The past week was a rare seven days of being way too busy with various things to write my usual Sunday literature post. So, I’m re-publishing a piece I wrote nearly eight years ago, with some revisions. Here it is:
When a key character in a novel is passive and/or modest, that spells trouble for the book — right? Not necessarily.
A seemingly boring protagonist might have emotional and intellectual depth beyond what first meets a reader’s eye. And we frequently feel empathy for a shy character, who often has a good reason for being bashful. Even if a low-key protagonist doesn’t have much dimension, more charismatic characters can pick up the slack in a Seinfeld sort of way: Jerry wasn’t always interesting on that sitcom, but his eccentric buddies Elaine, George, and Kramer certainly were.
Among the novels starring an uncharismatic character is Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. We understand why Fanny Price is timid — she’s a “poor cousin” treated in a subservient way after moving into the affluent home of her uncle and aunt. Fanny also has to bear the constant gibes of another aunt — the ultra-annoying Mrs. Norris, who later inspired the name of a cat in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. And Fanny (pictured above in 1999’s Mansfield Park film) is mostly devoid of the wit Austen gave many of her characters. But she is kind and ethical, and, as the novel goes on, we realize Fanny is also wiser and smarter than we might have initially thought. Indeed, at least one edition of Mansfield Park has back-cover copy saying Fanny “was Austen’s own favorite among her heroines.” Hard to believe, but…
Lena Grove of William Faulkner’s Light in August is a different story. She shows some gumption by traveling alone to find the man who got her pregnant, but she’s mostly clueless — thinking Lucas Burch will welcome her arrival when in fact the jerk fled because he wanted no part of fatherhood. Lena dully and placidly lets events unfold, and the guy (Byron Bunch) who falls in love with her is semi-comatose as well. Much of the novel’s excitement is provided by livelier characters such as Joe Christmas, a mill worker/bootlegger haunted by his probable African-American ancestry in a racist South and by his surreptitious affair with an eccentric older woman (Joanna Burden).
Another thing that makes Light in August, Mansfield Park, and other novels with uncharismatic major characters potentially compelling is when the authors (such as Faulkner and Austen) are stellar writers. As the cliche goes, they could make a grocery list sound interesting.
Then there’s Being There, which may be better known as a movie than novel. Chance the gardener in Jerzy Kosinski’s book is a simple man who somehow gains the ill-deserved reputation as a sage of great wisdom. Chance may be boring, but the premise of the novel is not.
Another short novel, Billy Budd, features a title character who’s almost spookily passive — except for the one fateful instant when the goaded sailor lashes out. But the almost-biblical drama of the book, and Herman Melville’s superb writing, carry the reader along.
The much more recent Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver includes the indecisive Cub, who’s way too accommodating to his bossy parents despite being an adult. He’s married to the livelier, brainy Dellarobia, who wishes Cub would think for himself. Dellarobia’s frustration with her husband’s passivity is a key component of the book and its conclusion.
Then there are characters who, because of social norms, are passive in some situations but not in others. In The God of Small Things, the otherwise capable Mammachi docilely accepts physical abuse from her nasty husband Pappachi, but is later far from meek when going ballistic over her daughter Ammu’s involvement with the kind and admirable “Untouchable” Velutha. Meanwhile, Velutha has to act meekly among the people “above” him in India’s class structure, but is friendly and engaging with Ammu’s twin children Rahel and Estha, who love him in Arundhati Roy’s powerful novel.
Can you name some fictional works with protagonists or co-protagonists who are docile, shy, and/or boring?
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 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — about a whether-to-return-to-school-during-COVID debate that sparked an unfortunate lawsuit against my town’s teacher union — is here.