Thursday, August 12, 2010

Characters you're not supposed to like

My reading group will discuss Penelope Lively's Booker Prize winning Moon Tiger in a couple of weeks, and I'm five chapters in. The elderly protagonist, Claudia Hampton, is a former war correspondent and popular historian. She's dying of cancer. The novel is a "history of the world" with Claudia Hampton at its idiosyncratic center. So far, I dislike the character intensely.

Granted, I may change my mind by the end of the novel ... I'm suspending judgment for now. But I'm also thinking as I read it about protagonists in fiction that readers aren't meant to like, and especially about unlikable protagonists in well-regarded fiction. One could make a long, long list; I'll content myself here with three. It's worth pointing out that I'm not talking about unlikable characters per se, and especially not about unlikable foils to likable protagonists.

The canonical character in this mold for me -- perhaps because he was one of the first and most blatant I ever encountered -- is Thomas Gradgrind, the utilitarian schoolmaster in Charles Dickens' Hard Times. The character's name is enough to have earned a callout in an earlier post, Nominative determinism in fiction, though in fact Gradgrind didn't make the cut. Here, thanks to Project Gutenberg, is how he is introduced at the start of Dickens' novel:
'Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!' The scene was a plain, bare, monotonous vault of a school-room, and the speaker's square forefinger emphasized his observations by underscoring every sentence with a line on the schoolmaster's sleeve. [...]

Not so warm & fuzzy, eh? Well, Gradgrind does come around a bit by the end of the novel, but I sure didn't like the tyrant when I met him. You have to wonder whether Roger Waters had Gradgrind in mind when he wrote Another Brick in the Wall.

That Pink Floyd classic -- which famously became an anthem for South African students rebelling against the apartheid regime (banning the song only upped the ante) -- makes for a fine segue to J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace, another Booker Prize winner, and one I count among the most elegantly rendered works of fiction in my own literary experience. Professor David Lurie is Coetzee's middle-aged protagonist, and the novel opens with his dismissal from a South African university post for having an affair with a student. He is roundly shunned, and retreats to a remote smallholding where his lesbian daughter lives. He gets in the way. Violence, rape, and Lurie's failure to find much in the way of redemption ensue. There is little to like about him, yet the book is incandescent in its portrayal of a weak man's struggle to find humanity in an unambiguously brutal world.

In Klaus Mann's Mephisto, Hendrik Höfgen trades his soul -- and throws in his politics, wife, and mistress while he's at it-- to Hermann Göring, in exchange for fame and renown as an actor in Nazi Germany. The author (Thomas Mann's son) based his story on that of his brother-in-law, Gustav Gründgens, though he denied that Höfgen portrays a particular individual. Gründgens' adopted son sued the then-publisher of Mephisto in 1968, and successfully halted its publication -- but only in West Germany. The novel was made into a film in 1981, which won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. There is little to like about Höfgen either, and this is one of those rare stories that I found more powerful as a film than as a novel, but it definitely fits the "characters you're not supposed to like" rubric.

Your thoughts about unlikable characters in fiction? Personal favorites, least-liked, most outrageous? Screeds denouncing the insolence of authors who have tricked you into buying a book only to find you can't stand the company? Analysis of the fact that no unlikable character I cited in this post was written by an American?


  1. Hey Steve, just read a book A Happy Marriage, and I disliked the main character a lot by the end, what made it worse is that the main character is very thinly veiled version of the author! I think you were supposed to like him though, and all the reviews for this book were positive.
    Here's something I wondered about that you might write about...the longevity of these blog posts and other internet publishing. In other words is it important that they are preserved? Do you print them out and save them? What is their lifespan? Will they still be around in 10 years or 50? I have printed email and saved it occasionally but wonder if all the digital stuff will vanish. I do keep a sketchbook/diary, probably more out of habit than conviction.

  2. hey my comment posted, above, I switched browser to safari from firefox so maybe that was it.

  3. Hey Leah, thanks for weighing in. That's a great idea for a blog post, I'll get right on it!

  4. I just finished reading "Moon Tiger" and I found the protagonist is only tolerable when she is most insufferable. I guess I give outlandishness an easy pass while have hard time to suffer ugly verisimilitude. I can stand the TV series "Married with Children" but not "Roseanne".

    I also totally agree with your analysis regarding "Mephisto". However, I do find the original German version slightly better than the English translation, which inserted and deleted passages at many occasions and imposed italics to express the translator/editor's views, instead of author's. The movie is far better than bother versions though.

    Another play/movie with main character hard to like is "Amadeus". The great composer Sallieri was portrait as a jealous and evil colleague. Though not true to history, it is a powerful artistic creation and hard to forget.

    If I were actor, I would be more incline to to play villain than heroes. Heroes are often a bore but not villains.

    Claudia Hampton, unfortunately, didn't reach the height of villainy.

    Matthew Felix Sun

  5. I didn't like the gay protagonist of Pagan Babies. There are dual protagonists in the book, Janice and Clifford. The novel follows them from childhood to their 30s (?) ... Janice develops a big ol' crush on Cliff, even forgiving him for some pretty abominable behavior. I liked Janice for her joie de vivre, though she's a bit of a dim bulb. Cliff is supposed to be smart, I think, but he never makes good decisions.