Do you think that authors really dislike their villainous protagonists as much as they claim to?

6a00d8341c69f653ef019affcdee3a970cI started reading Anthony Trollope’s The Eustace Diamonds, which is about the machinations of a very wealthy and dishonest and villainous widow. And I love her. She’s pretty much the best. But Trollope does not love her. He’s constantly talking about how evil she is and shit.

In fact, lots of Victorian novels are about very evil characters, and they always have this very moralizing tone. For instance, Vanity Fair‘s Becky Sharp has to be one of the most vivid characters  in literature, but Thackeray clearly very much disapproves of her and is constantly giving you these sly little asides (an authorial intervention that was much more allowable in Victorian literature) about how awful and unfeeling she is.

But I don’t believe him. Thackeray constructed the novel. He chose to write her. I don’t see how a person could write an entire novel about Becky Sharp without, in some way, thinking that she is awesome. In some ways, I feel like he just inserted the judgmental tone so that his audience would let him get away with writing the novel. It’s like how you can write a crime novel about a character who gleefully kills and steals and cheats and rapes…as long as they get their comeuppance in the end.

Personally, many of my protagonists are awful people. I don’t really intend them to be that way; it’s more that I just don’t think about morality when I’m writing, which means that all my work exists in a pretty amoral universe. I would never consider having a character not do something because it’s “not the right thing to do.” But I’ve learned to disguise that, and to play tricks on the reader in order to artificially build sympathy. For instance, if you put the protagonist in a pitiable situation, they’ll come off more sympathetic. And if you have them do something good for someone early on in the story, then the reader will give them leeway. And if there’s a perception that the protagonist is fighting against some greater societal evil, that can also help  (this is often the reason why crime novels get a free pass, for instance).

But, to me, all of that stuff is just tossed in because, for some reason or another, most readers can’t sympathize with characters that are not, in some way, good.

For instance, at AWP, I was talking to someone about that interview in which Claire Messud talked about how she didn’t think characters need to be likeable. In that interview, the primary character under discussion was Nora in Messud’s The Woman Upstairs. And I have to say…I didn’t find her unlikeable at all. I sympathized intensely with her feeling of being abused and toyed with and ignored. And so what if those feelings mostly came out as inchoate rage? What’s wrong with that?

What I think people ignore about “unlikeable” characters is how likeable they actually are. For instance, I found myself dazzled by Scarlett O’Hara and Humbert Humbert. They’re amoral wretches, but they’re actually exactly the sort of people that one would want to be friends with, because they seem like they’re charismatic and they always have something to say.

Actually, Scarlett O’Hara is one of my favorite characters, because rarely has there been a heroine with fewer redeeming characteristics. And yet the novel revels in her. She doesn’t really come in for much, if any, oppobrium. If anything, the novel gradually reveals that Ashley Wilkes and Melanie whatserface are hothouse flowers who can’t really exist outside without the privileges accorded them in the antebellum south. And Scarlett comes out looking pretty good in the end. Her ruthlessness, the book argues, is exactly what a person needs to have if they’re going to survive.

The mark of a good writer, I think, is that meaning comes through even when you don’t intend it to. Take Dickens, for instance. He wrote the broadest characters imaginable, but sometimes you can’t really tell whether they’re scoundrels or not. Take Mr. Micawber for instance. He’s perpetually penurious, and he constantly borrows money without intending to pay it back. His family suffers because of his flightiness. And he eventually ends up transported to Australia. But he still gets a very loving portrayal in David Copperfield. And, in the end, it’s hard to say whether he’s a hero or a villain.

Still, there’s a level of esotericism there. I don’t think that most readers are sophisticated enough to hold opinions about a character that are different from what the book tells you. Most readers will say that Mr. Micawber is a great guy, and that Harold Skimpole (from Bleak House) is awful, even though the two characters are pretty much exactly the same, because Dickens tells you that one is good and that the other is bad.

So when you’re writing a book, you have to determine a surface interpretation of the character (will I portray them sympathetically or unsympathetically?) and then allow the opposite interpretation to remain buried in the text, for the benefit of readers who care to dredge it up. And somewhere in the intermingling of the two interpretations, you end up with a more complex and true portrait of a person.

Woman as Financial Vampire

I’m currently reading (and considerably enjoying) Edith Wharton’s Custom Of The Country. But I am also disquieted by the novel. At its core, the story of this novel is a very familiar one. It’s about an ambitious woman who sucks dry a somewhat dreamy man with her incessant financial demands.

The cunning woman who only longs for fine society and fine objects and uses her beauty as a tool with which to entrap men into providing for her desires is an incredibly familiar figure in literature. She is so familiar, in fact, that I kept having these strange echoes while I read the book. I’d have a brief impression, and then I wouldn’t be able to rest until I remembered the other book that I was being reminded of.

I haven’t tracked down all the impressions of what I call “woman as financial vampire”, but I can name a few. There’s Emile Zola’s Nana, about a French prostitute who destroys the fortunes of her admirers. There’s Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, whose eponymous heroine eventually gets her husband deep into debt after issuing numerous notes and trying all kinds of financial manipulations with the village moneylender. There’s Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie: the main character has a paramour who engages in embezzlement to meet her monetary demands. There’s Becky Sharp, from William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, who bankrupts her creditors (and ruins her admittedly horribly husband) by knowingly borrowing huge sums and then running away from her debts. There’s Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind: who screws over her second husband in various business deals. There’s Grushenka in Dostoyevsky’s Brother’s Karamozov, who causes the central conflict of the novel by creating a large need for money in the oldest brother, Dmitri. There’s Polina in Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler, whose mysterious need for money causes the hero to take up gambling.

Perhaps the most nuanced and complex use of this female trope comes (rather surprisingly) from Charles Dickens. David Copperfield’s first wife, Dora Spenlow, shares many traits with the financial vampires described above: she’s spoiled, petulant, short-sighted, and used to being supported by wealthy men. And when she married David Copperfield, one is almost sure that she is immediately going to drive him to ruin. But she doesn’t. Their marriage is not precisely happy, but she does not destroy him. In the end, it seems like he genuinely loves her and she genuinely loves him.

Most of the examples I cited above are from a particular time period, and, indeed, I think it’s difficult to find more recent examples of the woman as financial vampire. An example from the fifties is Millie, from Graham Greene’s Our Man In Havana, whose financial demands cause her father to enter into the spying business. Another that springs to mind is Jorah Mormont in A Song Of Ice And Fire, who becomes a slaver and a mercenary in order to satisfy his wife Lynesse’s need for jewels and finery and parties.

There must be many more examples of this trope, but its frequent occurrence in my own reading is enough to satisfy me that it is definitely “a thing”.

But it does puzzle me. The occurrence and reoccurrence of the fantastically spendthrift woman in literature seems to suggest that she is being used to work out some sort of deep cultural anxiety. In many cases, her financial needs are coupled with a sexual unfaithfulness, which seems to suggest that they’re both part of some kind of fear of emasculation or loss of control.

But it’s the financial aspect that has always been more startling to me than the sexual aspect. After all, a woman can’t be spendthrift without her husband’s consent. In most of the above relationships, the man has to sign for each and every purchase. He is fully capable, at any time, of cutting the purse strings, but he is so ensnared by her charm that he is unable to.

It’s a strange sort of anxiety and I question how often women like this actually existed. She’s more like a monster than she is like a real person. She has an unholy power to glamor a man. And she has an unquenchable appetite for jewels, hotel rooms, meals, carriages, and dresses.

In some cases (as in Our Man In Havana) the financial vampire is just a plot device. She’s a way to provide the hero with a huge need for money without also making him seem greedy or repellent. But many of these novels are explicitly devoted to the psychology or origins of these women. It’s quite fantastic that so much ink has been spilled about the inner workings creature that can’t have been very common.

But it doesn’t matter that the financial vampire probably didn’t exist too often: what matters is that she ought to exist. Most of these novels conclude that mankind deserves the financial vampire. Halfway through Custom of the Country, a character rather explicitly says that America gives rise to these financial vampires because it infantilizes women and doesn’t allow them to have real pursuits: the reason they have no real concept of money is because they are not allowed to work, and the reason they ruin men is because they are taught that their virtue is measured in what they can extract from males using their beauty and charm.

Personally, though, I am not convinced by these pseudo-feminist morals. Despite the gloss that these novels put on what they’re doing, they are still trafficking in very charged, very sexist imagery, and I think that part of their emotional appeal, as literature, is due to the horror that these women arouse in men. If I created a movie where a mob of blacks rioted and raped a bunch of white women, I think I would still be playing to the racist anxieties of my audience even if I ended the movie by saying “They were driven to this by your racism!”

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

Whenever I know that I am going to really love a book, I become strangely unexcited about reading it (that’s why I still haven’t read The City And The City). And I’ve always known that I was going to like Vanity Fair, which is why it’s taken me years to get around to reading it.

            I’ve already mentioned my love for Gone With The Wind. There’s something about ruthless female characters, particularly in a period setting, that I am unashamedly down with. I mean, cmon, they’re oppressed, they have a right to screw around with the patriarchy to get what they want.

            Anyway, I was right…I really liked Vanity Fair. In some ways, though, the character of Becky Sharp (Vanity Fair’s ruthless protagonist) is somewhat less well-defined, and perhaps even less admirable, than that of Scarlett O’Hara (who does what she does for either love or for money…the former of which is, to be fair, the ultimate in totally impenetrable motivations for characters in stories).

            Both are women distinguished for their charm, and for their willingness to harm others, particularly their husbands, to get what they want. But it’s never very clear what it is that Becky Sharp actually wants. All she seems to want is to belong to society and host dinner parties and hobnob with Lords and Ladies. I suppose the point of the book is that she’s no different from any of the other people around her, she’s simply more capable. All that any of them want is to be seen as important people. If Becky Sharp was a man, then she would be a Gatsby.

            But somehow…I don’t know if that works for me. It’s strange that Vanity Fair can be so marvelously observant of peoples’ behavior, but pay so little attention to their motivations. I suppose that’s partly a mid-19th century thing. Psychology was still a Greek word when Thackeray wrote this novel.

            Given the extent to which characters in this novel are driven by a desire for dinner-table camaraderie, frivolity, witty chatter, and all the other accoutrements of high society, it is striking that the 300,000 words novel spends so little time showing them enjoying these vanities. Most of the dinners and the parties are described in interpolated exposition between the dramas and the tragedies. At least in the Great Gatsby we got to see Gatsby’s party. We could allow ourselves to be seduced by the spectacle before its hollowness was revealed to us. There’s never any such seduction in Vanity Fair, and yet I don’t think the novel can work unless you provide it for yourself, at least not for a modern reader.

            Unless you imagine the appeal that high society has for a poor orphaned girl, then there’s something utterly monstrous about the novel. Not monstrous in the sense of morally evil, but monstrous as in misshapen: the familiar elements recombined and altered to make something unfamiliar. Vanity Fair doesn’t work as a novel unless its central premise is true. If you don’t feel the appeal of vanity in your own life, then there is no way to understand how most of the characters in the novel behave. Fortunately, that was not a problem for me.

            Oh, also….digressions. This novel has the greatest digressions ever. You know how Moby Dick is filled with tons of long digressions, but they’re all about skinning or killing whales and are hence incredibly boring? Vanity Fair is filled with long digressions about things that are intensely relevant not only to modern life, but to the reader of Victorian literature. Like a chapter entitled “How to Live on Nothing Per Year”, which is all about how all those gentleman rakes manage to live the high life even though they have no income. And it’s studded through with references to various (hopefully) fictional readers of the book, like:

All which details, I have no doubt, JONES, who reads this book at his Club, will pronounce to be excessively foolish, trivial, twaddling, and ultra-sentimental. Yes; I can see Jones at this minute (rather flushed with his joint of mutton and half pint of wine), taking out his pencil and scoring under the words “foolish, twaddling,” &c., and adding to them his own remark of “QUITE TRUE.” Well, he is a lofty man of genius, and admires the great and heroic in life and novels; and so had better take warning and go elsewhere.

            Every character, even some very minor ones, get their own long digression. Places get digressions. Houses get digressions. Schools come in for a digression. Little anecdotes from the past spring forth and take over the rest of the character. It is great fun. I love me some digressions.