Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A lot of great books do not have sympathetic characters - plus, my bibliography

I tried to do some genuine research for Sympathetic Character Week, to try to shape my rhetoric, if nothing else.  Besides Wayne Booth's book, enormously helpful, and to which I'll return later in the week, I did not have much luck.

Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose; How to Read a Novel by John Sutherland;  How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster: these all seemed like good candidates.  None mentioned the issue at all, and the reason was clear enough.  None of them took the question seriously.  Of course you don't dismiss a book because you don't like the characters.  Now get back to work!

The same person who suggested the spot-on yet off-point Freud essay led me to Samuel Johnson's Rambler #4, (1750), on the "new realistic novel."  Anybody want to defend this position:

There have been men indeed splendidly wicked, whose endowments threw a brightness on their crimes, and whom scarce any villainy made perfectly detestable, because they never could be wholly divested of their excellencies; but such have been in all ages the great corrupters  of the world, and their resemblance ought no more to be preserved than the art of murdering without pain.

Or more concisely: "It is therefore not a sufficient vindication of a character that it is drawn as it appears, for many characters ought never to be drawn" (emphasis mine). I think that cat is pretty much out of the bag by now.

Virginia Woolf always comes through for me.  From "How Should One Read a Book" (1926):

Reading is not merely sympathizing and understanding; it is also criticising and judging.

Sympathizing with whom, one should ask?  Woolf is clear enough, but we'll return to that on Friday.*

So (again excepting Booth) none of these books were that helpful.  One argument, my strongest, is perhaps so obvious that no one bothers to make it: a lot of great novels (stories, poems) have characters with whom no sane, mature person should sympathize.  And another swath of books is constructed independently of our concept of sympathy.  You shouldn't like them, you shouldn't want to be their friend, you shouldn't wish them well.  You should wish some of them ill, frankly. 

One group of books is more or less Modernist; the other is more or less pre-modern.  Pre-modern first. One reason we call Don Quixote the first novel is that we've hijacked it, turning it into a novel, and one way we did that was by learning to sympathize with the travails of Our Lord Don Quixote.  My understanding is that at the time it was generally read as a collection of side-splitting cruelty, an early Three Stooges. Ha ha - poke him in the eye again!  We aren't capable of reading it that way any more; sympathy is a powerful thing.

But what to do, then, with Egil's Saga, about a sociopathic Icelandic poet, or Grettir's Saga, about the last of the monster-killers, who is something of a monster himself?  So much pre-modern and early modern literature was created under entirely different assumptions of the reader's response.  Sometimes, a sympathetic response works; sometimes we have to find another way in to In Praise of Folly or The Lusiads or Orlando Furioso.

Now, the Modernists, deliberately working against sympathy: Charles Baudelaire titles one of the Paris Spleen prose poems "Let's Beat Up the Poor."  Or how about the poem "Against Her Levity," one of the six banned poems from The Flowers of Evil, in which the speaker expresses his desire to copulate with a wound he has made in his lover.  Yuck! Baudelaire's art presents a challenge to the notion of sympathy.

Every third French writer seems to ends up following in his path: Rimbaud, Ubu Roi, the Dadaists and Surrealists.  Icy Gustave Flaubert, contemptuous of his own characters -- not that you have any obligation to read Madame Bovary like he wanted you to (and let's revisit Flaubert in a couple of days).  And it's not just France:  As I Lay DyingThe Castle (he's never going to get in).  The Voyeur.  Beckett, or Bernhard, or Borges ("I sure hope that nice Pierre Menard finishes his Don Quixote book.")  There are exceptions on this list - see Beckett's heartbreaking Krapp's Last Tape.  Surrealists aside, I haven't even mentioned the genuinely avant garde stuff, mostly because I'm not sure I want to call any of it "great."  Additions to this list, or the one above, most welcome.

One could make a much longer list of wonderful Modernist books that do depend on some type of sympathetic relationship between the reader and the characters.   That is, and should be, the norm.  But there's this other world, too.  What should one tell the reader who refuses to look into Wuthering Heights because the characters are unpleasant?  Stay away from all those other books?  Or, try another approach - it's a lot more pleasant than it looks.

* In fairness, I should mention that Woolf called this essay "a lecture, for schoolgirls," which suggests a certain amount of contempt.  In more fairness, those schoolgirls were undergraduates at Yale.


  1. You say: "What should one tell the reader who refuses to look into Wuthering Heights because the characters are unpleasant? Stay away from all those other books? Or, try another approach - it's a lot more pleasant than it looks." May I offer this simple response: Tell the reader that we read novels because we cannot know enough people and we cannot have enough experiences in our finite lifetimes; therefore, let us enjoy the sublime, vicarious pleasure of meeting and learning about those fictional characters (warts and all) and "experiencing" their experiences. Our finite lives are expanded in subtle ways because of our vicarious pleasures and experiences through fiction. This may not be complicated literary theory, but it is simple advice to readers.

  2. Glad to see you airing this topic. Patrick Kurp approached a similar topic last week in talking about works that lacerate versus works of diversion. Loved your earlier comment about it being a conversation killer—when you’re supposed to discuss Vanity Fair and the only comment you get is “I can’t get past my dislike of Becky Sharp in order to finish the book”, it tends to cut things a little short. Although it does provide a chance to talk about the concepts of Catharsis and Mimesis, I guess.

  3. I certainly agree with this, R.T.

    I now see, though, that I have not done any justice to the intensive reader, the one who reads to repeat or reclaim some experience. People who read only the Bible or the Koran are the typical examples. The last thing they want to do is expand their lives through vicarious experiences.

    It's a style of reading so foreign to my own that I forget it exists. But it's a real challenge to my case.

    What I wrote today, in one sentence: There are many kinds of good books.

    But since I've just been thinking about bad readers, it's good to be reminded: There are many kinds of good readers.

    That excellent Anecodtal Evidence post Chrees mentions is here. Christina Stead's The Man Who Loved Children is the key book - and one to add to the "anti-sympathetic" list.

  4. I agree with everyone else that this is a very interesting topic--and, as others have said, I would see liking or disliking characters as starting, not ending points. In fact, characters we like may make us lazy readers, don't you think? If it is easy to "relate to" them (as my students seem to think is so important), it may be because they allow us to continue quite comfortably in our existing prejudices or habits of thought.

    A slightly different twist on the liking/disliking issue that is brought up by a number of 19th-century critics I've read (as well as by Booth, including in a great section of The Rhetoric of Fiction) is where our sympathies are directed--by choice of narrative strategy, for instance, or point of view. 19thC reviewers are often concerned, not with the presence of horrid characters, but with cases in which the novelist seems to be encouraging us to see the world too much through their eyes, or to take too much pleasure or interest in their misdeeds. (Margaret Oliphant had this complaint about The Woman in White, for instance, as she thought, rightly, that Count Fosco was pretty much the best character of the bunch, for sheer dynamism and interest.) Of course, in my opinion, some of the most brilliant bits of great novels are great precisely because they compel us, gently or not, to leave behind the characters we like best and spend some time getting to know the less attractive ones. Best example, Chapter 29 of Middlemarch ("but why always Dorothea?" the narrator asks, and off we go to Mr. Casaubon). Second best, Chapter 42!

  5. In fact, characters we like may make us lazy readers, don't you think? Oh, yes. Come back Thursday! That's when I begin saying nice things about sympathy again. George Eliot has a starring role. Austen, Tolstoy. Usual suspects. Flaubert,too.

    Evidence I'm an amateur - I read The Company We Keep, more or less at your recommendation. Hugely valuable book. But it never even occurred to me that The Rhetoric of Fiction would also be relevant. I leafed through it today - oops.

  6. You mention Beckett's "Krapp's Last Tape." I am wary of comparing stage characters to those appearing in novels and short stories. The dynamics of the narrative in prose fiction permit characterizations that are simply impossible on stage. On the other hand, the stage offers opportunities not available to prose fiction narrators. Now, in the case of Krapp, we have a singular literary device (the tape recorder as "character") that permits the sole character to listen to and comment upon his former self. I know of no other play that so successfully borrows from prose fiction's flashback strategy as a way of enhancing characterization. However, a character on the stage is a unique species and cannot (I think) be fairly compared to characters in prose fiction. They are two different species. Moreover, the variables in drama (actors, performance, directors, etc.) affect the audiences' relationship with the characters on stage in ways that are not available to prose fiction stylists. So, the bottom line is this: comparing drama with prose fiction is an apples-and-oranges exercise.

  7. RT, maybe I should think about it more, but I don't agree with that at all. I've never seen Krapp's Last Tape - I've just read it. So actors, performance, directors - central to my viewing of the play, all irrelevant for my reading of my play. To leap back, should my reading of Prometheus Unbound or Manfred really depend on whether I label them poems or plays?

    Regardless, a play, a novel, a poem, a history, they all include representations of people. They use different tools, but I can't compare those representations? I do it all the time, I'm afraid. Thw Wife of Bath is a character, Plato's Socrates is a character, King Lear is a character, the poet Basho walking down the narrow road to Oku is a character.

    What I am talking about has a name, right? I don't know what it is, though.

  8. In my humble opinion, character and characterization are two different subjects. We can agree that characters inhabit all the genres you have cited. We also can agree, I think, that the techniques for characterization (representation and development of characters) differ in the genres. The characterization is what interests me rather than the characters; perhaps I am always too aware of technique, which is the curse of anyone who has been dragged through theory and criticism courses as an English major. At any rate, perhaps an example would serve us well in our discussion. However, my mind draws a blank at the moment--so I will have to give some more thought--but if we were to look at one character (either liked or disliked by readers) who appears in different genres (produced by different authors), I think we could see more clearly examples of my assertions.

  9. Postscript: By the way, I've performed "Krapp's Last Tape," so I may not be the most objective voice with respect to Beckett's play. I would say, however, that Beckett's characters in his plays are, of course, rendered in ways that he cannot achieve in his prose fiction. Characterization for the stage draws upon one set of skills for a playwright; characterization for others genres draws upon different skill sets and strategies. Imagine Krapp in a short story or a novel. He becomes a different character. But perhaps I am making too much of a difference that others will argue does not exist.

  10. Wow, you've been Krapp - recorded all of the taped pieces, eaten the bananas and all that? Excellent.

    Speaking of fruit, I strongly dislike the "apples and oranges" metaphor. I know lots of ways to compare apples and oranges. I know lots of ways to compare characters in plays with characters in novels. Why isn't that fair?

    I don't think comparing the same character across genres works as a clean experiment. The Faustbuch Faust and Marlowe's Faust and Goethe's are not really the same character. Although they can be compared!

    I'd be interested in hearing what others think. But I can't help but imagining Krapp's Last Tape: The Novel, written entirely with dialogue and stage directions. This should change my reading how? Say Browning called "My Last Duchess" a dramatic monologue rather than a dramatic lyric. What changes?

  11. Yes, bananas, tapes, ledgers, and all.

  12. You say: "I'd be interested in hearing what others think. But I can't help but imagining Krapp's Last Tape: The Novel, written entirely with dialogue and stage directions. This should change my reading how? Say Browning called "My Last Duchess" a dramatic monologue rather than a dramatic lyric. What changes?" With respect to the first point, when the mode of characterization changes, does not the character also change (as does the reader's experience with the character)? With respect to the second point, I read Browning's poem as a dramatic monologue rather than a lyric because it matches up with the definitions of the former but not the latter. The Duke of Browning's poem would necessarily be a different character if presented in different genres (even within poetry's different forms) because of the different technical aspects involved in characterization. I recognize that I tend to repeat myself when I attempt to distinguish between character and characterization, and I will give it some more thought and attempt later to offer a more precise distinction, especially with respect to the differences between showing and telling (which ought to help advance the discussion about sympathetic and non-sympathetic characters in some small way).

  13. RT writes in the first comment: "May I offer this simple response: Tell the reader that we read novels because we cannot know enough people and we cannot have enough experiences in our finite lifetimes; therefore, let us enjoy the sublime, vicarious pleasure of meeting and learning about those fictional characters (warts and all) and "experiencing" their experiences"
    Isn't "experiencing their experiences" sympathizing with them? "Sympathetic characters" may not be the term for what I want, but I do desire characters I care about. It's not just that I didn't like anyone in W.H., it's that, had I not cared because my boyfriend at the time was a big fan, so I cared because I cared for him, I really wasn't fascinated enough by the characters to care what happened to them.
    It may be why, while I could see their virtues, As I Lay Dying and One Hundred Years of Solitude did very little for me.
    Interestingly, my personal counter example is Dickens. I can't recall caring a great deal about anyone in Our Mutual Friend or Tale of Two Cities, and yet I thoroughly enjoyed reading them.
    I don't claim my preference is anything but personal taste, but I don't buy the notion that taste and preference are unimportant. I don't like being scared or depressed. I think it is fully fair that I don't spend much time reading scary or depressing books. But then I should read some of them. Hmmmm. Seems to be something with things I enjoy reading (fantasy, works with heroic females, romance) vs. things I'm glad I have read. Will need to give some more thought to that.
    Thanks for sparking good conversations.

  14. Krapp's Last Tape: The Novel, Not To Be Performed on a Stage Under Any Circumstances by Samuel Beckett consists of the identical text to "Krapp's Last Tape," the play, except for the title.

    How are the characters different? How is the characterization different? I'm using an extreme case to try to pin down a position.

    I still don't see how I'm getting anywhere near your central point: you say that because plays and fiction use different tools (granted), the resulting representations of human beings cannot or should not be compared. I do it all the time, and I read people who do it all the time - Harold Bloom sometimes seems to act as if Shakespeare's Hamlet is an actual person - but we're making a mistake. What's the mistake? What's not "fair"?

    I see an obvious extension. Can I compare fictional characters to actual people? The modes of representation could hardly be more different!

  15. A/Reader: If you want to savor a mind-bending example of what I am trying to suggest, read (or better yet, attend a performance of) Luigi Pirandello's SIX CHARACTERS IN SEACH OF AN AUTHOR. While Pirandello is exploring some provocative notions of reality, he is also exposing us to the differences (whatever they might really be) between people (in life) and characters (on stage or elsewhere). My dramatic literature class is confronting Pirandello (starting with tomorrow's class), so Pirandello's play is in the forefront of my "critical thinking." You say that Bloom treats Hamlet as a "real" person, but I think Bloom is wise enough to know that he is using an elaborate literary conceit for purposes of advancing his argument about the universality of the character. Of course, I'm straying a bit far from the premise of your initial discussion. In any event, perhaps my earlier background as a theater major (B.A.) before pursuing the M.A. in English/Literature influences my schizophrenic thinking about characters and characterization. An actor (and a director) will see those matters differently that a reader (or author) of prose fiction. So, perhaps my split-personality on the issue is too heavily influencing my contributions to this enjoyable discussion.

  16. Oh, great example, thanks. Six Characters hits some of these ideas head-on. And Pirandello, like Beckett, was artistically successful with both fiction and drama.

  17. It struck me that all the French texts you mention sit squarely in a wave of literary experimentation and invention. They are all aiming to do something completely, wildly, disorientatingly different, and they have all taken a long while to be accepted and understood.

    The book that comes to my mind for some reason is Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos. He was supposed to be painting two evil vilains in the Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil, but they are so clever and witty and marvellous, so powerful and daring and deliciously bad that you cheer them on far more than the virtuous good. When Valmont is killed in the duel with the weedy Chevalier de Danceny, the male blood line of heroes in French literature is terribly affected, and produces only wimps and anti-heroes for centuries to come.

  18. That crack about Valmont is hilarious. A joke that has the ring of truth. The Laclos novel and its kin are in a related category, aren't they - books where part of the pleasure comes from rooting for characters when we know we're not supposed to.

    And, yes, that's it - there's an alternative to the standard model of the novel. To stay with 19th century France, Hugo's novels reward one kind of sympathetic response, Flaubert's another, and Stendhal's yet another.

  19. Reading yesterday's and today's posts, I find myself feeling defensive for the concept of disliking a book (or film, etc.) for a want of sympathetic characters. I have two things to say on the topic, both of which are I'm afraid quite spectacularly banal.

    1) There are many kinds of readers, and most readers read in multiple modalities. Some people read purely for diversion; most people who read to challenge their intellect or, as R.T. says, "because we cannot know enough people and we cannot have enough experiences in our finite lifetimes" (a damn fine reason to read, incidentally) also find themselves reading for pure comfort from time to time. When reading at this level, people can and should read pretty much whatever the hell they want. Arguments that they should challenge themselves to overcome dislike of unsympathetic characters go out the window.

    2) The (un)likeability of characters is only one of however many characteristics of a novel, but it's an obvious one and one a newer or younger reader can readily isolate. In a book where you have a protagonist who is hard to identify with but everything else is going well -- Remains of the Day or Lolita, to pick obvious examples -- the sympathy problem is unlikely to come up. In lesser books, though, the sympathy issue might just be the most obvious component of a total package that is giving a reader trouble.

    Irony of the Day: I've never been able to get into Francine Prose. The main reason, as I recall it? Don't like her characters.

  20. Francine Prose: Yes. Almost as soon as I picked up her book, I laughed at myself. Of course she's not interested in this problem.

    1. Yes. But I'm concerned with how to read well. Who says people shouldn't read what they want?

    2. Yes. Inexperienced readers struggling with a book are likely to latch onto the aspects of the novel about which they can articulate. Of that which they cannot speak, they must remain silent.

    But now I don't understand why you feel defensive. A book has sympathetic characters, but no other redeeming features, and I admire it for the enjoyable time spent with the characters. Good. A book has unsympathetic characters, and no other real redeeming features, and I think, what a dud. Fine.

    But isn't the only relevant candidate for discussion here the book with unsympathetic characters and other significant admirable features? What should I do with that book?

    My answer is definitely not "I should like it."

  21. Of that which they cannot speak, they must remain silent.

    Weren't you just on about your philosophy-fear somewhere or other? And this of all lines! Thanks for the lunchtime smile.


  22. What I find fascinating about early modern books like Teofilo Folengo's Baldus, Gargantua and Pantagruel, Orlando Furioso and Don Quixote is how rich they were: they contain multitudes, like their distinguished ancestors, The Odissey, The Aeneid and Apuleius' The Golden Ass.

    One particularly sympathy inducing part of the Orlando Furioso is the Alcina episode in canto VI, which was the basis for many great baroque operas, including Haendel's Alcina with its sublime Verdi Prati (farewell to illusions) aria. We end up sympathizing with the evil witch Alcina (echoes of Circe), because she falls deeply in love and, thus, becomes humanized and because she loses the one she loves and her powers at the end. Someone (cough, Language Hat, cough) made a similar point about why Humbert Humbert is a more sympathetic character than the protagonist of 'A la recherche du temps perdu'. Some would say that Cazotte was inspired by this 'supernatural being falling deeply in love with a human being' plot for his 'Devil in Love'. This plot is also very common in Pu Song Ling's short stories about female foxes, ghosts and ghouls in love. Heck, I've read an interpretation of Shakespeare's The Tempest along similar lines with Prospero and Miranda being the sinfully loving couple.

    I notice with some sadness that, as usual, you've already covered this ground, and done it better, too:

  23. I don't know about better. I love your examples - Alcina, absolutely! And Cazotte's Devil, good one. We find our way to sympathy.