Very Talkative and Very Quiet Characters in Literature

Marx BrothersIn Marx Brothers movies, we have the talkative Groucho and Chico and the mute Harpo. “So it goes” with novels — there are some loquacious characters as well those who say little or nothing, though of course most are somewhere in between on the speaking scale.

When I think of chatty characters, the first one who comes to mind is the young Anne Shirley in L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. Her long, brainy, funny, descriptive, free-associative monologues are very endearing and memorable. Interestingly, Anne becomes less talkative as she grows older in that novel and in the various sequels; part of the reason is that she gains some confidence and is less insecure.

Also quite talkative is another young protagonist, Holden Caulfield of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, though I would not call him endearing. Rather annoying, actually.

Some of literature’s loquacious adult characters?

In Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby, there’s the rarely-stops-talking Mrs. Nickleby — a well-meaning but silly person said to be partly based on the author’s mother. Also, Theo’s charismatic/kind-of-dangerous friend Boris in Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, the loyal/admirable Samwise Gamgee in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and the “religious” titular character in Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry (con men are usually big talkers). Many others, too.

Quieter characters? Among them are Matthew Cuthbert of the aforementioned Anne of Green Gables (making for quite a contrast between him and adopted daughter Anne) and the titular orphan character of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (though the oft-beleaguered Jane can definitely say her piece at times, showing that shy characters are not always shy). Also, the gentle Beth March of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, the reclusive Boo Radley of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and the at first socially awkward Ireland-to-U.S. immigrant Eilis Lacey of Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn, to name just a few more.

Then there are characters who are nearly or completely mute, usually after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. For instance, the boy Ricky in John Grisham’s The Client becomes catatonic after seeing a suicide, and the boy Bernardo in Isabel Allende’s Zorro stops talking after witnessing his mother’s rape and murder. Also, in Maya Angelou’s novel-like autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, she becomes mostly mute after being raped as a girl. Those kinds of characters clearly draw our sympathy for what they’ve been through.

Your favorite talkative or not-talkative people in fiction?

Here’s a clip with Groucho, Chico, and Harpo from the 1932 movie Horse Feathers. (A screen shot I took from the clip is above this blog post.)

I’ll be skipping a post next Sunday, November 24. Back on December 1!

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 covers out-of-control development and rent control — is here.

50 thoughts on “Very Talkative and Very Quiet Characters in Literature

      • He was in the hospital, wrapped from head to toe in white bandages. He was mute and motionless. From time to time, he is swapped out for another soldier. An interpretation is that Joseph Heller was commenting on the military’s tendency to look upon soldiers as interchangeable and dispensable. After all these years, the very first thing I associate with that book is the soldier in white.

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  1. I am currently reading Pascal Mercier’s” Night Train to Lisbon”, the main character of which is a high school teacher of dead languages who suddenly interrupts the habits of a lifetime to travel for reasons that are obscure, even to himself, after he becomes fascinated by a mysterious, possibly suicidal woman and the posthumous publication of a Portuguese doctor. What both the teacher and the doctor share is a quiet professional presentation of self, which, after being disturbed by very different events, cannot continue on as before. Much cogitation and philosophizing commence in each, separated by three decades and a train ride and the necessity on the main character’s part of learning a bit of Portuguese.

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    • Thank you, jhNY! Sounds like a VERY intriguing book.

      The title of the novel reminds me of the title of Erich Maria Remarque’s great “The Night in Lisbon,” and the “Night Train to Lisbon” protagonist slightly evoked the protagonist of Anne Tyler’s “The Accidental Tourist” (both breaking out of quiet/conventional lives).

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      • I find it to be an intriguing kind of book a little more than I find it intriguing in itself, as there are irreducible clumsinesses of plot and overlong ruminations over things that don’t quite deserve the focus they get– and I don’t think the translator is why.

        For the purposes of storyline, there are necessary coincidences and seemingly, no clues that lead nowhere– which strangely enough, remind me of my discomfort with the last two (and recently written) Walter Mosely books I’ve read!

        Still, it’s a good book, not a great book. It’s the sort of smart book an ordinary reader would think a really smart book would read like, to repurpose a quote somebody made about Newt Gingrich.

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  2. It is interesting to come across characters such as the above, whether they are mute by nature and/or natural inclincation vs the opposite. And those characters, as well, who suffer psychologically from the same, ie selective mutism vs pressured speech. Marx brothers, what a great example filmwise,love them. I’m thinking Laurel and Hardy also. As for my contributions to this post, I would have to say Lennie in Steinbeck’s Of Mice And Men. Although he can speak, he struggles to do so due to his mentally disability. Then there’s the Chief in Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest who is, in fact, our narrator although he presents himself as being mentally diabled. What an ironic dichotomy, hmm? Must end this with a Groucho Marx joke: “Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend, inside a dog it’s too dark to read.” Ha! Hope you and yours have a happy Thanksgiving, xoSusi

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    • Thank you, Susi! Excellent comment, and I’m glad you mentioned those characters! People with mental disability (such as Lennie) and those who allegedly have a mental disability (such as the Chief) can definitely be silent or near-silent types. An “ironic dichotomy” with the Chief indeed!

      LOVE that Groucho quip. 🙂

      A Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours, too!

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  3. Hi Dave,

    In early High School, we read a book called So Much To Tell You by John Marsden. It’s written entirely as a diary from the point of view of a teenage girl who doesn’t talk. You find out that she was the victim of some pretty nasty domestic violence, and so she doesn’t trust anyone, hence the lack of communication. But it’s fascinating reading about her views on the world around her. Somehow, because she can’t be heard, it’s almost like she’s also invisible, and so gets to see things that maybe other ‘normal’ teenagers might miss. It’s been about thirty years since I read that book, but still remember it quite clearly.

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  4. Bebe here Dave….I would say Boo Radley almost invisible but one of a main characters in To Kill a Mockingbird, he only comes out at night and leaves gifts for Scout in tree pockets also saved her from attacks.no one has ever heard him to talk.
    Just other day the movie once again was on TV .

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    • Thank you, Bebe! Nice description of the enigmatic Boo Radley and his actions — and nice that the “To Kill a Mockingbird” movie was recently on TV again! I’ve only seen that fantastic film once; would love to watch it a second time. 🙂

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      • Talkstive one I would say Lydiaion Pride and Prejudice , besides her Mother Mrs Bennet. Her main activity in life is socializing, especially flirting with the officers of the militia.then her running off with George Wickham put her family into big jeopardy and who else but Mr. Darcy came to the rescue.

        In Non Ficttion several books…Fear by Bod Woodward, Fire and Fury by Michael Wolf, Unhinged by Omarosa Manigault Newman there is only one character donald trump extremely chatty , attack prone to whoever criticizes him with lies and what not putting this Country into big trouble.

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        • Yes, bebe, more than one talkative character in “Pride and Prejudice”! Come to think of it, lots of dialogue was of course a key to Jane Austen’s novels, which tended to not be heavily plotted outside the romantic realm. And 19th-century novels in general often had lots of talk.

          Trump indeed never shuts up, even though he almost never has anything nice, smart, or truthful to say. 😦

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    • Thank you, namratavijay220! Great example of this topic! “thepatterer” also mentioned Mrs. Bennet below, so I can see she is definitely someone I should have included in my post. 🙂 “Pride and Prejudice” is a terrific book; it’s my second favorite to “Persuasion” of Austen’s six novels.

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  5. Just finished Robert Coover’s novel, “Huck Out West,” in which he imagines what happened to Huck Finn after he lit out for the territories, which is how Twain’s novel ends. In Coover’s quite engaging version, Huck chatters on and on — and, for the most part, sounds a lot like the original Huck.

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    • Thank you, William! Ingenious “sequel” idea. And Huck was indeed rather a talker — almost always with something interesting and intelligent to say (as you know) despite little or no formal schooling. One can’t underestimate a good heart, common sense, and some “street smarts.” Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say “river smarts” or “woods smarts” or “small-town smarts”…

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  6. Scout from,”To Kill A Mockingbird ” highly inquisitive so talked a great deal insatiable curiosity. Also in “Tree Grows In Brooklyn ” thinking of Mary Nolan. Children come to mind as characters that can be talkative.

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    • Good one, Michele! Thank you! Children in fiction as well as in real life can indeed be quite talkative until some of the curiosity and imagination is drained out of them. 😦 (Fortunately, not always.)

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  7. Your post is serendipitous for me today. I just added “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.” By Susan Cain. The question of words, talking, quietness all come into play in a story. We need both, but I am find that we need to build an understanding of how to connect. Who would guess that Eleanor Roosevelt was an introvert or that Bill Gates was an extrovert. I believe that your post speaks to this connection. You have given me much to think about!

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    • Thank you, Clanmother! Nice when serendipity happens. 🙂

      Yes, many people are complicated. I’ve read biographies off Eleanor Roosevelt, and she was indeed a shy person who turned into probably the most dynamic First Lady the U.S. ever had, as well as a writer, a fierce independent thinker, a human-rights leader, and so on.

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      • I have enjoyed her “My Day” articles and recite them aloud to myself. She was amazing. My mother, Frances, who lived through the Great Depression (Nebraska) remembers the Roosevelts and the CCC with great fondness.

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        • Those “My Day” columns were indeed excellent! I have a collection of them somewhere on my bookshelves. Hillary Clinton tried a similar column in the 1990s; it was okay, but not nearly as good as Eleanor Roosevelt’s. And, yes, all those terrific New Deal programs during the Great Depression! The U.S. could use some of them now…

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  8. Anne Shirley is one of my favorite characters!

    On a somewhat similar vein, I’m currently reading “Vita Nostra,” a fantasy novel by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko. The main character, who is at an institute for strangely gifted students, is temporarily made mute by her instructor. Later she realizes that she *is* a Word–namely, a verb in the imperative. It’s quite an interesting book, if a little off the wall.

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    • Thank you, Elena! I share your regard for Anne Shirley, especially in “Anne of Green Gables” and the first few sequels. (I found her to be not quite as interesting when she became a somewhat-less-ambitious middle-aged person in the later sequels.)

      “Vita Nostra” does sound VERY quirky!

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  9. The character that came to mind immediately is Mrs. Bennet, mother of Elizabeth Bennet, in Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejdice.” Mrs. Bennet deftly and constantly chattered her way into good marriages for her daughters, by manipulating the feckless Mr. Bennet, to compensate for his failure to arrange for their financial futures. Listening to his wife for years and years was his just punishent. Mr. Bennet’s plight was similar to Mr. Sinatra’s who said, when asked by his son, Frank, how he could have lasted so long with a woman, however beloved, who talked so much and was so aggressive, “I don’t talk and I don’t listen.”

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    • Thank you, thepatterer! Mrs. Bennet definitely fits this topic (as does the shy Fanny Price in Austen’s “Mansfield Park” at the other end of the talking spectrum). You described Mrs. Bennet very well — and that Sinatra reference, even with its whiff of sexism on his part, is very funny!

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      • I was going to bring up fanny price! 🙂 And yes, the annoying Mrs. Bennet would certainly fit the other end of the scale hahaha. This was a very fun post as I have actually read most of the books that were mentioned! Anne of Green Gables will probably always reign very high on my favorites list 🙂 Also I saw the movie Brooklyn, I suppose that must have been based on a novel? I didn’t even know that! It’s a wonderful movie with a gorgeous score.

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