When Bad Things Happen to Good Characters

Mueller for blog postWe’ve all heard the phrases “No good deed goes unpunished,” “When bad things happen to good people,” and “Only the good die young.” So it goes in literature, as it goes in real life. Likable, ethical, admirable characters often have negative things happen to them.

In some cases, this is followed by a happy ending — as we witness the goes-through-trials-and-tribulations-before-life-gets-better scenario. In other cases, life does not improve for the unlucky characters. Either situation can make for compelling, depressing reading as most of us intensely relate to wronged protagonists we like.

I thought about today’s topic last week while upstanding, straight-shooting, known-for-his-integrity Robert Mueller testified before the U.S. Congress about his two-year investigation of the corrupt Trump and his corrupt administration — and was treated badly at the hearings by Republicans despite Mueller being a lifelong Republican appointed by Republicans. The reason for this disgraceful treatment, of course, was that the GOP was trying to protect Trump. Many Republicans know how guilty Trump is, but they’ve made a devil’s bargain to look the other way in order to get tax cuts for the rich, far-right judges, rigged elections, etc.

Adding to the sorry situation is the fact that Mueller is so boring and “by the book” that it makes it easier for Republicans — including despicable Attorney General William Barr, who “spun” Mueller’s damning special-counsel report into something much more positive about Trump than it was — to take advantage.

There are countless novels with exemplary beleaguered protagonists, so I’ll name just a few — starting with some 19th-century books.

The good-guy title character in George Eliot’s Silas Marner is framed for a crime he didn’t commit, after which the immoral perpetrator marries Marner’s fiancee. Silas then moves in despair to another part of England, and it isn’t long before most of the money he’s earned as a reclusive weaver is stolen. But this short (for Eliot) novel unexpectedly turns happy in a very moving way.

There’s also a negative-to-positive story arc in Jane Austen’s Persuasion. As a young woman, Anne Elliot breaks her engagement with Frederick Wentworth after immense pressure from several family members. Wentworth is nice, smart, and ambitious, but Anne’s snobby relatives feel the young Navy man doesn’t have the wealth and connections to marry into the Elliot family. Yet, as always in Austen novels, true love wins out — though not before various challenges.

Then there are novels in which at least some beloved, harshly treated protagonists don’t ever find happiness. Very sad, but perhaps more realistic.

It’s no surprise that several people meet terrible fates in the anti-slavery classic Uncle Tom’s Cabin. That’s of course the case with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s title character: the almost-angelic Tom, especially after he is purchased by the horribly evil slave owner Simon Legree. (BTW, Tom is not the stereotype he was later twisted into by some.) And Tom’s also-almost-angelic friend, the white girl Eva, dies way too young.

Another downer classic is Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, in which most Pequod crew members die after Captain Ahab takes his whale obsession to its logical (or illogical) conclusion. Those doomed sailors could have said “Call me fish meal…”

A couple of the many later novels with sympathetic characters who don’t catch a break?

One would be Elsa Morante’s gripping World War II-set History, which is a great read despite being almost unrelentingly downbeat. The timid Ida is raped by a Nazi soldier, and lives in constant fear that her part-Jewish ancestry could doom her in fascist Italy. Her two very-different-but-each-charismatic sons ultimately don’t fare well, either.

Another is John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath — which, while containing a few hopeful notes, sees many members of the impoverished, mostly likable Joad family battered by events before, during, and after their epic 1930s relocation ride to California.

Your favorite novels that fit this topic?

My 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 — about developers insincerely responding to a welcome lawsuit — is here.

Nostalgia Isn’t What It Used to Be, or Maybe It Is

carThere’s bad nostalgia, such as Donald Trump’s delusional belief that the United States was once great (perhaps for a good number of affluent white males but often not for other demographics). And there’s more positive nostalgia, which will be the subject of today’s blog post. More positive nostalgia in literature, that is.

One prime example is Goodbye, Mr. Chips, in which James Hilton tells the story of English schoolteacher Mr. Chipping. The novel, like many books with a nostalgic bent, is not without bad times and tragedy — but the overall feeling is warm, especially in the description of how Mr. Chips’ brief marriage helped make him a more tolerant and less conventional person and educator.

Fannie Flagg’s World War II-themed The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion (see image above) has various nostalgic elements — including the story being told from a vantage point decades after the 1940s and the remembrance of how women briefly had more prominent work roles during WWII — including operating a gas station without men and flying important missions as WASPs (Women Airfare Service Pilots). Also, as the title indicates, some of the novel’s aged characters meet one final time.

Ray Bradbury’s semi-autobiographical 1957 novel Dandelion Wine looks at a boy’s small-town Illinois childhood through the lens of a 1928 summer. That childhood is in some ways idyllic, but there are enough painful and mysterious things going on to keep the book from getting too sentimental.

Given how many people live in suburbs and cities these days, novels set in small towns or on farms or in the wilderness can almost seem automatically nostalgic — even if the books are not anywhere close to 100% happy. Examples include L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, George Eliot’s Adam Bede, and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford, among many others.

Novels that time-travel into the past can also provide plenty of nostalgia. The past is far from perfect, but things at least were or seemed slower-paced/less frantic/more technologically “analog.” Jack Finney’s Time and Again and Daphne du Maurier’s The House on the Strand would be two examples.

Prequel novels also can be at least partly nostalgic by their very nature. For instance, at different points after his first Jack Reacher book was published, Lee Child wrote three Reacher novels set when Jack is younger than in that first book. Due to the usual Reacher-realm violence, The Enemy and The Affair and Night School are not very wistful, but they feel partly nostalgic because we’re seeing Jack in his earlier years — during which time he had his first romantic encounter and so on. (First love can be quite nostalgic.)

Last but not least, In Search of Lost Time is steeped in nostalgia — often of a melancholy nature. The very title of Marcel Proust’s opus, which I’ve only read part of, conveys a longing for the past.

Novels you consider very or somewhat nostalgic?

My 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 — about a controversial schools superintendent resigning — is here.

Current Novelists Published for Many Years

Who are some living authors with the longest novel-writing careers, dating back to the 1970s or earlier?

I contemplated that this past week as I read In One Person, John Irving’s quirky and compelling 2012 book about sexual identity (among other things). It was his 13th novel since his first, Setting Free the Bears, was published a whopping 51 years ago — in 1968.

Starting her novel career around the same time was the now-as-popular-as-ever Margaret Atwood, whose initial fiction book (The Edible Woman) was released exactly a half-century ago — in 1969. The Handmaid’s Tale and many other novels followed.

A year later, The Color Purple author Alice Walker came out with her first novel: The Third Life of Grange Copeland. Also in 1970, Beloved writer Toni Morrison entered the novel realm with The Bluest Eye. And in 1971, Underworld author Don DeLillo’s first novel (Americana) appeared.

Stephen King? His debut novel Carrie was published in 1974, the same year A Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin produced his first novel: A Song for Lya. Salman Rushdie of Midnight’s Children fame and Russell Banks of Continental Drift fame? Their respective debut novels Grimus and Family Life were published in 1975. Anne Rice? She started big with 1976’s Interview with the Vampire. And Atonement author Ian McEwan? His debut novel The Cement Garden arrived in 1978.

Going back further, Lonesome Dove author Larry McMurtry earned his first novel credit in 1961 with Horseman, Pass By. Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter author Mario Vargas Llosa’s first novel (The Time of the Hero) reached print in 1963 — the same year Joan Didion and Margaret Drabble entered the novel realm with Run, River and A Summer Bird-Cage, respectively. Drabble’s sister, Possession writer A.S. Byatt, saw her first novel The Shadow of the Sun released in 1964 — the same year as Joyce Carol Oates’ With Shuddering Fall debut. Cormac McCarthy started walking “The Road” of novel-writing in 1965, courtesy of The Orchard Keeper.

Who are your favorite living authors with long novel careers?

My 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 Revolutionary War airports theme 🙂 — is here.

Nepotism in Novels

Among the Trump administration’s many, many horrible aspects is the blatant nepotism of incompetent daughter Ivanka and incompetent son-in-law Jared Kushner “serving” in major positions.

So, how about nepotism in literature? The beneficiaries are often also not deserving of their positions, which makes them easy for readers to root against — though there are occasional examples of those characters having some talent. Increasing the un-sympathy factor is that nepotism beneficiaries frequently aren’t nice, frequently act entitled, and frequently are quite flush with unearned family money.

Novels — historical fiction or otherwise — with royal characters of course often feature such people. For instance, in Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, there’s the weak-willed Louis XIII who obviously had a bunch of other Louis guys come before him. One of them, Louis XI, is in Sir Walter Scott’s novel Quentin Durward.

Then there’s Rufus Weylin, the son of a slaveholder in Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred. He’s somewhat needy and unsure of himself as a boy, but grows into a mostly brutal and not especially smart master when he takes over the family plantation from his merciless father Tom.

Or how about the scenario in Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novel Worth Dying For? In that book, Seth Duncan works for a Mafia-connected Nebraska trucking company run by his father and uncles that ruthlessly extorts business from surrounding farms and engages in human trafficking. The vile Seth continues his family’s low ethical standards by also abusing his wife.

Of course, participating in or taking over the family “business” doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. While there are plenty of differing views on nihilism and such in Ivan Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Sons, it seems okay that Arkady eventually assumes the management of his father’s modest Russian estate.

Another positive nepotism example is in One for the Money, the first of Janet Evanovich’s seriocomic Stephanie Plum crime novels. Stephanie gets a bounty-hunting job via her bail-bondsman cousin Vinnie, and ends up being quite good at that work (in One and the many subsequent Plum novels) despite some periodic bumbling.

Then there’s the complicated would-be nepotism situation in Charles Dickens’ Dombey and Son. The wealthy Paul Dombey is so focused on his son, and the hope that the boy will eventually take over his shipping company, that he almost totally rejects/neglects his daughter Florence.

Before ending this post, I’ll add that in real life there are plenty of children and other relatives of novelists who became novelists themselves. But that’s another topic — discussed in this piece I wrote in 2011.

Examples of nepotistic characters you’ve found memorable?

My 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 July 4th theme — is here.