Thursday, November 29, 2007

The most likable character in all of literature

Elizabeth Bennet, the heroine of Pride and Prejudice, is something along the lines of the most likable fictional person in history.* This is the source of Austen's unusual popularity, this is what all of her chick lit followers want to recreate.

Elizabeth's older sister Jane is prettier.** Her bookish younger sister Mary is smarter, though a fool ("Mary wished to say something very sensible, but knew not how"). Elizabeth is witty, generous, kind, observant - all the sorts of things we wish we were. And if we don't identify ourselves with her, we know she'd be a great friend.

I hope this does not sound like some sortof mockery. It's not. Lots of writers - most great writers - create characters just as full and alive. Austen's own characters are among them. But how many of her readers love Austen for pathetic Fanny in Mansfield Park, or prickly Emma, or even sensible, self-sacrificing Anne Elliot? I like Elizabeth more, myself. "Most likable fictional person" - that's my own opinion, not an attempt to describe the opinion of others.

My problem here is that I either do not understand or do not respect her achievement, as large as it is. Compare Elizabeth to her predecessors, to Burney's Evelina or Richardson's Clarissa Harlowe, or Austens own Dashwoods. Something new is going on here, a real advance in fictional characterization. Or compare Austen to Scott or (early) Dickens, who can toss off brilliant minor characters by the fistful, but have enormous trouble creating interesting central characters.

Anyway, I don't fiction read to meet new friends. Tomorrow I will try to describe what I do look for, using Mansfield Park, which I think is a much greater artistic work than Pride and Prejudice. But it's much less loved, and doesn't have the likes of Elizabeth Bennet. I'm not sure any other novel does.

* Other candidates are welcome, since my ignorance is vast. And anyone who finds Jo from Little Women more likable, or Effi Briest, or David Copperfield, or Oskar Matzerath, should firmly stick with that position.

** Jane is very likable, too. So is Darcy, once he overcomes his pride (or is it prejudice?). The difference is, we love Elizabeth as soon as we meet her.


  1. Hi Amateur Reader! Thanks for the link.

    I, for one, like Emma. I have to. I'm just like her. ;)

    I'll be interested to read your thoughts on Mansfield Park. Fanny doesn't compute these days but I don't think it's her fault.

  2. I had been contemplating P+P after your earlier posts and thinking about how Bridget Jones fails (despite both book and film being lots of fun). Beyond the obvious, that BJ is supposed to be about the plot and P+P is so much more (and Jane Austen really does have something great going for her), my conclusion was just that Bridget is not nearly as amiable as Elizabeth. Austen goes to great lengths to make Elizabeth non-perfect and "unaccomplished" in the eyes of the Bingley sisters, however she still comes across as gorgeous and capable and fun. Bridgett Jones is meant to be quirky and unaccomplished, but it comes across as incompetent.

    Anyway, Elizabeth may have my vote for likable, but I need to give it some more thought.

  3. Sylvia, welcome. Your blog is a model of oganization. Poor Fanny. Nothing is her fault.

    Helpful point, squirrel. We know Elizabeth is wonderful right away, as does her father and Jane. But no one else does, because of social prejudice and blithering idiocy. This is why Darcy's conversion is so effective. Of course, he falls in love with Elizabeth. Of course.

  4. How did you find my blog? I thought you left great comments, so I'm glad you did.

    I nominate Jane Eyre for most likeable fictional character.

  5. Imani, I believe I wandered over to you blog via So Many Books. I'm still exploring the Big World of Book Blogs.

    Jane Eyre is a fine candidate for "most likable".

  6. Okay, I know this was written over a year ago, but still I must respond--I never liked Jane Eyre because I got tired of the constant humility. A little "I am but a plain humble governess" goes a long way.

    I nominate Elinor from Sense & Sensibility.

  7. I think I may find the movie Elinor Dashwood more likable than the novel Elinor, but either way, I understand he appeal.

    I am not so sure, however, continual Jane Eyre's humility is. A lot of people like her because she's actually kind of cussed. See the bizarre "training of Rochester" scenes after their engagement. Also, there are some curious tensions between Jane-the-narrator and young-Jane-the-character.

    Maybe I should say that, in general, I am suspicious of the idea that I should like anyone in a novel. It's something I resist, whether or not I should.

    Thanks for the comment.

  8. I nominate Max Demian. Twenty-odd years later I'm still grateful for having met him on Hesse's novel.

  9. Now that is a promising place to look. A lot of the earlier Bildungsromans like Keller's Green Henry or the Stifter I am reading now have protagonists who should be extremely likable, but their characterization is shadowy close up. I like them at a distance, or in theory.

    So it makes sense that a later writer working in the form but with fuller characterization would create a good fictional friend.