Surely learning to meet "the others" where they live is the greatest of all gifts that powerful fiction can offer us.
Wayne Booth, The Company We Keep: The Ethics of Fiction (1988), p. 414.
Welcome to Anti-Sympathetic Character Week! Or Sympathetic Characters: Pro and Con! Or Sympathetic Characters! What Are They Good For? I guess I didn't think of a good title.
What do I mean by "sympathetic character"? What I mean is, whatever someone means when he says "I did not like Wuthering Heights because it did not have any sympathetic characters." Now, what does that reader mean? Check out this horror show for something similar.
Literature professors hate this kind of talk.* What a conversation-killer. That's how I see it used in LitBlogLand, too. Didn't like the characters, therefore didn't like the book, therefore we're done.
We all, as humans, have a taste for sympathetic characters. That taste is natural, perhaps a social animal's evolutionary adaptation, who knows. Sigmund Freud, in his 1908 essay "Creative Writers and Day-dreaming," sees the actions of both writing and reading as akin to day-dreaming, with the sympathetic hero providing a "sense of security". But look at this caveat:
for the purposes of our comparison, we will choose not the writers most highly esteemed by the critics, but the less pretentious authors of novels, romances and short stories, who nevertheless have the widest and most eager circle
So a disclaimer of my own: I'm only talking about the writers most highly esteemed, the more pretentious authors, with the narrowest yet most eager circles.
Tastes, I am told, cannot be disputed. Tastes can be cultivated, though. The taste for characters with whom one does not sympathize should be cultivated. That's what I want to argue. And, honestly, I'm not convinced that a taste for "characters I can identify with" or "characters I understand" is any less arbitrary than not wanting to read about poor people, or not wanting to read depressing books (examples drawn, sadly, from life).
Wayne Booth, and he's not the only one, argues that we readers actually have an ethical imperative to seek out characters unlike ourselves. Fiction (including poetry) gets us closer to other humans than is otherwise possible. No other form allows this particular intimacy. This is our chance to fight against our own limits and experience true sympathy.
Or is this just another arbitrary preference, a taste for cosmopolitanism, a taste for otherness?
One more disclaimer, while I'm jabbering about tastes. One of my problems with that Wuthering Heights straw man up above is that I don't really care if he likes the book. I don't care that much if I like the book! Something about Wuthering Heights has kept it alive, has attracted so many good readers. I want to figure out what it is. Looking for sympathetic characters in Wuthering Heights is a hindrance to understanding the novel. The strange thing is that once I do begin to figure out what the author is up to, what is actually in the book, I begin to like it, a lot. This is what I mean by cultivating a taste. Critical distance is pleasurable.
I'm going to spend a couple of days arguing my position, which, again is not against sympathetic characters but for putting them in their place, for critical distance. Then I will try to recover the sympathetic character. It turns out that I want sympathetic characters, too.
All of this barring ideas from my readers, who are likely to understand the issue better than I do.
* This week I'm likely to be wrong a lot more than usual. Please, correct me. Who knows, maybe professors love this. Please, student, more about your likes and dislikes. Wonderful.
** Freud quotations from The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume IX (1959), ed. James Strachey. London: The Hogarth Press. p. 149. Thanks to JRussell (see comments) for this source, and for a Samuel Johnson essay I'll mention later in the week.