Characters We Might Not Hate Despite Disturbing Affiliations or Histories

A good novelist can make a character appealing even when that character is on the less-than-moral side of things — though it helps if there are extenuating circumstances.

That came to mind last week when reading Charles Frazier’s absorbing, melancholy novel Cold Mountain — which co-stars Confederate soldier Inman. He’s brave and likable, but fighting for the South in defense of the abhorrent institution of slavery clearly places him on the wrong side of history. (The actual Cold Mountain is pictured at the top of this blog post.)

Then there’s Ernst Graeber, a World War II soldier for the genocidal Nazis in Erich Maria Remarque’s A Time to Love and a Time to Die.

One thing helping to make those two men sympathetic is that they were basically forced to join the military — for geographic reasons (Inman is a southerner and Ernst is German) and for survival reasons (they probably would be shunned, jailed, or killed if they didn’t). Of course, they could try to flee — and a wounded Inman does desert in an effort to make his way back to Cold Mountain and the woman he loves, Ada Monroe. Also, Inman is not a raving racist and is clear-eyed about the evil plantation owners and other rich people he had gone to war for — as this passage during his long flight indicates:

“Inman looked at the lights in the big houses at night and knew he had been fighting battles for such men as lived in them, and it made him sick.”

Meanwhile, Ernst cares nothing about Nazi ideology and just wants to live a happy life. He falls in love with Elizabeth Cruse while on furlough, and the last thing he wants to do is return to the front. When Ernst is on his way back there, he tries to help a soldier captured by the Nazis and…

Then there are characters who are murderers or possible murderers. Raskolnikov of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment is certainly one of them, but somehow maintains some reader sympathy. Perhaps it’s because one of his victims was so unlikable, and/or because Raskolnikov has such an agonized outlook on life, and/or because he murdered as almost a philosophical experiment. Plus there’s some redemption ahead. Still, the two victims obviously weren’t happy about things.

Grace Marks is one of two people convicted of murder in Margaret Atwood’s historical novel Alias Grace, but it’s uncertain if she actually was an accomplice to the act. Readers develop some sympathy for her during and because of her long imprisonment.

In Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, protagonist Theo Decker takes home the hugely valuable painting of the novel’s title. But the theft is sort of understandable — it happens when a terrorist bomb hits New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art while a young Theo is there with his beloved mother, killing her and leaving Theo traumatized. Once he takes the painting, returning it seems out of the question.

Then there are characters who start off nasty but later become more mellow and nicer as the novels go on. For instance, L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables includes Anne’s adoptive mother Marilla Cuthbert, who’s initially cold and mean to the desperate-for-love orphan; and Rachel Lynde, the at-first nosy, judgmental, busybody neighbor.

Of course, many characters are clearly villains from start to finish, yet have enough charm and fascination for readers to kind of/sort of root for them — or at least not want them to fail for a while. One example is Count Fosco of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White.

Some characters you remember who fit this topic?

I unfortunately will again be skipping a blog post — next Sunday, June 24 — because I’m traveling to Florida to continue dealing with my late mother’s estate. As always, I’ll reply to comments when I can, and will return with a new piece on July 1!

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 The latest weekly piece — which discusses a creative solution for a too-small commencement setting — is here.

Strong Female Characters in 19th-Century Fiction

We look back on the 1800s as a time of rampant sexism, patriarchy, male dominance, gender inequality — whatever you want to call it. And it was indeed that sort of time. But a number of 19th-century female novelists, and a few male ones, managed to directly or indirect speak against that in some of their books.

I thought of this last week while reading Lelia by George Sand (born Amandine Lucile Aurore Dupin). In that fascinating 1833 novel, the independent, intellectual, skeptical, cynical, depressed, world-weary, God-doubting title character in some ways sounds like she could be living in 2018 — if the eloquent language used in Sand’s philosophical book were more casual and not densely rich like a lot of 19th-century prose was. Lelia is not always an easy book to read, but you’ll rarely see better writing than penned by Sand (whose image accompanies this blog post).

Anne Elliot of Jane Austen’s Persuasion (1818) is another strong heroine. The capable Anne is in love with Captain Frederick Wentworth, but lives a very useful life even as the relationship between her and Wentworth is thwarted for years.

The star of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847) has strong feminist leanings that come out in various ways — including her pride in being smart, her need to work, and her insistence that she be an equal in marriage.

Helen in Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) courageously leaves her abusive/alcoholic husband to save both her son and her own self-worth. It’s a novel so feminist that Anne’s not-quite-as-feminist sister Charlotte unfortunately helped prevent wider distribution of it after Anne’s death.

Of course, many of the 19th century’s male critics and readers slammed works that dared depict women as equal to men. Undoubtedly one of the reasons fewer women back then tried to write novels — and a number of those who did write them used male or gender-neutral aliases.

Another author with a George pseudonym, George Eliot (born Mary Ann Evans), created a number of strong women — including lay preacher Dinah Morris of Adam Bede (1859). And Eliot lamented the second-class citizenry of female characters in novels such as The Mill on the Floss (1860), in which Maggie Tulliver’s less-brainy brother is treated much better than her by their parents and society as a whole.

Jo March, who thirsts to be a writer, is another nonstereotypical 19th-century female — in Louisa May Alcott’s 1869 novel Little Women.

And Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899) depicts Edna Pontellier’s memorable rebellion against her constricted role as a wife and mother.

Can 1900 be considered the last year of the 19th century? If so, Colette’s Claudine at School belongs in this discussion with its assertive, mischievous, hilarious protagonist.

Some male novelists of the 1800s also created female protagonists who didn’t act like stereotypical women of their time. Examples include Jeanie Deans in Sir Walter Scott’s The Heart of Midlothian (1818), Judith Hutter of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer (1841), Becky Sharp of William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847), Hester Prynne of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850), Marian Halcombe of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (1859), the title character in Thomas Hardy’s The Hand of Ethelberta (1876), journalist Henrietta Stackpole in Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady (1881), and the martyred protagonist in Mark Twain’s historical novel Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1896).

Of course, there were also strong women in pre-1800s novels, with just two examples being the very different stars of Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1722) and Frances Burney’s Evelina (1778). Moll has a tougher exterior than Evelina, but the latter protagonist also has lots of inner strength.

Your favorite 19th-century novels with strong women?

In keeping with this post’s feminist theme, here’s a live performance of The Cranberries’ “Free to Decide.”

Because of a National Society of Newspaper Columnists conference I’ll be attending, I won’t be posting a book piece next Sunday, June 10. But I’ll respond to comments when I can. 🙂 Back with a new piece on June 17!

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 The latest weekly piece — which discusses a high-school amphitheater now too small for graduations — is here.

Later-in-Life Love in Literature

Many of literature’s memorable romances — whether happy or ill-fated — are between young or relatively young characters. Think Persuasion, Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, Doctor Zhivago, Gone With the Wind, A Time to Love and a Time to Die, A Walk to Remember, and various other novels.

Then there are fiction’s not-as-frequent romances that begin when the couples are older, which will be the subject of today’s blog post. Those single, divorced, or widowed characters may not be as hormonally driven or as beautiful or handsome as younger lovers in literature, but their stories can be quite compelling. They’re often more mature and interesting than their youthful counterparts, and we may find ourselves seriously rooting for them as they try to surmount world-weariness and longer romantic odds for a chance at love.

In Jennifer Ryan’s excellent The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, which I finished last week, one plot thread focuses on two middle-aged people in World War II England. One is Margaret Tilling, a respected widow (she takes over as the town’s choir leader, nurses wounded soldiers, and more) whose son is away fighting. The other is Colonel Mallard, a widowed officer assigned to stay in the Tilling son’s room. Will Margaret and Mallard fall in love?

Then there’s Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera — in which Florentino and Fermina meet when young but, after their relationship is thwarted, Fermina ends up marrying another man. Florentino, though hardly chaste, waits for Fermina until her husband dies more than fifty years later and then tries to rekindle the romance. (The older versions of Florentino and Fermina are pictured in the photo with this blog post.)

Or how about the supporting characters Lavendar Lewis and Mr. Irving in L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Avonlea (the first sequel to Anne of Green Gables)? Lewis and Irving also met while younger and reunite decades (though not a half-century) later.

Speaking of Lewises, there’s Sinclair Lewis’ novel Dodsworth. When middle-aged American auto magnate Sam Dodsworth retires, he and his wife Fran take an extended trip to Europe — during which their marriage basically dissolves and each meets other people.

In So Much for That, the (Ms.) Lionel Shriver novel that combines a hard-hitting takedown of America’s profit-driven medical system with a cast of all-too-human characters, a pair of families deal with huge health crises that result in several deaths. Shep is the middle-aged husband in one couple, Carol is the middle-aged wife in the other household, and…

David Balducci’s One Summer features a terminally ill father of three. But after the ailing Jack’s healthy wife Lizzie dies in a car accident, he miraculously survives and later meets someone.

What are some of the romances you most remember between fictional characters who fall in love when older?

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 The latest weekly piece — which discusses rain, redevelopment, and Republicans — is here.

Hateful Rich Characters Who Would Make Trump Proud

In this Trumpian time of many rich people acting even greedier than usual, there’s some solace in reading novels that depict wealthy characters as unsympathetically as they often deserve.

Heck, too many get rich partly through ruthlessness and selfishness, while those who inherit a fortune (like America’s despicable White House occupant) are frequently spoiled and entitled — with little compassion for people forced to struggle economically. There are exceptions, of course; some of the ultra-monied are decent human beings.

To top things off, a large percentage of America’s rich support tax cuts they don’t need — cuts that reduce funding for social services many of the non-rich do need.

You’ll find unadmirable characters with lots of loot in many novels — including the last two I’ve been reading. Elizabeth Berg’s excellent young-adult book Joy School features a supporting character named Taylor who makes tons of money as a teen model yet she shoplifts clothes and skips out of restaurants without paying the bill. Taylor — a “friend” of the novel’s likable protagonist Katie, who’s trying to adapt to a new town she and her problematic father moved to after the mother dies — thinks the proceeds of petty crime are her due. Which reminds me of how Trump and his administration’s other corrupt multimillionaires use our hard-earned tax money for golf expeditions, first-class plane travel, fancy office furniture, and more.

Then there’s Jennifer Ryan’s terrific novel The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, which I’m currently in the middle of reading. Set in World War II England, the book in its early pages introduces “upper-class tyrant” Brigadier Winthrop — a nasty womanizer, scary husband, and bad father loathed by everyone in the village of Chilbury, where he lives in a huge house. After losing his one male heir to the war, he actually offers to pay a woman to steal a baby boy and substitute it for his future newborn if his pregnant wife gives birth to a girl.

Other wealthy jerks include the ensemble of white-collar thugs who run the shady law firm in John Grisham’s thriller The Firm.

Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre has the rich and oh-so-pious Mr. Brocklehurst, who skimps so drastically on his Lowood institution that the girls who live there are freezing, practically starving, and in a number of cases dying. (Pictured with this blog post are a young Jane and the hypocritically evil Mr. B.)

In George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, the stubborn, hot-tempered, mill-owning dad Mr. Tulliver is not totally bad but certainly not very sympathetic. For one thing, he treats his unlikable son Tom much better than his nicer, smarter daughter Maggie.

The ambitious, social-climbing Undine Spragg doesn’t start out rich in Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country, but she becomes monied through multiple marriages — and remains as not-nice as ever.

There’s also the ruthless, politically ambitious Richard Griffen — the older husband of narrator/protagonist Iris in Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin.

Trump would be proud to have all of the above characters in his cabinet.

I’ve obviously named just a few characters. Who are some of the despicable rich people you remember most in fiction?

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 The latest weekly piece is here.

When Good Novels Are Good Enough

You absolutely love an author and then read a novel by her or him that’s good but not great. A problem? Not for me.

It’s unreasonable to expect a masterpiece every time — though some writers (George Eliot is one) have produced A+ novels many times in each of their careers. I’m just grateful that my favorite authors, dead or living, came up with multiple books I really liked even if I didn’t fall head over heels for every title. Heck, books that are good often have at least some great moments.

I thought about this while reading the last three novels I borrowed from the library. First up was Stephen King’s The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, whose nine-year-old protagonist gets lost in the Maine woods. Trisha’s struggle for survival is at times gripping and at times tedious for the reader, with the less riveting portions partly caused by the fact that Trisha can talk to nobody but herself. The book is ultimately worth reading, but it doesn’t have the wallop of King novels such as Carrie, The Dead Zone, Misery, From a Buick 8, and a number of others.

Then came Liane Moriarty’s Truly Madly Guilty — which has the author’s signature elements of all-too-human characters, deep insight into female friendships, many psychological nuances, lots of humor and pathos, and more. But the novel is more a B+ than an A+, and its focus on a fateful barbecue seems less consequential than the storylines in Moriarty works such as the masterful Big Little Lies and powerful The Husband’s Secret. Yet I’m glad I read Truly Madly Guilty. Heck, what happened at that barbecue is rather consequential.

The third novel was Zadie Smith’s The Auto-Graph Man, which has the author’s dead-on depictions of ethnic similarities and differences as well as many hilarious moments (I think Smith might be the funniest living author). But her novels On Beauty and especially White Teeth are far superior works.

Donna Tartt? I’d rank her tour de force The Goldfinch one of the very best novels of the 21st century. Memorable characters, a terrific plot concerning the painting that gives the book its title, well-handled settings ranging from New York City to Las Vegas to Amsterdam, and a completely satisfying conclusion. Tartt’s first two novels — The Secret History and The Little Friend — are quite good, but have flaws such as being too long for their subject matter and less-accomplished conclusions.

Among past authors, there are so many who offer readers immense enjoyment with novels that are not fantastic but are still plenty good. I’ll list some of those “lesser” works and then put a sampling of the authors’ masterpieces in parentheses.

There’s Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (Persuasion, Pride and Prejudice); Alexandre Dumas’ Georges (The Count of Monte Cristo); Charlotte Bronte’s Villette (Jane Eyre); Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall); Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The House of the Dead (Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov); Thomas Hardy’s The Hand of Ethelberta (Jude the Obscure); Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country (The House of Mirth, The Age of Innocence); Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark (My Antonia); John Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent (The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden); Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera (One Hundred Years of Solitude); Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower (Kindred); and so on!

Some novels you like by favorite authors that are not those authors’ masterpieces?

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 The latest weekly piece — which discusses a battling Board of Education and a congressional candidate unfortunately disinvited from my town’s high school — is here.

A New Person in Town Drives the Plot of Many Novels

Most of us know what it’s like to move to a new town or city — whether it’s to start college, begin a job, escape a bad marriage, retire, or for other reasons. So we really relate to fictional characters who also do that. We watch as they find a home or apartment, deal with initial loneliness and homesickness, navigate different cultural norms, try to make friends, become an object of curiosity to new neighbors and coworkers, etc.

Numerous novels have that “new person in town” element, and I’ll discuss a few of those books today.

I recently read John Grisham’s Camino Island, which describes the theft of the original manuscripts of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s five novels and then focuses mostly on two characters who move to the Florida isle of the title. One, Bruce Cable, had settled on Camino two decades earlier and opened a very successful bookstore — yet he still allegedly dabbles in stolen manuscripts despite not needing to financially. The other, struggling author Mercer Mann, is convinced by a certain investigative entity to spend six months on the island (which she visited as a kid) to spy on Cable.

(Grisham’s novel has the added bonus of mentioning many real-life authors and novels.)

Other contemporary best-selling writers — including Joyce Carol Oates, Anne Tyler, Liane Moriarty, and Stephen King — have also been among the many novelists to use the “new person in town” theme in interesting ways.

Oates’ novel Solstice has protagonist Monica Jensen move from New York City to a teaching job in rural Pennsylvania after her marriage ends. Some residents wonder why Monica left an exciting urban life for such a sleepy area, but the calmness of her new locale is something she needs, at least temporarily. Yet things become far from calm as she develops a very intense, problematic friendship with eccentric local artist Sheila Trask.

Anne Tyler’s Ladder of Years has protagonist Delia Grinstead walk away from the husband and children who don’t appreciate her, and much of the novel focuses on how Delia adapts to a different locale and her new solitary life — and on whether Delia should return to her family.

In Big Little Lies, the Liane Moriarty novel that inspired the hit TV series gets its page-turning plot going when single mother Jane Chapman moves to an Australian town with her young son and tries to fit in with the wealthier families who also have children in Ziggy’s new school.

Rose Daniels in Stephen King’s Rose Madder leaves home to escape her abusive police officer husband Norman, and then sees her new life (in a city that might be Chicago) become threatened as Norman tries to hunt her down.

Many older novels, of course, also feature characters starting anew in different places. One prime example is George Eliot’s Silas Marner, in which the title character moves from one England town to another after a “friend” frames him for a crime and then marries Marner’s fiancee. The bitter Silas becomes a miser until something almost magical changes his life.

What are some of your favorite novels that fit this topic?

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 The latest weekly piece — which discusses an old train station, standardized testing, and more — is here.

When the Good and the Bad Get Ugly

Sometimes opposites attract — for a little while, at least — and this is true in literature as well as real life. Today, I’m going to discuss relationships between “bad boys” and admirable women, and between not-so-admirable women and decent men.

Both variations can make for interesting reading. Is it just physical attraction? Are these people masochists? Does their very incompatibility make things (temporarily) exciting? Do those couples have ANYTHING in common? Will the relationship be fairly brief, before too much psychological (and/or physical) damage happens? Or will things go on for far too long? Was the liaison seemingly positive at first before one person started acting badly?

The idea for this post was suggested by “elisabethm,” who writes the excellent literature blog “A Russian Affair.” A recent post of hers mentioned “bad guy” Dolokhov and his marriage proposal to “good girl” Sonya in Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

While on the subject of Russian literature, there is of course kind/moral Sonya and tortured soul Raskolnikov, a murderer with some redeeming qualities in Crime and Punishment. The conclusion of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel is basically all about the positive impact Sonya has on Raskolnikov.

Other examples of good women who spent some time with not-good men include the wonderful Dorothea Brooke, who’s married to pompous/ineffectual/cold-fish scholar Edward Casaubon in George Eliot’s Middlemarch; the admirable Helen and her alcoholic husband Arthur of Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, in which Helen bravely leaves her abusive spouse; the hardworking Gervaise and her starts-off-decent-but-grows-mean-and-lazy-after-getting-injured husband Coupeau of Emile Zola’s The Drinking Den; the independent-minded-but-deferential (for a while) Orleanna Price and her rotten-to-the-core missionary husband Nathan of Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible; the clairvoyant Clara and the nasty but somewhat redeemable right-winger Esteban in Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits; Celeste and her violent rich banker husband Perry in Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies; and Ruth and her abusive spouse Frank in Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe.

Then there are novels in which good guys find themselves in relationships with problematic women. Those include, among others, W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, in which the talented but lacking-in-confidence Philip Carey falls hard for the nasty, not-so-smart Mildred Rogers; and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland, in which the unlikable Gauri leaves her likable husband Subhash and also abandons her daughter Bela — who Subhash conscientiously raises.

A couple of notes: Obviously, many of the above characters are not all bad or all good. And there can of course be the bad-good dynamic in same-gender relationships, but this blog post is about female-male relationships.

What are your favorite works that fit this column’s topic?

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 The latest weekly piece — which mixes my recent trip to France with local news — is here.