Monday, August 22, 2011

50 Characters Who've Stuck With Me: Part Four

My computer literally had a melt down in mid-June. After a long delay here are the last two installments of the Characters series.

20. Melville – Captain Ahab, Moby Dick

“''Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! THUS, I give up the spear!"”

He’s a bit over the top, that Ahab. I’d just be like, “OH SH*T WHALE! KILLITKILLITKILLIT!” But that’s why I’m not a character of classic literature. Melville made some very memorable characters – Bartleby, Ishmael and the rest – but Ahab, who at worst is a living personification of vengeance, is not larger than life. He is kept – just – within the bounds of reality.

19. Rowling – Severus Snape, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

“…you have your mother’s eyes.”

Perhaps it’s because I’m so uncultured. Snape is the first character of his sort I ever ran across. His tragic arc was, for me, new. Not new in that I hadn’t already encountered the concept in life, or ‘Love Actually’ (which also has Alan Rickman) but the first good depiction I’d encountered in literature. His tragedy, perhaps the most common in life, is not Medea’s, or Hippolytus’ or Antigone’s; and Rowling pulls off her most interesting character in the process.

18. Turgenev – Bazarov, Fathers and Sons

“Madame Odintsov looked at Bazarov. His pale face was twitching with a bitter smile. 'This man did love me!' she thought, and she felt pity for him, and held out her hand to him with sympathy.
But he too understood her. 'No!' he said, stepping back a pace. 'I'm a poor man, but I've never taken charity so far. Good-bye, and good luck to you.'

'I am certain we are not seeing each other for the last time,' Anna Sergyevna declared with an unconscious gesture.

'Anything may happen!' answered Bazarov, and he bowed and went away.”

Bazarov – the haughty intellectual torn between the nihilism of the age and his deep commitments to humanity. He is, like many on this list, a tragic figure: destined for great things with his resolutions but brought down haphazardly, inconspicuously almost, having only just begun his story. Written off as an afterthought of accident he had only just begun to make peace with his conflicts.

17. Gilman – The Narrator, The Yellow Wallpaper

“Of course I never mention it to them any more—I am too wise,—but I keep watch of it all the same.

There are things in that paper that nobody knows but me, or ever will.”

Gilman’s story is apparently rather contentious. It was my literary introduction to feminism, and the narrator, forced to stay bed-ridden, causing her mental deterioration, made me shiver. The recognition that Victorian and Edwardian women often were amongst the most repressed in modern times comes through with a stark shudder from our narrator’s tale.

16. Solzhenitsyn – Ivan Denisovich, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

“Shukhov licked his spoon clean and returned it to his boot, then put on his cap and made for sick bay.”

The lean prose of this classic was so well-crafted so as to merit a Nobel Prize, rarely given for a single outstanding work. Denisovich – Shukhov to the narrator – is a gulag prisoner whose life in the camps is one of sweat tempered by cold, hard beds and rules, and spoons kept in one’s boot. That he manages to eke out a personality in the midst of describing the wretched conditions of prison life instead of a generic scene of suffering endows Denisovich with its classic quality.

15. Eliot – Dorothea, Middlemarch

“"They are lovely," said Dorothea, slipping the ring and bracelet on her finely turned finger and wrist, and holding them towards the window on a level with her eyes. All the while her thought was trying to justify her delight in the colors by merging them in her mystic religious joy.”

Woolf said that Middlemarch was “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.” Dorothea is not a simple sketch – she does not exist as just a torn lover or a trying to reconcile her joys in life with her religious reveries. Eliot was better than that and portrays Dorothea as a very complex character who does not have all of her problems solved. Nor does Eliot leave the resolutions unresolved for shock value. Instead they are left, for that is how life is.

14. Faulkner – Joe Christmas, Light in August

“He looked like a tramp, yet not like a tramp either. His shoes were dusty and his trousers were soiled too. But they were of decent serge, sharply creased, and his shirt was soiled but it was a white shirt, and he wore a tie and a stiffbrim straw hat that was quite new, cocked at an angle arrogant and baleful above his still face. He did not look like a professional hobo in his professional rags, but there was something definitely rootless about him, as though no town nor city was his, no street, no walls, no square of earth his home. And that he carried his knowledge with him always as though it were a banner, with a quality ruthless, lonely, and almost proud. ''As if,'' as the men said later, ''he was just down on his luck for a time, and that he didn’t intend to stay down on it and didn’t give a damn much how he rose up.''”

Faulkner has a seriously impressive gallery of characters. From autistic Benjy to a boy who thinks his mother is a fish, to a bear, his were all memorable. Christmas is, to me, a distillation of many of the themes and traits of Faulkner’s writing. He is utterly alone – neither comfortable in white society or black, or with the woman he loves, or with the people he works with. His isolation is total.

13. Fitzgerald – Jay Gatsby, The Great Gatsby

“I tried to think about Gatsby then for a moment but he was already too far away…”

Jay Gatsby is the central character, and a seriously lacking presence, in Fitzgerald’s novel. Even after the reveal, the whole back story, every intimate moment and confession, you are still left without a grasp on him. Nick’s five-year odyssey leaves him hardly better off than the first wild parties in understanding the man even though their relationship changes vividly throughout. Gatsby is not some lame excuse at creating an enigma, however. He is experienced as we truly experience others.

12. Doyle – Sherlock Holmes, A Study in Scarlet

“"The train of reasoning ran, 'Here is a gentleman of a medical type, but with the air of a military man. Clearly an army doctor, then. He has just come from the tropics, for his face is dark, and that is not the natural tint of his skin, for his wrists are fair. He has undergone hardship and sickness, as his haggard face says clearly. His left arm has been injured. He holds it in a stiff and unnatural manner. Where in the tropics could an English army doctor have seen much hardship and got his arm wounded? Clearly in Afghanistan.' The whole train of thought did not occupy a second. I then remarked that you came from Afghanistan, and you were astonished."

Holmes specifically sneers at Poe’s rational Dupin. Holmes initially has much in common with Dupin, though, when he puts his mental faculties to use to solve mysteries of the criminal sort. But Dupin is one-off, a scribble of sorts. Holmes over the years got richer and more interesting. His failings were many, and from the start. But his status as one of the world’s most beloved characters is not for nothing.

11. Woolf – Clarissa Dalloway, Mrs. Dalloway

“She was not old yet. She had just broken into her fifty-second year. Months and months of it were still untouched. June, July, August! Each still remained almost whole, and, as if to catch the falling drop, Clarissa (crossing to the dressing-table) plunged into the very heart of the moment, transfixed it, there--the moment of this June morning on which was the pressure of all the other mornings, seeing the glass, the dressing-table, and all the bottles afresh, collecting the whole of her at one point (as she looked into the glass), seeing the delicate pink face of the woman who was that very night to give a party; of Clarissa Dalloway; of herself.”

Woolf, who praised Eliot’s efforts in creating English literature for adults, then surpassed her. Mrs. Dalloway’s inner monologue threading together the different character’s accidental meetings slowly reveals a woman who is identifiable, taken from reality rather than created for a message. A sequencing of thoughts which does not seemed forced.

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