the brain-cancer-stricken McCain returned to Washington, DC, on July 25 to mouth platitudes about bipartisanship while capitulating to Republican pressure to allow the Senate to discuss repealing Obamacare and replace it with some awful Trumpcare version that would kick millions off health insurance — of which McCain enjoys a fancy government version.
My blog idea? Literature’s cowards — some of whom redeem themselves and some of whom don’t. From McCain’s political track record, I thought he’d remain in the non-redeem group, but he thrillingly voted July 28 to save Obamacare (for the time being).
Actually, Trumpcare-resisting American citizens (MANY of them women), Democratic senators (some of them women), and Republican senators Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine deserve even more of the credit for saving Obamacare (which is not as good as single payer, yet infinitely better than what the GOP tried to replace it with). But McCain received more kudos and media attention — as is often the case with men. 😦
Anyway, back to cowardice in literature. Perhaps the most famous example is Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, in which a scared soldier deserts his regiment but later has an opportunity to act differently. Also well known is Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim, about a sailor who abandons a sinking ship and then wrestles with his guilt for a long time.
Then there are the many villains in Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels who act ultra-tough until Jack turns the tables on them. A few take their punishment courageously, but many become weak-kneed wimps when getting a taste of their own medicine.
In Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, the men who framed the innocent Edmond Dantes also become quite fearful when revenge is about to be exacted.
In some versions of the Robin Hood tales, the villainous Sheriff of Nottingham is a coward, too.
Celebrity professor Gilderoy Lockhart of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets built a reputation as a hero, but was actually a gutless guy who had other people do “his” brave acts and then wiped their memories. In J.K. Rowling’s book, Harry and Hermione and Ron show a lot more courage than Lockhart despite being 12-year-old kids.
Of course, a fictional character can also act cowardly in situations other than being in potential physical danger. For instance, the wealthy Godfrey Cass of George Eliot’s Silas Marner is too chicken for years to acknowledge that the “lower-born” Molly Farren is his secret wife and that Eppie (who will do so much to turn around Marner’s life) is his biological daughter. But Cass does have some moments of acting decently.
Arthur Dimmesdale of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is a sympathetic character in certain ways yet shows no spine when keeping secret the affair he had with Hester Prynne, who bears the brunt of becoming an outcast in her narrow-minded community.
Newland Archer of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence could be considered cowardly (or maybe just loyal) when he reluctantly goes through with marriage to the bland May Welland rather than trying to make a life with the unconventional Countess Ellen Olenska — the woman with whom Newland is intrigued and enamored.
Oh, and then there’s the Cowardly Lion in L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
Who are some of the cowardly or part-cowardly characters you’ve found most memorable?
My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.
In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece, featuring fake histories of street names, is here.