When Rich Protagonists Aren’t Entitled Jerks

When I see wealthy people depicted in novels, my first impulse is to dislike them. After all, while some people make their own fortunes and don’t hurt others doing so, many other people are rich because they inherited money or because they’re ruthless employers. But occasionally my defenses are beaten down and I really like a very affluent character.

An example — in a novel I’m currently reading — is Count Alexander Rostov of Amor Towles’ superb A Gentleman in Moscow. Rostov evokes our sympathy not only because he’s under house arrest in a Moscow hotel after the Russian Revolution but because he’s also smart, talented, patient, charming, good-natured, and nice to everyone in all walks of life. Plus Rostov has a history of not being a total apologist for Russia’s pre-revolution aristocracy — which is why he was sentenced to house arrest rather than execution at the hands of the newly empowered Bolsheviks.

Other upper-class protagonists impossible to hate? Bertie Wooster of P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves novels and stories is an idle sort but often rather endearing — as well as funny and loyal. Also likable is financially comfortable son-of-a-judge Archie Weir in Robert Louis Stevenson’s unfinished novel Weir of Hermiston.

It helps us feel sympathy for wealthy characters when they go through difficulties that money can’t solve or completely solve. One example is the title character in Sinclair Lewis’ Dodsworth who’s an automobile magnate but also going through later-in-life marital troubles. Newland Archer of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence is a wealthy young lawyer engaged to bland socialite May Welland before becoming conflicted by getting romantically interested in the unconventional countess Ellen Oleska. Isabel Archer (hmm…that last name again) of Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady is an heiress but seems like a genuinely nice person who makes a very bad marital choice.

Oh, and Edmond Dantes becomes super-rich in Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo but had to endure enormous suffering before a chance meeting in prison eventually made him a non-blood-related heir to a fortune — which he put to good use getting revenge on the people who framed him.

There are also novels featuring moneyed queens and kings whose behavior is often nasty but sometimes decent. For instance, King Louis XI of Sir Walter Scott’s Quentin Durward is Machiavellian and King Louis XIII of Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers is petty but the eventual king Aragorn in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is brave and admirable. Of course, Aragorn wasn’t rich and not living the royal life during most of the trilogy. 🙂

Wealthy fictional characters you’ve liked?

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 every Thursday. The latest piece — about expanded library hours in my town and other topics — is here.

The Middle Ages in Novels Not Set in The Middle Ages

Andrew Sean Greer

In today’s post, MLC means more literature content and…mid-life crisis.

Yes, many of us of a certain age have gone through that crisis, as have many characters in novels. Whether middle-aged people are real or fictional, they often wonder if they’ve accomplished enough…and they lament some decisions made when younger…and they worry about what the upcoming years will be like…and they perhaps make a major change or three.

Such is the case in Andrew Sean Greer’s Less, the Pulitzer Prize-winning 2017 novel that focuses on Arthur Less as he nears his 50th birthday. Arthur is a novelist — with only modest sales, partly because he’s an out gay man — whose long-time partner is about to marry someone else. Arthur decides to escape the wedding and the United States by taking a low-budget trip around the world. Definitely mid-life crisis stuff, yet with plenty of comic moments.

Then there’s John Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent (1961) starring Ethan Hawley, a married dad whose family members wish they were richer. The straight-arrow Ethan, who works in a job clearly beneath his education and abilities, starts to consider doing some unethical things. Clearly, a rather dramatic mid-life crisis.

In Cat’s Eye, the 1988 novel by Margaret Atwood, protagonist Elaine Risley returns to her hometown of Toronto for a retrospective of her paintings — after which she wrestles with painful memories from her childhood and young adulthood. Looking back with regret, and perhaps making peace with some aspects of that, can be one manifestation of a mid-life crisis.  

Having an affair, or contemplating one, is another possible MLC manifestation. One example is in Edith Wharton’s 1911 novel Ethan Frome, whose title character feels miserable about his marriage (with good reason) and falls in love with someone who happens to be his wife’s cousin. Then…

Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections (2001) has a trifecta of mid-life crises — with one sibling (Denise) recently divorced, another (Gary) dealing with depression, and a third (Chip) working in a sketchy job.

Among the other novels I’ve read with MLC aspects are Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night, Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, W. Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence, Terry McMillan’s How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Richard Russo’s Straight Man, Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast, Anne Tyler’s Ladder of Years, and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, to name a few.

Novels you’ve liked with characters experiencing the crisis thing?

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 every Thursday. The latest piece — about a huge local Pride festival and more — is here.

A Mix of Funny and Not Funny Might Be On the Money

Anne Tyler (photo by Eamonn McCabe).

There can be a balancing act with novels. One such act is making sure the top book on a towering to-read pile doesn’t fall off — 🙂 — but what I’m actually referring to is how some novels find the sweet spot between serious and comic. Dare they be called “seriocomic”?

When done right, seriocomic novels offer readers the best of both worlds. Gravitas leavened by humor, but not so much humor that the book is perhaps perceived as insubstantial. Also, earnest fiction with a jokey edge can feel like real life — which, as we know, periodically combines the consequential with the farcical.

One such novel is Anne Tyler’s Breathing Lessons, the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1988 book I read for the first time last week. It’s partly a sober, nuanced look at the complexities of marriage — in this case, the marriage of middle-aged couple Maggie and Ira Moran — but also funny. That’s because the good-hearted Maggie is hilariously spacey, awkward, annoying, and intrusive, while the stoic Ira is basically the straight man: his George Burns to her Gracie Allen, or, to keep gender out of it, his Zeppo Marx to her Groucho/Harpo/Chico. And Breathing Lessons features extended scenes — including one at a funeral service — that elicit many uncomfortable chuckles. 

Tyler is also quite seriocomic in The Accidental Tourist, among other novels.

Another author who often takes a funny/not-funny approach is Tyler contemporary John Irving (they’re both 80 years old) in such works as The World According to Garp and A Prayer for Owen Meany.

Nineteenth-century literary giants Charles Dickens and Mark Twain also offer a seriocomic blend in most of their novels. Think of the memorably amusing Mr. Micawber in Dickens’ semi-autobiographical David Copperfield, and the mix of laugh-out-loud humor and grave anti-war sentiment in Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Speaking of Twain, The Gilded Age features a clear divide between uproariously satirical chapters written by Mark T. and okay romantic chapters from Charles Dudley Warner. 

Staying with the 1800s for a minute, Herman Melville doesn’t have a reputation for comedy but was VERY amusing in parts of Moby-Dick and Pierre.

The same can be said for 20th-century author John Steinbeck, who was 99% serious in The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, and The Winter of Our Discontent but quite funny in much of Tortilla Flat, Cannery Row, and Sweet Thursday.

Getting back to contemporary writers, Zadie Smith is both highly humorous and dead-on serious in novels such as White Teeth. Margaret Atwood makes the post-apocalypse both devastating and devastatingly funny in Oryx and Crake, which includes some REALLY clever wordplay.

Other authors over the centuries who expertly placed a few or many comic moments in at least some of their novels include Miguel de Cervantes, Voltaire, Henry Fielding, Fanny Burney, Jane Austen, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Colette, L.M. Montgomery, Jaroslav Hasek, J.R.R. Tolkien, Bel Kaufman, Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, Philip Roth, Fannie Flagg, Richard Russo, Terry McMillan, Lee Child, Maria Semple, J.K. Rowling, and Liane Moriarty, to name just a few.

Your thoughts on this topic? Seriocomic authors and novels you like?

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 every Thursday. The latest piece — which has a Muppets theme 🙂 — is here.

More Than a Slice of Life 

It’s not a genre per se, but a type of novel I find interesting is “The Whole Life in One Book” book. Yes, while many novels span a few years or less, some span the main character’s entire existence — whether she or he dies relatively young or in old age.

Of course a multigenerational saga can do that for a number of lives, but for this post I’m focusing on novels that concentrate the majority of their contents on one person — showing a complete life in a sometimes surprisingly small number of pages. It can be fascinating and poignant to see decades of a character’s family relationships, romantic relationships, jobs, right decisions or wrong decisions, good luck or bad luck, etc. — as well as the real-world news events that swirled around her or him. All while we’re reminded of our own mortality and that life — even if lengthy — is quite short in the great scheme of things.

A whole-life novel I just read is The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields (pictured above) — who depicts her protagonist, Daisy Goodwill Flett, from birth in 1905 to death in the early 1990s. Daisy is often rather passive (partly explained by being young and then middle-aged before the modern feminist era) and experiences more disappointments than good times. Yet she actually has a pretty interesting life.

Shields’ melancholy, beautifully written 1993 novel is medium-length, so, like most books that span a protagonist’s entire life, some literary shorthand has to be used. After all, if we had a comprehensive chronicle of a character’s existence, it could run thousands of pages. In the case of The Stone Diaries, each chapter of the  Pulitzer Prize-winning book jumps roughly a decade forward in time, though there’s some back story describing the intervening years. This approach works quite well. 

Among the other excellent “Whole Life in One Book” novels (or “Most or Much of a Life in One Book” novels) are John Williams’ Stoner, George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, Jack London’s Martin Eden, John Irving’s The World According to Garp, and Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (the title is a bit of a giveaway there 🙂 ). All feature their protagonist’s name in the title other than The Mill on the Floss, which stars the memorable Maggie Tulliver.

Any thoughts on 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 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — about a local anti-gun-violence gathering and more — is here.