When Fictional Characters Do the Unexpected

During the next two weeks, I’m attending a National Society of Newspaper Columnists conference in Manchester, New Hampshire, and also dealing with some other responsibilities. So I decided to save my next new blog post for Sunday, June 18.

Today and on June 11, I’m reprinting (with slight changes) previously posted literature pieces. The column below is one I wrote for The Huffington Post five years ago — two years before I fled the site (after finally growing disgusted with the lack of pay and other problems there) to start this blog in July 2014.

Here’s that half-decade-old post from June 7, 2012:

Stereotypes can contain a grain of truth, but they’re often pernicious. So, it’s refreshing when some novels feature a character who breaks ethnic or gender molds.

For instance, Mordecai Richler’s Solomon Gursky Was Here includes a 19th-century Jewish character named Ephraim who’s a macho, hard-bitten, frontier type of guy. When he makes his first dramatic appearance in the bitter Canadian cold throwing bear meat to his sled dogs, one thinks more of Jack London than Woody Allen.

Then there’s the title character of Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, an American nerd of Dominican descent. Perhaps not the ethnicity you’d expect to be out in force at the next Star Trek convention.

And there’s the Chinese-American housekeeper Lee in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, which is set in the late 1800s/early 1900s. Many servants from that era were of course smarter than they were allowed to show their alleged “betters,” but the depth of Lee’s intellect and philosophical musings is off the charts.

How about the bold, holds-her-own-with-the-guys Marian Halcombe in Wilkie Collins’ mystery The Woman in White? She’s hardly the stereotypical female one sees in many other male-authored novels published during the Victorian Age.

And Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews flips a gender stereotype by having a male title character who protects his virginity against female seducers as he overcomes obstacles to be with his true love.

Then there’s Colette’s Cheri and Terry McMillan’s How Stella Got Her Groove Back, in which women are in relationships with men half their age. That’s not unheard of, but it certainly shows up less often than the older-male/much-younger-female dynamic in many novels — including classics such as Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and modern fiction such as Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom and Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead.

Breaking stereotypes doesn’t just involve gender or ethnicity.

In Jack London’s The Sea-Wolf, for example, the protagonist is a smart but physically weak man named Humphrey van Weyden who is picked up by the brutish Capt. Wolf Larsen after a collision at sea. By the time the book concludes, Humphrey ends up being far from the stereotype of a soft intellectual.

Set at around the same time that London’s novel was written, E.R. Greenberg’s baseball novel The Celebrant features an ardent New York Giants fan who becomes friendly with early-1900s pitching great Christy Mathewson. But unlike the typical besotted sports lover, this immigrant jeweler doesn’t fawn over Mathewson, try to pal around him, or exploit the relationship in any other way.

And how about wealthy literary creations who do the right thing rather than behave like spoiled brats? One such non-stereotypical character is the star of Honoré de Balzac’s César Birotteau who acts with rock-solid integrity after falling into debt. Unlike today’s bankers who privatize the gain and socialize the loss, Birotteau wouldn’t dream of being bailed out.

Of course, if authors deliberately avoid stereotypes enough times, that can become stereotypical…  🙂

Who are your favorite non-stereotypical literary characters?

(Some days this week, I’ll be slower than usual replying to comments, but will answer eventually!)

Here’s a review of, and a video interview about, my new literary-trivia book 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, which covers Montclair, N.J., and nearby towns. The latest weekly column — which includes made-up quotes “from” Trump and other objectionable politicians — is here.