Saturday, July 2, 2011

50 Characters Who've Stuck With Me: Part One

Avoiding the world of poetry and playwrights here are fifty literary characters who have stuck with me, and, I'm guessing, are good candidates to stick with others.

50. Dick – Pat Conley, Ubik

“On her bare, dark forearm he made out a tattoo, CAVEAT EMPTOR, it read. He wondered what that meant.”

In Sci-Fi most women come in two stock types: 'one of the guys' who totes a gun and kicks ass, or arousing martians/robots. (Of course there are also the normal templates as well, such as the Damsel.) Conley, however, is a well-developed woman who somehow skirts both of these classic stereotypes while eventually revealing something more complex.

49. Voltaire – Dr. Pangloss, Candide

“Pangloss sometimes said to Candide: "There is a concatenation of events in this best of all possible worlds: for if you had not been kicked out of a magnificent castle for love of Miss Cunegonde: if you had not been put into the Inquisition: if you had not walked over America: if you had not stabbed the Baron: if you had not lost all your sheep from the fine country of El Dorado: you would not be here eating preserved citrons and pistachio-nuts."”

Pangloss is the dopey, ever-optimistic 'mataphysico-theologico-cosmologist'. The classic example of a muddleheaded academic Pangloss continually preaches that this 'is the best of all possible worlds' to cheer Candide, despite the earthquakes, executions and dismemberments affecting our poor hero.

48. Borges – Ireneo Funes, Funes the Memorious

“He remembered the shapes of the clouds in the south at dawn on the 30th of April of 1882, and he could compare them in his recollection with the marbled grain in the design of a leather-bound book which he had seen only once, and with the lines in the spray which an oar raised in the Rio Negro on the eve of the battle of the Quebracho.”

Borges wasn't really known for his characters, but Funes proves a fascinating exception. Funes remembers everything he's ever experienced, with each moment of his life a distinct mental image from the last. How he copes presents an intriguing character portrait.

47. Carroll – The Cheshire Cat, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

“'But I don't want to go among mad people,' Alice remarked.
'Oh, you can't help that,' said the Cat: 'we're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad.'”

Alice is, for my money, the best Victorian character after Phineas Fogg. But of all the peculiar people and creatures she runs into in Wonderland and the Looking-Glass World few resonate, or are as beloved, as the Cheshire Cat. I think if cats could talk they'd converse with us much in the same way – sparse, decisive pronouncements before disappearing.

46. Gogol – The Nose, The Nose

“''Good sir,'' Kovalev went on with a heightened sense of dignity, ''the one who is at a loss to understand the other is I. But at least the immediate point should be plain, unless you are determined to have it otherwise. Merely — you are my own nose.''
The Nose regarded the Major, and contracted its brows a little.”

The Nose is Gogol's most peculiar story – a man loses his nose and finds it a bread roll, followed by its putting on a suit and traipsing around St. Petersburg. The Nose acts in a manner befitting a Russian petty official, as perhaps our noses would if they had coats and boots of their own.

45. Kafka – The Officer, The Penal Colony

“''It’s a remarkable apparatus,'' said the Officer to the Explorer and gazed with a certain look of admiration at the device, with which he was, of course, thoroughly familiar.”

As maybe the most disturbing portrayal of a cog in the system the Officer is totally desensitized to his monstrous apparatus – a device used on the condemned that, in the Officer's deluded mind, leads not only to a punishment, but a sort of grisly revelation.

44. Marquez – The Old Man, A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings

“He was dressed like a ragpicker. There were only a few faded hairs left on his bald skull and very few teeth in his mouth, and his pitiful condition of a drenched great-grandfather took away and sense of grandeur he might have had. His huge buzzard wings, dirty and half-plucked were forever entangled in the mud. They looked at him so long and so closely that Pelayo and Elisenda very soon overcame their surprise and in the end found him familiar. Then they dared speak to him, and he answered in an incomprehensible dialect with a strong sailor's voice.”

The silent central figure of Marquez' story is pitiful. Is he an angel? Some sort of sideshow freak? A random sailor? He is similar to Gorey's Doubtful Guest: he shows up, doesn't explain himself, and seemingly waits.

43. Adams – Marvin the Paranoid Android, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

“I didn't ask to be made: no one consulted me or considered my feelings in the matter. I don't think it even occurred to them that I might have feelings. After I was made, I was left in a dark room for six months... and me with this terrible pain in all the diodes down my left side.”

Marvin is the ultimate pessimist, misanthrope and downer. Extraordinarily intelligent he can't help but complain, mope, and bring everyone down around him. Who doesn't know someone like Marvin?

42. Orwell – Boxer, Animal Farm

“"I do not understand it. I would not have believed that such things could happen on our farm. It must be due to some fault in ourselves. The solution, as I see it, is to work harder. From now onwards I shall get up a full hour earlier in the mornings."”

Boxer may well be the most tragic character on this list. The allegory of Soviet revolution sees the pigs controlling the other animals, but Boxer, the worker, has blind faith in their leaders. The noble plow-horse, whose unfailing solution to problems is to condemn himself with his slogan “I will work harder!” is the inspiration to the other animals on the farm. How the pigs reward him will move you.

41. O'Connor – The Misfit, A Good Man is Hard to Find

“''I never was a bad boy that I remember of," The Misfit said in an almost dreamy voice, "but somewheres along the line I done something wrong...''”

The Misfit, a criminal in the backwoods, seems to have no real motive. His mind is somewhere between unhinged and too rational. As he interacts with our main characters we get a full biography but it doesn't help – the Misfit is maddeningly, worryingly inscrutable. The famous story's conclusion, from the lips of the criminal, has now become classic.

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