Many people have mixed feelings about America’s late Republican senator John McCain, who died August 25. On the plus side, he displayed incredible bravery as a prisoner of war, occasionally bucked his party’s far-right orthodoxy, despised Donald Trump, etc. On the minus side, he supported U.S. military overreach, opposed the national holiday for civil-rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., backed 2017’s Republican tax legislation for the rich, and so on.
All of which can lead a literature lover to think about characters we have mixed feelings about. Any of those protagonists can be good, bad, and in-between — and their complexity often makes them more interesting than characters who are mostly admirable or mostly not admirable. But their complexity can also be interpreted as inconsistency, which might make reading about them as frustrating as it is interesting. Meanwhile, it’s impressive when an author can skillfully depict a character who’s both likable and unlikable.
One of literature’s most masterfully depicted good/not-good protagonists is Gwendolen Grandcourt (nee Harleth) of George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda. She is spoiled, selfish, and makes some bad choices, but she’s also smart, capable of emotional growth, and a decent human being at her core. It’s mesmerizing to read the charged interactions between Gwendolen and the admirable Daniel (both pictured atop this blog post, from a screen adaptation of the novel).
There’s also Mr. Stevens, the dignified/hardworking butler in Kazuo Ishiguro’s subtle novel The Remains of the Day. He’s stoic, but too stoic. He’s loyal, yet the loyalty is to his Nazi sympathizer/appeaser employer (Lord Darlington). And Stevens is reflective, yet doesn’t think things through enough at the right time to accept the possibility of a romance with a woman (the housekeeper Ms. Kenton) who’s clearly interested in him.
The title character of Toni Morrison’s Sula is adventurous and fiercely independent — especially impressive traits for a woman of her era and an African-American woman of her era (between the two world wars). But she also has a negative side, including betraying her best friend Nel by having an affair with Nel’s husband.
How about Chuck Mumpson of Alison Lurie’s Foreign Affairs? He’s crude and loud, smokes and drinks too much, and is clearly no intellectual. But he is curious and has a good heart, and the novel’s professor protagonist Virginia Miner develops a strong regard for him after they meet on a trip.
Then there’s Lisbeth Salander of Stieg Larsson’s riveting Millennium Trilogy (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, etc.). She’s angry, unfriendly, and has poor social skills. She’s also brilliant, brave, and loyal — and, given her history of being abused, one can totally understand why there are some negative aspects to her personality.
Last but not least, I’ll mention Severus Snape of J.K. Rowling’s wonderful Harry Potter novels. As many of you know, he comes off as unsympathetic and mean (especially to Harry) during much of the series. But as readers wonder whether he’s an ally of the evil Voldemort or a double agent, positives emerge as well.
I’ve obviously just scratched the surface here. Your favorite characters who you have mixed feelings about?
I won’t be posting a column next Sunday (September 9) because I’ll be in Florida again to deal with my late mother’s estate, but I’ll still reply to comments when I can. New column on September 16!
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 — which has a start-of-school theme and some thoughts about John McCain similar to those expressed in today’s blog post — is here.