Germane to McCain: Fictional Characters We Have Mixed Feelings About

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.

70 thoughts on “Germane to McCain: Fictional Characters We Have Mixed Feelings About

  1. Hi Dave, I wanted to say I feel for you with dealing with your mother’s estate. I had a relatively tough time with my mother’s estate, but fortunately it was just 10 or so miles away, and my father’s best friend had set it all up for me with his attorneys.

    On another somewhat related note, and it has nothing to do with a novel, I was just roaming through YouTube, and I came across the finale of the Broadway show of “Blood Brothers,” that I saw with a friend some years ago, but it was the saddest play I ever saw on Broadway. I still remember to this day how sad and teary-eyed I was at the ending. The main characters portrayed in this show were the Cassidy brothers, and Petula Clark as their mother. If there was one show I’d want to see again, it would be this one, over Les Miz, The Phantom of the Opera, etc. or many others, and I’ve seen a bunch of them!

    Do plays count under this column! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, that was a dumb question, as I know you’ve entertained so many different types of the arts, of which I’m one, one of the reasons I love this blog so much. So forget I even asked that! 🙂 You’ve listened to me and many others about non-fiction, including memoirs, poetry, music, artwork, and even politics, so thank you again for your patience, even we don’t stick with the novels. This to me is how we stay so connected, thank you once again!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Kat Lib! As you’ve experienced, dealing with an estate is unfortunately no fun — and, while my late mother’s is small, it has had its complications, too. And, yes, it helps when the deceased parent lived nearby. I’m currently at the airport waiting for a flight to Florida; my fourth trip since the spring. So sick of Newark Airport (West Palm Beach Airport — my destination — is much smaller and nicer!).

      “Blood Brothers” does sound like a memorably sad experience! With plenty of celebrity star power, too. Plays definitely count in any of my columns. As you know, they’re literature! (Well, some of them, anyway. 🙂 )

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      • Oops, Kat Lib — didn’t see your other comment until I posted a reply to the first comment.

        I definitely emphasize novels, but, as you noted, discussion of almost any written work and almost any other topic is welcome — including the many categories you mentioned!

        Thank you for the kind words about the blog. 🙂

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        • Dave, don’t worry about responding to this, as I’m sure you have a lot more important things to worry about, but this has been on my mind all day. I went back to YouTube today and was rewarded by coming across clips from the “Blood Brothers” Broadway show that I saw in NYC, starring Petula Clark, as well as real-life brothers David and Shaun Cassidy. I think that made it even more poignant because they played true blood brothers, twins who were born, became the best of friends, loved the same woman, and died the same day, all while not knowing they were even related. The difference of course had to do with money; one was born into poverty with many siblings, and the other was at birth taken as an only child into wealth and privilege. OK, I think I’ve now got that worked out in my head. Thank you!

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          • No problem for me to respond, Kat Lib! I was at my late mother’s condo cleaning the place out this morning and all afternoon, but am now back at the hotel.

            It’s nice that YouTube has almost everything. 🙂 And the rich-poor dynamic you described so well is definitely a fraught and not infrequent theme. Mark Twain, among other writers, explored it at least twice — in “The Prince and the Pauper” and “Pudd’nhead Wilson.”

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  2. My candidate for the week is no work of literature, but of institutionalized prejudice, dressed in bronze: Silent Sam, the Confederate rifleman who stood in Chapel Hill NC for many decades, until the recent pull-down. As a little rebel, he was an object of much youthful idolatry, so much so that I was wont to clamber up on his pediment despite my grandmother’s warning. As a little rebel, who listens to grandmothers? As a little rebel, aged 4, I was reminded of the punishment that awaits the disobedient, so I elected to jump down from that high perch, my left palm landing hard on a shard of green glass– from a bottle thrown, perhaps, by a passing Yankee? My love of the Silent Sam proved costly, and left a crescent-shaped scar, though now it’s a faint one, to this day. There’s some symbolism in there someplace, but I’m not going to be the one to point it out.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Those are memorable Silent Sam recollections, jhNY. Heck, we’re all a product of our upbringings, and kids are not necessarily aware of all the baggage attached to certain statues and other symbols. (A tough injury you suffered. 😦 )

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      • My identification with Silent Sam wounded me, but I healed, more or less.

        I was aware of my heritage, but it took a while to detach– which began after I had trouble reconciling the supposedly glorious past with the grievances and privations of living Black people. There were many incongruities with which I had need to wrestle, and many prejudices surrounding me in the South in the 1950’s. The hardest ones to work through, such as I have, were internal, though received.

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        • I hear you, jhNY. It does take a while to detach (in the cases where people do detach). I didn’t have anywhere near as far to go as you did, but I grew up with basically centrist Democratic parents who expressed plenty of subtle and not-so-subtle racism, and managed to morph into a non-racist, left-leaning liberal with very mixed feelings about the mainstream wing of the Dems — though that wing is of course better than today’s Republican crazies.

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          • My parents were liberals and supported the civil rights movement– but I had relatives and was surrounded by a great many folks in NC and TN who were not, and did not. Somehow, it was possible, then, to have some deep regard for the Lost Cause and its adherents, and to harbor sympathies for the institutionally suppressed — low-grade ancestor worship coupled with a bit of a conscience for contemporaries of color.

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            • Thanks, jhNY! I’m in the middle of a grueling day clearing out my late mother’s condo in Florida; thought I’d take a break to reply to your comment. 🙂

              Sounds like you had some influences from both sides of the ideological divide. Made for an interesting childhood, I’m sure.

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              • I’ve helped others do this sort of clear-out once or twice, and it’s tough, even for folks like me, who were not attached to the absent party. Glad I gave you a reason for a break!

                My family’s place is post-Papa now, and after decades of living with a packrat collector, my mother finally has a bit of space, which I think she cherishes. I was not much help, being mostly here while she was there, except in the earliest stages, during which I sorted through much paper and periodicals and coupons and special offers and on and on, leaving most on the curb—- quite the pile! But that left tons of other stuff to be sorted– our lucky break was the university buying the rest of his papers and library. Two weeks of sifting by a team of experts, and much extraction later, the place looked a bit barren, but we could at last and at least see the walls!

                Hope you manage to finish up and are free of more labors in the Sunshine State once this latest sojourn is behind you!

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                • Thank you, jhNY! Now at Palm Beach International Airport, waiting to fly back. Will need one more Florida trip (hope it’s not two) to finish the clear-out and get the modest condo on the market.

                  Sounds like quite a process with your father’s stuff. The university’s interest was indeed a lucky break (and flattering!), and great that your mother is enjoying having more space. My mother was also a packrat — I’ve found canceled checks dating back to the 1950s, ancient bank statements, etc., etc. But some interesting stuff, too — including WWII-era memorabilia.

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                  • It’s something to ponder– just what people keep, which, of course, depends on exactly the people…

                    Though in my father’s case, he saved everything, mostly in bags and folders by the endless dozen: magazines, subscription notices, surveys, catalogues, brochures, newsletters, quarterly reports, stickers, letters from charities, instruction manuals for long-gone gadgets, printed emails, postcards, letters from colleagues, letters from politicians running for whatever, nationally and locally, food labels even, if he wanted remember something he’d enjoyed and intended to buy again, battery blister packs sans batteries, etc., etc, ad infinitum– and this last word is nearly literal.

                    To say nothing of the legions of exotic cans and tins of spices from all the wide world over– though mostly from India and the Middle East. He had amassed quite the collection in the kitchen too.

                    I think a lot of this sort of pack-ratting grew out of fear of running out of anything and everything, and in my father’s case, this probably began in his 1930’s NYC childhood, which was not for him so hard as it was for so many others, but he saw plenty, even if he had enough himself.

                    Of course, I am grateful, sincerely, that his saving compulsion, applied to documents and books, maps, handbills, has done much to save me: the little extra money I’ve grown accustomed to since his passing came to me directly because of his pack-ratting ways, as exercised in his professional life.

                    Liked by 1 person

                    • Definitely interesting what people keep — in some cases virtually everything. Your father sounds like he was in the Packrat Hall of Fame! Living through The Great Depression could certainly have influenced that, as you noted. Glad his saving so much stuff (the professional life part of that stuff) had some benefits for you.

                      I used to be more of a packrat, but moving from a house to an apartment four years ago changed that somewhat. 🙂

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  3. Snape!!! He was the first character that came to mind for me. I remember when reading the Harry Potter novels I really hated him at first. Then, I started getting the feeling that there was more going on there. I was very glad to be rewarded in my hope that there was some good in there after all! Another character I feel the need to bring up, maybe for sentimental reasons, is the main character from my favorite chapter book as a child. It was called “There’s a Boy in the Girls Bathroom” (it’s not as creepy as it sounds I promise!) and the boy was named Bradly. He seemed like a total brat at first, a bully, and a punk. Then, the more you read, the more you realized he was just very troubled and sad, socially challenged, and didn’t know how to fit in. Feelings about Bradly are transformed and you find yourself rooting him on as he deals with his troubles through counseling and awkward new friendships, as well as hiding from bullies in the girls bathroom (hence the name haha).

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    • Thank you, M.B.! Snape is an amazing character, and J.K. Rowling did an incredible job depicting that complicated wizard. One of the highlights of the “Harry Potter” series was indeed watching Snape and his back story develop.

      And that chapter book you describe sounds very memorable. Excellent summary by you!

      Liked by 1 person

      • How clever is JK Rowling?! I love that Snape changes so much through the books, but even more than that, I love how different other characters look through Snape’s eyes as we get to know him better and better. In particular Snape doesn’t seem to think that Harry’s dad was quite as perfect as a lot of other people would have you believe!

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  4. Dave , I did watch so much of McCain’s memorial services. As I understand it was carefully planned by McCain himself. President Obama’s eulogie brought tears to my eyes.
    But the most passionate moment was McCain’s daughter Meghan’s.. who just lost her beloved father. Her pointant rebuke for trump was heartfelt.
    Trump was no invited but shameless Jarvanka showed up.
    But what ivanka did ?
    During Lieberman’s instead of pretending to listen she was tweeting.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, bebe! While I have mixed feelings about McCain, there were definitely some very nice moments during the tributes to him. And the criticism of Trump (though not by name) from Meghan McCain and others was welcome. And, yes, Ivanka and her criminal husband Jared should have had the decency to stay away. But they are of course not decent people. I did see that image of Ivanka tweeting. So disrespectful. 😦

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      • jack in the other place wrote to me ” …how in his time in Congress his policy and ideology hurt women, minorities and kept universal healthcare away from the American people? ”
        I also did not pay attention of McCain failed to recognize MLK day. So long ago we were in KS . On man ( supposedly closeted, hunky good looking man, ladies were falling for him) my workmate, told me that he would not recognize that, would come to work and take another day off).
        I also did not know about his previous marriage so I searched, the lady Carol was simply awesome, was hurt when he was caring on with Cindy the heiress but still remained loyal.
        All her children are highly educated, compared to trumpeters.

        https://www.townandcountrymag.com/society/politics/a22840158/john-mccain-children/

        Liked by 1 person

        • Thank you, bebe! Interesting article about McCain’s (mostly low-profile) children from his two marriages.

          He certainly didn’t treat his first wife well, and her remaining loyal to him was more gracious than many women or men would act.

          Yes, politically, McCain was pretty right-wing much of the time — though, unlike most Republicans these days, he could surprise people every once in a while.

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          • From the Jackson Mississippi Free Press:

            ‘McCain’s father, John S. McCain Sr., hails from Carroll County, Miss., where he was born the son of a plantation owner. Days before the 2000 South Carolina primary, McCain learned he was wrong when he said his ancestors did not own slaves; “I didn’t know that,” McCain told reporters from Salon, moments after they handed him documents showing his great-great-grandfather owned at least 52 slaves.’

            It was this ignorance, I suppose, that gave him the freedom to oppose the creation of MLK Day in the 1980’s.

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  5. If I could go back for the moment about McCain and Trump, there’s really no comparison between the two. Yes, there are moments when McCain disappointed me, and I didn’t vote for him. but he did espouse some genuine feelings during his long career tenure in the military and his service to that. I was really moved by the eulogy by his daughter Meghan, which put Trump to shame as he played golf. So, this whole memorial service wasn’t about Trump at all, but he wanted it to become so.

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    • I agree, Kat Lib. Many of us have mixed feelings about McCain, while many of us have no mixed feelings about Trump — he’s 100% awful. Maybe even 105% awful. McCain had some redeeming qualities — plus Meghan and his other children are much more impressive than the corrupt and/or complicit Trump children. So glad that Trump got slammed (though not by name) by several speakers at the McCain service.

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      • Yes, even while I’m sitting here in the humid heat and not having very nice thoughts about the home inspector who told me that there were only a few days over the summer that one needed A/C. Ha! Perhaps he’s not familiar with climate change and global warming! I sent an email the other day to my best friend with the subject line of “I’m melting! Oh, what a world!” …so says the Wicked Witch of the West. I can certainly agree with her sentiments over the last week, but there was some better weather yesterday! I hope it will last for the next week or so, though it looks unlikely. I know at some point I’ll be complaining about the cold and snow, but at least we will be stocking up on food and supplies, and know that we’ll be OK, since we’ll have both the generator and gas fireplace in the living room to keep the house nice and toasty. as well as delivery services for the doggies and kittiy, if need be!

        Liked by 1 person

        • Kat Lib, I don’t have AC, either, but am surviving with fans. 🙂 Good point — with climate change, there are more summer days than there used to be where it would be nice to have AC. We had a few pleasant days here in North Jersey since late last week, but today feels hot and humid again. (I took my cat for a one-hour walk on a leash earlier this afternoon; he spent part of the time in the shade under bushes while I baked. 😦 )

          Sounds like you’re well prepared for winter!

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          • Wow, I’m impressed that you have Misty able to go out on a leash. I’ll have to try this some day with my Jessie, but I don’t have high hopes about how she’ll react. My dogs are very unreliable when it comes to walking them. They have gotten pretty good about going outside, at least when the fall/winter comes and there are fewer distractions for them both. Something to work on once the weather turns cold, though they both like the outside, unless it’s rainy, which they both don’t like to go out in at all. I’m afraid that I don’t have the strength to take either out these days. I’ve been pretty much confined to my walker when it comes to my getting around my house, although I can get around better on my cane when I go out in public spaces. Very frustrating!

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            • Luckily, Misty is a gentle and docile cat, and perhaps he realizes on some level that he won’t be able to go out other than on a leash. Our previous cat, the lovable but sometimes aggressive Angus, was an outdoor critter — and got in a number of fights before contracting leukemia (undoubtedly while outside) in 2010 or 2011 and dying in 2012 after many months of medication to ease his symptoms. An exciting but relatively short life that we don’t want to repeat (the relatively short life part) with Misty. Plus of course letting cats out unattended is not good for birds.

              Sorry you can’t easily walk your pets.

              Liked by 1 person

              • Maybe a decade ago, I ran across a study done in Great Britain, which followed the doings of cats let outside daily. Turns out these teensy hunters were each good for about 100 critters annually, songbirds included…

                For NYC indoor kitties, the trick is to interest them in the pursuit and killing of cockroaches. Or at least that’s the trick I’d be laboring to teach them, had I kitties around. Sadly, Mandy is allergic.

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                • Cats, as wonderful as they are, are definitely/unfortunately bird mass-murderers, jhNY. Instinct, of course; they can’t help it.

                  Ha — I remember the cockroaches when I lived in NYC. Cats do get “entertained” with any creature that moves.

                  Sorry your wife is allergic to cats. 😦

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  6. Dostoevsky has some great mixed characters—in fact, one might say all his characters are mixed. Svidrigailov, Rogozhin, and Dmitry Karamazov spring to mind, but perhaps his best mixed character is Nastasya Filipovna from “The Idiot.” Orphaned and kept by her godfather as his mistress, she resents the abuse she was subjected to and the ruin it has made of her reputation, but flaunts it in people’s faces and destroys all her relationships with respectable men. Dostoevsky said he was fascinated by her type: the abuse victim who keeps recreating their abuse and perpetuating the cycle.

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    • “Dostoevsky has some great mixed characters” — so true, Elena! Thanks for mentioning that, and for the excellent description of Nastasya Filipovna! Then there’s of course Raskolnikov, from “Crime and Punishment,” who many readers feel sympathy for despite the awful double murder he committed.

      “…the abuse victim who keeps recreating their abuse and perpetuating the cycle” is indeed fascinating/depressing — as are abused characters who break that cycle. (One example of that is Adah in Buchi Emecheta’s novel Second Class Citizen, which I read a few months ago.)

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  7. Meyer Landsman, in the “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” by Michael Chabon, is an alcoholic, lives in squalor, and appears to be very self-involved. Throughout the course of the book, I grew to understand and care about him, saw that he did have deep feelings for others outside of himself, and even hoped for him to reunite with his ex-wife.

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  8. I think that the modern day author who captures the essence of what your subject is about is Lionel Shriver, I know you’ve read some of her novels, but I think there are other ones that encapsulate some of her writings even better. For example, “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” which I know you’ve been trying to read for a long time. 🙂 I think there is something not to like about either of the parents, which turns out to be problematic for all the family. Neither of them are evil, by any means, but they are both responsible for what happens at the end. Again, in the “Post Birthday World,” which is similar to the movie, “Sliders,” as well as the Star Trek episode when Tasha Yar becomes enveloped in a time-warp continuum; the author goes back and forth between two alternate worlds, between when the writer is married to a rather dull man, and another who is a snooker champion, and much more exciting!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Kat Lib! I agree that Lionel Shriver is GREAT at depicting characters we have mixed feelings about. I haven’t read the two Shriver novels you mentioned and described so well, but her “The New Republic” book has a journalist protagonist who’s both sort of admirable and rather obnoxious, and both idealistic and cynical.

      I love what “Star Trek: The Next Generation” did with the Tasha Yar character after Denise Crosby quit as a regular cast member!

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        • A great, emotionally wrenching episode indeed, Kat Lib.

          We may have discussed this before, but “Star Trek: The Next Generation” was my favorite “Trek” series (though I also loved the original as well as “Deep Space Nine” and “Voyager”). The story lines and acting (including Patrick Stewart as Capt. Picard!) were exceptional. And I thought the last “Next Generation” episode in 1994 was as good as a series finale could get.

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          • My favorite was also TNG, though I also enjoyed Deep Space Nine and The Voyager series. The last two because they included a black captain, as well as a woman captain. I think that for those times, that was fairly radical, though both had strong supporting characters, such as in Sigg El Fadill in Deep Space Nine, and Robert Beltran in Voyager. This is what I loved about the Star Trek universe, that everyone was accepted for what they were and not for what they weren’t.

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