On Likable and Unlikable Characters

David Lodge’s Thinks… is a good opportunity to bring up our personal, moral and aesthetic responses to individual characters. We’ve seen many characters who are too complicated to like or dislike unequivocally. Jackson Jackson in “What You Pawn I Will Redeem” is charming, endearing and definitely likable, but these characteristics may strike some as uncomfortable because they are qualities of his voice and rhetoric rather than of his actions. For others, this will not seem problematic at all. Grant in “The Bear Came over the Mountain” evokes sympathy, pity and perhaps identification, but he is also selfish, self-pitying and perhaps willfully blind to the reality of other people (especially women). Tony Webster is much the same. 

Flat characters (which we’ve seen extremes of in Atwood’s “Happy Endings”) are usually easier to know how to feel about, and though Ralph Messenger and Helen Reed aren’t exactly flat characters, they are certainly flatter than Grant and Fiona, or the narrator of “Araby.” This isn’t a comment on Lodge’s art: flat characters have their purposes, and they are generally exactly what comedy needs (think of Arrested Development‘s characters–flatter than flat, and yet they get the job done. And how!). Still, Ralph is a polarizing figure: some find him honest, charming, fun, even heroic in his disregard for convention–though no one doubts that he lies to himself. Others find him despicable, calculating and selfish. He is both, of course (who isn’t?), but some readers foreground some features and other readers foreground the others. Helen is nice, but some find that there’s not much else to her. It’s obvious Lodge had more fun writing Ralph than Helen, though his sympathies are rather obviously more with Helen. (William Blake said the same of Paradise Lost: “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” This may be the first time someone reads Paradise Lost and Thinks… in parallel, though I haven’t researched this claim.) Is it possible to feel strongly for or about Helen? I wonder what you think…

Anyway, liking or not liking characters is obviously important, but these reactions are not interpretations in themselves. It’s not enough to say that Ralph is a bad guy because he is a womanizer and selfish to boot, as if he were a real person. He is a selfish womanizer whose characteristics serve a purpose in the narrative, and as far as interpretation and criticism goes it’s much more interesting to consider how his traits serve the novel than how they measure up to our moral standards. This is not to say these standards aren’t relevant: they are. But Ralph is not real, and so indignation at his behaviour may cause us to miss the point of that behaviour. Someone I know once told me she hated E.M. Forster’s Howards End because the protagonists made their money from investments instead of hard work. Well! To me, this is like saying one doesn’t Hamlet because the protagonist stalls so much.

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