This Weight-in-Literature Post Doesn’t Mention Ezra Pound

As we move through the holiday season, our thoughts turn to…weight.

Yes, many people put on some pounds each December. More generally, what people weigh any time of the year can be a personal and/or societal issue — with all the pernicious bias and judgmental-ness against those who are bigger than average.

This of course not only plays out in real life but in various novels. For instance, I just read The Husband’s Secret, and one of the three interconnected storylines in Liane Moriarty’s terrific book involves a woman (Tess) whose husband (Will) and cousin (Felicity) seemingly fall in love after the cousin loses a lot of weight.

Weight is an even “larger” theme in (Ms.) Lionel Shriver’s punningly titled Big Brother, which has a plot focusing on a sister doing what she can to help her obese male sibling lose weight. The ending will surprise the heck out of you (it certainly surprised me).

Then there’s John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, in which Ignatius J. Reilly’s immensity is one reason why he’s a social outcast. Or maybe the social outcast-ness came first…

The nerdish title character in Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is also overweight and not as funny as the hilarious Ignatius, but he’s much more good-hearted than Toole’s eccentric protagonist.

Weight is sometimes (unfairly) used to emphasize the villainous nature of a character — as with the menacing, albeit sort of charming, Count Fosco of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White.

Or lots of heft can stereotypically convey a Santa-like joviality; Friar Tuck of the Robin Hood stories is one example.

Related to that is the contrast of intimidating size with a not-intimidating personality; “gentle giant” Hagrid of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books fits that description. On the other hand, the unkind-to-Harry kid Dudley Dursley is quite overweight but also unsympathetic until showing a bit of humanity late in the series.

Overweight characters of student age can certainly suffer the slings and arrows of unkind reactions from classmates. That’s what Irie faces in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. And in Margaret Atwood’s Lady Oracle, Joan as a child gets criticized by her own mother for being overweight. It’s one of several reasons we sympathize with Irie and Joan — weight issues can evoke reader compassion. Yet, on this sexist planet of ours, females often bear much more of the brunt of body-size bias than males.

It’s nice when the heavyset nature of a character (such as Ma Joad of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath) is basically irrelevant. The weight just is.

But it’s not nice when a character’s size plays into nasty racial stereotypes, as with Mammy in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind.

What are some of your favorite works with elements of body weight?

To those who celebrate it, Merry Christmas!

Looking for a holiday gift for family and friends? 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. It’s not only for literature lovers but also for people who couldn’t care less about literature but like books with ridiculously long titles. 🙂

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest weekly piece, which has a weird holiday theme, is here.