Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Nefarious novelists manipulate their readers' demand for sympathetic characters

Really, here's the most important reason to be careful about indulging in the entirely natural impulse to sympathize with the admirable and interesting characters in a novel.  It turns out that certain novelists are aware of this predilection and have learned to manipulate it for their own sinister ends.  One solution is to avoid all such books.  Use this post as a guide.  Another is to be cautious.  Very cautious.  One can't be too safe.

Vladimir Nabokov, for example.  In Lolita (1955), a murderous pedophile writes his confession.  He (Humbert Humbert, and Vladimir Nabokov) uses every trick in the book, and invents a few new ones.  Readers who are not extremely vigilant almost inevitably find themselves relaxing their guard.  HH is so erudite, and there are worse monsters in the world, and - well, there's a lot more like that.  Most importantly, we spend most of the first-person novel with him, and he's not only charming, but dazzling, a self-pitying master of flimflammery.  We slip into the narrator's world.  Isn't that what we're supposed to do in a novel?

Lolita is a useful case because it is actually about readerly sympathy.  Taking the book as a real document, the author is justifying his crimes to someone, asking someone to forgive him, appealing for sympathy.  Taking the book as a novel, the reader often has to struggle to escape the natural pull of sympathy.  Whether or not HH, at the end of the novel, begins to understand the true nature of his own crimes is incidental to the way the device works.

Nabokov continued to explore this idea in the novels that followed Lolita. In Pnin (1957), the hapless Russian immigrant Professor Pnin is genuinely sympathetic, a brilliant, warm creation.  Many readers, indulging in their fellow-feeling for this marvelous character (see the end of Chapter Six, the punch bowl, unbelievable), never quite notice how he's being abused by the narrator, a certain "Vladimir Nabokov."  Poor Pnin, with a burst of creative solution-finding, actually has to flee the novel.  In Lolita, the villain hides behind false sympathy; in Pnin, behind real sympathy.  Pale Fire (1962) twists the idea in yet another direction.  Nabokov sure enjoyed the author-as-puppeteer metaphor.

Ford Madox Ford famously begins The Good Soldier (1915) with "This is the saddest story I have ever heard."  Now here, one thinks, with this story we'll find some first-rate sympathizin'.  "Poor Florence," the narrator calls his dead wife, again and again, and Captain Ashburnham is the model of an English gentleman, and "I loved Leonora always and, to-day, I would very cheerfully lay down my life, what is left of it, in her service."  But in fact the characters turn out to be ridiculous, and the narrator himself loses sympathy for them as he tells the story - actually, because he tells the story.  The act of storytelling in this case destroys sympathy. 

And what, I ask you, is behind the inscrutable expression of Little William Thackeray, perched up there at the top of the blog?  He's keeping a careful eye on the readers of Vanity Fair (1847-48), watching them puzzle over exactly which characters are supposed to receive the reader's sympathy.  The most likable character is selfish and immoral; the other candidate is selfish and priggish.  The men are idiots or dishrags.  The narrator keeps telling us that everything's fine, what do we expect, that's just the way things are.

These are some of my all-time favorite books.  You may have noticed that these are all comic writers.  So the savvy sympathetic reader might want to avoid comic writers.  Dickens wanted his readers to like his characters, so he's safe.  I think.

All right, I'm tired of not liking anyone.  Tomorrow, I'm going to sympathize with sympathy.

* I want to recommend, as strongly as possible, Nabokov's last Russian novel, The Gift (1938), which is neither tricky, nor icy, nor icky, nor whatever other adjectives people use to diminish Nabokov.  It's a perfect Bildungsroman, and I have no idea why it's not more read.  The Chernyshevsky chapter alone is one of the best things Nabokov ever wrote.


  1. Reading some Nabokov beyond Lolita is going to be a project of mine next year. I have The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov, Invitation To A Beheading and Despair on the shelf ready to go and some of the ones you mention on the "to be bought" list. Your post makes me anxious to get started!


  2. I'm especially enjoying your posts this week. I don't mind being manipulated by the author as long as they do it as marvelously as those you mention here do. What I despise are authors who go overboard and sacrifice the integrity of the story in order to manipulate the reader's emotions especially if the book has a tragic ending. When it is so overdone I feel like the author has morphed into a used car salesman and I have to go take a shower to wash off the slime.

  3. I think you could have done this whole week as a study in the negative Amazon reviews of Lolita. They are (mostly) an amazing display of misunderstanding. Or can they be interpreted just as a rejection of the premise of the unsympathetic character and authorial manipulation? I think they go both ways, depending.

    Also, I love The Gift. And The Good Soldier. Yay!

  4. Stefanie - you detected my subtext! These books manipulate the reader for real aesthetic and perhaps even ethical purposes. But there's another sort of manipulation that's rather more dubious.

    As nicole suggests, some readers seem to reject books that seem to manipulate them, while embracing other books that, being created objects, are just as mainpulative. No way I'm going into that Amazon swamp! There's snakes and such in there.

    Lezlie - good, good. Invitation to a Beheading is another great one, and would be another good surprise for anyone who's got VN pegged as a writer who does only one thing. I considered including Despair as an example here, but I concluded that it didn't delve into this particular authorial technique to the same degree. Hints at it, maybe.

  5. I just started reading your blog-

    I have to say, I never sympathized with Humbert Humbert, but I did feel that Nabokov was trying to make me sympathize with him, which made me resist it all the more.

  6. What a fascinating post and another wonderful discussion starting up! I love Stefanie's comment here because it's very close to my heart. I loathe being manipulated, Hollywood-style into liking and disliking characters, but the aesthetic trickery of a Nabokov, who wonders whether he can take you into the mind of a monster and make you comfortable there, is another thing altogether. It is a rare talent that can make rampant negativity understandable or likeable. I'm intrigued by the comic dimension to all this, though - is badness something we have (learned) to laugh at?

    I loved The Good Soldier, too, and it is just as you say: the desire to present oneself in a good light becomes impossible to sustain as the story progresses, and that veneer of distance and reason crumbles. I will certainly read The Gift now, as I would like to know a Nabokov beyond Lolita.

  7. I love Lolita and Pale Fire and The Good Soldier, and the truth probably is that I love unreliable narrators because they are just so much fun to think about and analyze. I guess I enjoy getting pulled every which way as I try to figure out how to respond to a character, and I like the complicated emotional response these books evoke. I'll make sure to get to Pnin and The Gift at some point.

  8. SpStMir - that's right, a good reading of Lolita requries resistance to our ususal habits. It can be exhausting. The Good Soldier and Pnin are more forgiving. The reader can go along as usual and then at some point be surprised and pivot. Read Lolita that way up to the halfway point and it's probably too late.

    Now, the comic question is interesting. Are we finding the limits of my reading? Or is a comic tone ethically neccesary - meaning, can this specific sort of manipulation work otherwise? What's a dramatic story where you think you're supposed to sympathize with the protagonist, and then turn out to be wrong, but some sense of tragedy is maintained? Maybe if the reader's sympathy shifts to another character.

    Dorothy, yes, that's what I was trying to say yesterday, with a lot more huffing and puffing. Watching the magician at work and trying to figure out what he does is fun.

  9. I read Pale Fire and Nabokov's short stories but other than that, I haven't read the books you mention. I have always been interested in how Nabokov captures the reader through such a despicable narrator in Lolita, though. Must get to it!

  10. So glad I came across your blog. I am currently working my way through Pale Fire. It is wonderful to come across another 'classic' book blog as there seem to be so few out there. Great post. I will have to check out the other Nabokov you mentioned after I'm finished since I felt like I was running out of his work.

    As far as sympathy in literature goes how can we forget good ole Satan himself? If there was one character I ever really felt was that guy.

  11. Paradise Lost is a relevant example. But I'm reluctant to include early modern books in this particularly exercise. We read Milton in a particular way, but I'm not so sure that earlier readers, or Milton, followed the same path.

    That's why William Blake said Milton was "of the Devil's party without knowing it" (emphasis mine). I wanted to stick with cases where I knew that the author knew what he was doing.