Thursday, June 4, 2009

In Salem for a few days, plus a request regarding sympathetic characters

I'll be in Salem and other points near Boston for a few days. Perhaps I'll see the House of Seven Gables in the flesh. Or the wood, I guess. Anyway, no posting tomorrow.

A commenter inspired me to think a little more about the issue of sympathetic characters. Maybe I should actually say at some point why I don't have much use for them. So I'll think about that.

But what about the other side? Does anybody know of any full-throated defenses of sympathetic characters? Blog posts, articles, books, whatever? What I mean is, what is the aesthetic defense of the sympathetic character.

One useful approach is via the history of the novel, especially the rise of the sentimental novel, the discovery by writers of the use of the sympathetic character. There must also be ethical arguments. Would Wayne Booth be a useful place to look for this sort of thing?

Any assistance would be greatly appreciated. This is probably an overly ambitious project, but who knows.


  1. If you're near Boston, head to the Longfellow National Historic Site in Cambridge - one of the best-kept secrets of the area. I'm trying not to be biased because I work there, of course.

  2. Was just walking through Salem myself, earlier in the week. Pretty damn kitschy, between witch trials and Hawthorne, almost as bad as Fisherman's Wharf. I didn't go down to the House of 7 Gables, having been by it on a previous visit, so I've never been inside. Probably should have done that. Went instead to the National Park Visitors Center (like those sorts of things), where they have a good little booklet on Hawthorne's Salem. Across the street is the Peabody Essex Museum, which is very solid, has the Osgood portrait of Hawthorne. Probably could have done a better job of connecting to Hawthorne, but that's the way it goes sometimes. Missed the Longfellow site, unfortunately. Primary note would be to be warned about the kitsch/tourist factor, which can be rather oppressive.

  3. I've taken the Seven Gables tour three or four times now - and I've always been disappointed. Overpriced, not enough Hawthorne, etc.

  4. Noticing that 7 Gables is gone from the reading list, presumably complete, and Mill on the Floss has stepped in.

    Looking forward very much to the return from Salem post. I've been writing up my own trip, and decided to do the long version that includes description of film set hijinx. So it won't appear on the blog, and it's going to take a little time to construct. So I'm that much more interested in your version. Hawthorne time!

  5. Thanks for all the advice - I caught it just in time to use it, to the extent that it fit my prejudices. Meaning, Rob could have convinced me to pay to go in the Seven Gables house, but he didn't have to convince me to stay out. I did walk by it, though.

    And the Longfellow site, next trip, I hope. With luck, I will make it to the Poe National Historic Site later this summer.

    zhiv, just got that post up - you'll probably be disappointed! I'm not really ready to write much about Hawthorne's novels. Yet. Let's say yet. I hope to get to Blithedale soon. Maybe The Marble Faun, too.

  6. Are you planning on coming by here on your Poe travels? If so, when? (I assume you are aware that presence of a one week old does not make parents particularly good hosts and that grandparents have long reserved the guest bedroom).

  7. Hmmm...could you say a bit more about what constitutes a "sympathetic" character? Do you mean somebody like Hester Prynne who stumbles a bit, all too humanly? Or do you mean somebody like Santa Claus?

  8. What do I mean by "sympathetic character"? I mean whatever the reader who says "I didn't like Wuthering Heights because it doesn't have any sympathetic characters" means.

    The problem is, I don't know what that reader means!

    Some possibilities: a sympathetic character is a person like me. Or a person I would like to know, be friends with. Or a person whose admirable qualities outweigh his less admirable ones.

    Good question.