Characters We Might Not Hate Despite Disturbing Affiliations or Histories

A good novelist can make a character appealing even when that character is on the less-than-moral side of things — though it helps if there are extenuating circumstances.

That came to mind last week when reading Charles Frazier’s absorbing, melancholy novel Cold Mountain — which co-stars Confederate soldier Inman. He’s brave and likable, but fighting for the South in defense of the abhorrent institution of slavery clearly places him on the wrong side of history. (The actual Cold Mountain is pictured at the top of this blog post.)

Then there’s Ernst Graeber, a World War II soldier for the genocidal Nazis in Erich Maria Remarque’s A Time to Love and a Time to Die.

One thing helping to make those two men sympathetic is that they were basically forced to join the military — for geographic reasons (Inman is a southerner and Ernst is German) and for survival reasons (they probably would be shunned, jailed, or killed if they didn’t). Of course, they could try to flee — and a wounded Inman does desert in an effort to make his way back to Cold Mountain and the woman he loves, Ada Monroe. Also, Inman is not a raving racist and is clear-eyed about the evil plantation owners and other rich people he had gone to war for — as this passage during his long flight indicates:

“Inman looked at the lights in the big houses at night and knew he had been fighting battles for such men as lived in them, and it made him sick.”

Meanwhile, Ernst cares nothing about Nazi ideology and just wants to live a happy life. He falls in love with Elizabeth Cruse while on furlough, and the last thing he wants to do is return to the front. When Ernst is on his way back there, he tries to help a soldier captured by the Nazis and…

Then there are characters who are murderers or possible murderers. Raskolnikov of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment is certainly one of them, but somehow maintains some reader sympathy. Perhaps it’s because one of his victims was so unlikable, and/or because Raskolnikov has such an agonized outlook on life, and/or because he murdered as almost a philosophical experiment. Plus there’s some redemption ahead. Still, the two victims obviously weren’t happy about things.

Grace Marks is one of two people convicted of murder in Margaret Atwood’s historical novel Alias Grace, but it’s uncertain if she actually was an accomplice to the act. Readers develop some sympathy for her during and because of her long imprisonment.

In Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, protagonist Theo Decker takes home the hugely valuable painting of the novel’s title. But the theft is sort of understandable — it happens when a terrorist bomb hits New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art while a young Theo is there with his beloved mother, killing her and leaving Theo traumatized. Once he takes the painting, returning it seems out of the question.

Then there are characters who start off nasty but later become more mellow and nicer as the novels go on. For instance, L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables includes Anne’s adoptive mother Marilla Cuthbert, who’s initially cold and mean to the desperate-for-love orphan; and Rachel Lynde, the at-first nosy, judgmental, busybody neighbor.

Of course, many characters are clearly villains from start to finish, yet have enough charm and fascination for readers to kind of/sort of root for them — or at least not want them to fail for a while. One example is Count Fosco of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White.

Some characters you remember who fit this topic?

I unfortunately will again be skipping a blog post — next Sunday, June 24 — because I’m traveling to Florida to continue dealing with my late mother’s estate. As always, I’ll reply to comments when I can, and will return with a new piece on July 1!

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 The latest weekly piece — which discusses a creative solution for a too-small commencement setting — is here.

Strong Female Characters in 19th-Century Fiction

We look back on the 1800s as a time of rampant sexism, patriarchy, male dominance, gender inequality — whatever you want to call it. And it was indeed that sort of time. But a number of 19th-century female novelists, and a few male ones, managed to directly or indirect speak against that in some of their books.

I thought of this last week while reading Lelia by George Sand (born Amandine Lucile Aurore Dupin). In that fascinating 1833 novel, the independent, intellectual, skeptical, cynical, depressed, world-weary, God-doubting title character in some ways sounds like she could be living in 2018 — if the eloquent language used in Sand’s philosophical book were more casual and not densely rich like a lot of 19th-century prose was. Lelia is not always an easy book to read, but you’ll rarely see better writing than penned by Sand (whose image accompanies this blog post).

Anne Elliot of Jane Austen’s Persuasion (1818) is another strong heroine. The capable Anne is in love with Captain Frederick Wentworth, but lives a very useful life even as the relationship between her and Wentworth is thwarted for years.

The star of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847) has strong feminist leanings that come out in various ways — including her pride in being smart, her need to work, and her insistence that she be an equal in marriage.

Helen in Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) courageously leaves her abusive/alcoholic husband to save both her son and her own self-worth. It’s a novel so feminist that Anne’s not-quite-as-feminist sister Charlotte unfortunately helped prevent wider distribution of it after Anne’s death.

Of course, many of the 19th century’s male critics and readers slammed works that dared depict women as equal to men. Undoubtedly one of the reasons fewer women back then tried to write novels — and a number of those who did write them used male or gender-neutral aliases.

Another author with a George pseudonym, George Eliot (born Mary Ann Evans), created a number of strong women — including lay preacher Dinah Morris of Adam Bede (1859). And Eliot lamented the second-class citizenry of female characters in novels such as The Mill on the Floss (1860), in which Maggie Tulliver’s less-brainy brother is treated much better than her by their parents and society as a whole.

Jo March, who thirsts to be a writer, is another nonstereotypical 19th-century female — in Louisa May Alcott’s 1869 novel Little Women.

And Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899) depicts Edna Pontellier’s memorable rebellion against her constricted role as a wife and mother.

Can 1900 be considered the last year of the 19th century? If so, Colette’s Claudine at School belongs in this discussion with its assertive, mischievous, hilarious protagonist.

Some male novelists of the 1800s also created female protagonists who didn’t act like stereotypical women of their time. Examples include Jeanie Deans in Sir Walter Scott’s The Heart of Midlothian (1818), Judith Hutter of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer (1841), Becky Sharp of William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847), Hester Prynne of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850), Marian Halcombe of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (1859), the title character in Thomas Hardy’s The Hand of Ethelberta (1876), journalist Henrietta Stackpole in Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady (1881), and the martyred protagonist in Mark Twain’s historical novel Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1896).

Of course, there were also strong women in pre-1800s novels, with just two examples being the very different stars of Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1722) and Frances Burney’s Evelina (1778). Moll has a tougher exterior than Evelina, but the latter protagonist also has lots of inner strength.

Your favorite 19th-century novels with strong women?

In keeping with this post’s feminist theme, here’s a live performance of The Cranberries’ “Free to Decide.”

Because of a National Society of Newspaper Columnists conference I’ll be attending, I won’t be posting a book piece next Sunday, June 10. But I’ll respond to comments when I can. 🙂 Back with a new piece on June 17!

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 The latest weekly piece — which discusses a high-school amphitheater now too small for graduations — is here.