Monday, August 22, 2011

50 Characters Who've Stuck With Me: Part Five

10. Moore – Ozymandias/The Comedian, Watchmen

“I did it thirty-five minutes ago.”

Ozymandias and the Comedian are a joint entry for the reason that they both see the world the same way. Their actions, or interpretations, of how to deal with the world is what separates them, and their encounter is no coincidence. The Comedian remains troubled by his morals whereas Ozymandias tries to solve them.

9. Dostoevsky – Raskolnikov, Crime and Punishment

“When he was in the street he cried out, "Oh, God, how loathsome it all is! and can I, can I possibly.... No, it's nonsense, it's rubbish!" he added resolutely. "And how could such an atrocious thing come into my head? What filthy things my heart is capable of. Yes, filthy above all, disgusting, loathsome, loathsome!—and for a whole month I've been...." But no words, no exclamations, could express his agitation.”

Raskolnikov is the classic brooding troubled mind. An early existentialist whose freedom is too much to bear he is keenly aware of his choices and actions. Plagued by his mind and deeds (yet more sane than Poe's narrator of the Tell Tale Heart) he eventually comes to term with his freedom.

8. Lagerkvist – Barabbas, Barabbas

“Then the man had been led out to be crucified - and he himself had been unshackled and told he was free. It was none of his doing. It was their business. They were quite at liberty to choose whomever they liked, and it just turned out that way. They had both been sentenced to death, but one of them was to be released. He was amazed himself at their choice.”

Few English-speaking readers may be familiar with the Nobel Prize-winning Lagerkvist, but this portrayal is a cornerstone for his accolades. Barabbas has to grapple with his unique position for the rest of his life, and goes about doing so while seeing the emerging Christian sect develop and react to him (especially when he meets one of the disciples). His is a singular portrait that we can still identify with.

7. Huxley – John, Brave New World

“"Exposing what is mortal and unsure to all that fortune, death and danger dare, even for an eggshell. Isn't there something in that?" he asked, looking up at Mustapha Mond. "Quite apart from God–though of course God would be a reason for it. Isn't there something in living dangerously?"

"There's a great deal in it," the Controller replied. "Men and women must have their adrenals stimulated from time to time."”

John, the Savage, leaves the Native reservation he knew and enters the anesthetized modern dystopia of 632 A.F. (after Ford). Alone, he rebels as best he can, for the sake of humanity. There may be no better portrayal of lone resistance to an unfeeling state than John's attempts to bring feeling to civilization.

6. Austen – Fitzwilliam Darcy, Pride and Prejudice

“"Come, Darcy," said he, "I must have you dance. I hate to see you standing about by yourself in this stupid manner. You had much better dance."

"I certainly shall not. You know how I detest it, unless I am particularly acquainted with my partner. At such an assembly as this it would be insupportable. Your sisters are engaged, and there is not another woman in the room whom it would not be a punishment to me to stand up with."”

Darcy is hard, maybe impossible, to live up to, many guys would contend. But, really, they forget that it was his faults, his pride predominately, which are examined for the first half of the book. What makes him stick is that he can be full of contradictions and still do the right thing – and that's not such a hard template to live up to.

5. Tolstoy – Ivan Ilyich, The Death of Ivan Ilyich

“The pain did not grow less, but Ivan Ilyich made efforts to force himself to think that he was better. And he could do this so long as nothing agitated him. But as soon as he had any unpleasantness with his wife, any lack of success in his official work, or held bad cards at bridge, he was at once acutely sensible of his disease.”

Ilyich is (surprise!) another existential character, only his dilemma is one we all face: dying and death. While it begins as chastisement for a life poorly spent, the drawn-out process of Ilyich's demise resonates. Tolstoy's characters sometimes are a little two-dimensional (The Cossacks, many in War and Peace, and his short stories). But between moralizing in Family Happiness and musing in “Master and Man” he got it right.

4. Salinger – Holden Caulfield, Catcher in the Rye

“When the weather's nice, my parents go out quite frequently and stick a bunch of flowers on old Allie's grave. I went with them a couple of times, but I cut it out. In the first place, I don't enjoy seeing him in that crazy cemetery. Surrounded by dead guys and tombstones and all. It wasn't too bad when the sun was out, but twice - twice - we were there when it started to rain. It was awful. It rained on his lousy tombstone, and it rained on the grass on his stomach. It rained all over the place. All the visitors that were visiting the cemetery started running like hell over to their cars. That's what nearly drove me crazy. All the visitors could get in their cars and turn on their radios and all and then go someplace nice for dinner - everybody except Allie. I couldn't stand it.”

Note – “characters who stick”. Caulfield, love or hate him, is a character who has been crafted so well that he sticks with everyone who encounters him. He's an awful pain, in my opinion, but when I'm old and gray Caulfield's self-absorbed adolescent words and actions will remain with me. And that's what's being counted.

3. Twain – Huckleberry Finn, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

“I was a-trembling, because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

"All right, then, I'll GO to hell"--and tore it up.”

It would be easy to suggest, from this list, that I prefer a certain type of character: the person who must confront themselves in order to make an important choice. I would argue that most all great literature deals with this theme, whether it is deciding who to marry, how to kill, whether to be lawful, and so forth. In this sense, Huck's dilemma, that of his escape with the slave Jim, will probably no longer be encountered – it is not, perhaps, as practical a guide as some other entries. But Huck's process in his decision is one of the best crafted, and identifiable.

2. Joyce – Stephen Daedalus, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

“He turned the handle and opened the door and fumbled for the handle of the green baize door inside. He found it and pushed it open and went in.

He saw the rector sitting at a desk writing. There was a skull on the desk and a strange solemn smell in the room like the old leather of chairs.

His heart was beating fast on account of the solemn place he was in and the silence of the room: and he looked at the skull and at the rector's kind-looking face.

—Well, my little man, said the rector, what is it?

Stephen swallowed down the thing in his throat and said:

—I broke my glasses, sir.”

Joyce’s young Daedalus experienced childhood as I felt it. The confusion, the fear, the wonder and nervous shy quality – even in his circumstantial details, from the blonde hair to the all boy’s school to the boarding school – I felt instant kinship. I would try and deal with the subject objectively, but Daedalus just got to me. The only other author who came close to the emotional life of childhood is Proust, and there his narrator is a bit too precious.

1. Cervantes – Don Quixote, Don Quixote

“At this point they came in sight of thirty forty windmills that there are on plain, and as soon as Don Quixote saw them he said to his squire, "Fortune is arranging matters for us better than we could have shaped our desires ourselves, for look there, friend Sancho Panza, where thirty or more monstrous giants present themselves, all of whom I mean to engage in battle and slay, and with whose spoils we shall begin to make our fortunes; for this is righteous warfare, and it is God's good service to sweep so evil a breed from off the face of the earth."

"What giants?" said Sancho Panza.”


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