How to Read Literature Like a Professor - Thomas C. Foster 2003
Never Stand Next to the Hero
AS YOU KNOW BY NOW, from time to time I like to give you life advice. This next bit is the most important lesson I can impart to you, so listen up. If you’re approached by some guy to drive his chariot, ask his name. If he says, “Hector,” do not consent. Do not stand still. Do not walk away. Run. Very fast. When I teach The Iliad, my favorite comic routine is pointing out what happens to Hector’s charioteers. The average space between a charioteer being named and being skewered is about five lines. Occasionally, he gets speared before being identified, which seems really unfair. We finally reach the point where I have only to say something like, “Oh, look, a new charioteer,” then pause. Everyone knows what comes next. Now, Homer actually has a good bit of intentional comedy in his epic, but I’m pretty sure this is not an instance of that. Rather, it stands as an example—or several examples—of the sort of surrogate fate that befalls heroes. And, alas, the people close to them.
If we except lyric poetry, nearly all literature is character-based. That is, it’s about people. This is not an observation unique in the history of literary criticism, but it bears remembering from time to time. And for people, characters, to hold our interest as readers or viewers, it is important for them to do things from time to time. Big things: go on quests, marry, divorce, give birth, die, kill, take flight, tame the land, make a mark. Small things: go on walks, dine, take in a movie, play in the park, have a drink, fly a kite, find a penny on the ground. Sometimes the small things become big. Sometimes the big things are smaller than they seem at first. No matter how large or small the actions, though, the most important thing that characters can do is change—grow, develop, learn, mature, call it what you will. As we know from our own lives, change can be difficult, painful, arduous, possibly dangerous. Sometimes even fatal.
Just not to the main character.
One of the most complex instances of this surrogacy phenomenon is also one of the oldest. If ever there was a flawed hero, he is Achilles. The Iliad, contrary to popular imagination, is not the story of the Trojan War. Rather, it relates the events of a very small period of time, something like fifty-three days out of the war’s ten years. You see, even epics work best if they are about not widespread events but single actions and their consequences—the hero returning home, the rescuer coming to the aid of a community plagued by a monster, the fall from grace of the original two humans. This epic is especially pure: the actions of a single man and their impact on thousands. When I say this part in class, I speak in italics: this work is about the wrath of Achilles.
The Big Man becomes angry when Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek forces, steals Achilles’s war bride. From there, everything that happens stems from his inordinate anger toward Agamemnon and all those who follow him (essentially, everyone except Achilles’s circle). From the tide of battle turning against the Greeks to the final showdown with Hector, it’s all about Achilles, even in those numerous books in which he makes no appearance. He’s mad and he’s going home to Phthia (I’ve long thought that he doesn’t go only because it’s unpronounceable), which may strike us as more childish than manly. He doesn’t go, but while he stays beside his ships, his heart hardens against the Greeks. Hundreds die; he doesn’t care. Agamemnon apologizes and offers to give back everything he took, the girl included. Nearly all of the main heroes—Odysseus, Agamemnon, Diomedes, Eurypylus—are injured; no interest. Clearly, there is only one thing that will prompt him to action. He’s not going to like it. His second-in-command, Patroclus, begs him to reenter the war or, failing that, to release the rest of his tribe, the Myrmidons, to return to the fighting, with Patroclus in the lead.
You see where this is heading, right?
Before we get there, however, a bit of context. In addition to being second-in-command, Patroclus has been best friends with Achilles since childhood. There’s a long, rather soapy story about how the lesser man came to live in the home of the greater, and how their friendship developed. They are repeatedly depicted in the poem in close proximity to each other, sitting close or leaning against each other. Wait, it gets worse. Patroclus will indeed go into battle, but not as himself. Instead, he wears Achilles’ armor. This has the long-term effect of causing Achilles to acquire the fabulous armor made for him by the god Hephaestus. In the short term, it allows Patroclus to frighten the Trojans, who believe for a while that he is the person they most fear; it also provides him the opportunity to be almost as great as his friend. That “almost” is key. Patroclus visits great mayhem on the Trojans, indeed more than any other Greek thus far. At one point he plunges into the mass of the Trojans three times, each time killing nine enemy warriors. That’s quite aside from the named killings he accomplishes. He is so terrific, in fact, that he gets carried away and tries to take the city. The mistake proves fatal. The difference between being Achilles and almost being Achilles is the difference between living and dying.
Patroclus’s death serves several of Homer’s narrative purposes, all of them having to do not with him but with Achilles. Most significantly, the great man must lay aside his anger toward Agamemnon. The problem is that he is essentially an angry person, so the emotion can’t be dispelled, only redirected. In killing Patroclus, Hector has unwittingly volunteered to become the new target of that fury. Patroclus is also the only person present at the war for whom Achilles could (and does) genuinely grieve. They’re friends from childhood, closer than some brothers. Achilles may rage over having his concubine taken away, but he would never mourn her as he does Patroclus. His ritual debasement—pouring ash and sand over his body and in his hair, weeping copiously, throwing himself on the ground—is one of the great scenes in the epic, every bit the rival of any of the battles. And only one man can make that happen. It’s just that Patroclus has no say in the matter.
Nearly tied with that reason for Patroclus’s death is the need for new armor, Hector having taken the old as spoils of the fight. But wait, you say—if Patroclus doesn’t die, Achilles doesn’t need new armor. That’s true, but the fact is that wonderful though it may be, his old armor just isn’t cool enough for him to be the greatest Greek hero, by which the Greeks understood the greatest hero ever (they were kind of like Americans that way). To make the kind of splash Homer has in mind, Achilles needs not just excellent but divine armor, the stuff only a god can make. And he’ll get it, compliments of Hephaestus, the Olympian smith. Tough job, but somebody’s got to do it.
And that’s the problem with being best pals with a hero. They have needs, or perhaps the narrative has needs on their behalf, but they cannot fulfill those requirements directly, not if the story is to continue. Hey, guess what? That’s what friends are for. When Shakespeare needs a line to be crossed that cannot be uncrossed between the Capulets and the Montagues, does he kill Romeo? Of course not. Poor Mercutio, who is really a more engaging fellow than the hero, has to carry that freight. If James Fenimore Cooper in The Last of the Mohicans needs to establish the villainous bona fides of Magua and give the protagonist a motive for revenge (not that he generally needs one), does he kill off Natty Bumppo? Not on your life. Rather, he kills young Uncas, the son of Natty’s best friend and fellow scout, Chingachgook. In fact, in story and song, book and film, there is generally no more persuasive reason for revenge, outrage, or prompting to action than the killing of the best friend (or his progeny). It really doesn’t pay to get too close to hero-types.
But that seems so unfair.
Darned right it’s unfair. But you know what? No one cares. Literature has its own logic; it is not life. Not only that, but (and this is key): characters are not people. Oh, they may seem like people, skipping and raging and weeping and laughing and all the rest, but they aren’t actually people, and we forget that at our peril.
What do you mean, they’re not people? If that’s true, why should we even care about them?
Excellent question. Or questions. First things first: They’re not people because they have never existed. I mean, have you ever met one on the street? Naturally, you wouldn’t meet Achilles or Huck Finn or someone from historical literature, but you also won’t be meeting any characters out of contemporary literature. Which is mostly a good thing. Harry Potter is not running around loose outside the pages of his books, Voldemort either (see what I mean about a good thing?). Oh, you can meet folks dressed like them sometimes, but not the real deal. Characters may be based on actual persons. Hemingway scholars are fond of reminding us that this character is based on that friend or (more commonly) former friend of the novelist, but being based on that friend is a long way from being him. We do not—and should not—read the character through the filter of the original, if there is one.
I know I have said this before and will say it again, but it bears repeating: if it’s not in the text, it doesn’t exist. We can only read what is present in a novel, play, or film. If something informed the author’s creation of the text but the evidence is not present in the text, that’s a matter for scholars concerned with motives, not with readers wrestling with meaning. Think of it this way: a vast majority of readers will have no access to that nontextual evidence. How, then, can we expect it to have any bearing on the way we read? The characters are purely textual creations, constructs of words. We know them through descriptions of them as well as through their own words and actions and those of other characters—not through the words (unreported) of the writer’s brother-in-law or best enemy on whom the character may be “based.” We process those words and actions and decide what to think, with a little help from the author.
Now, your second question: if they’re not real people, why should we care about them? Why indeed? Why cheer at Harry Potter’s victories? Why weep at Little Nell’s death? Why feel anything at all for persons who never existed? Easy. Because we can’t help ourselves. Here’s the thing about those nonpersons that make us care: Characters are products of writers’ imaginations—and readers’ imaginations. Two powerful forces come together to make a literary character. The writer invents him, using such elements of memory and observation and invention as she needs, and the reader—not readers collectively this time but each individual reader in private—reinvents him, using those same element of his memory, his observation, and his invention. The first, writerly, invention sketches out a figure, while the second, readerly, invention receives that figure and fills in the blank spaces. Sometimes we fill in spaces in ways not authorized by the text without ever noticing that we did so; every experienced reader has gone back to some favorite novel in search of a cherished passage, some crystal-clear personality trait, that is in fact absent from the text. We shape, or rather reshape, characters in order to make sense of them. Reading, as I have said elsewhere, is a full-contact sport; we crash up against the wave of words with all of our intellectual, imaginative, and emotional resources. What results can sometimes be as much our creation as the novelist’s or playwright’s. Or more. Is it any wonder, then, that we care about what happens to them?
Many of us learned during our formative years that having a shallow, immature, impulsive, reckless friend is hazardous. If we were characters in a novel or film, we probably wouldn’t have learned that, or would have with our dying breath; the condition is often fatal to bystanders. Three films—among lots of possible examples—make the point: Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Saturday Night Fever (1977), and Top Gun (1986). In each of these films, a young man with a chip on his shoulder is at war with the world: Jim Stark (James Dean) in Rebel, Tony Manero (John Travolta) in Fever, and Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) in Top Gun. Their mix of anger, overconfidence, and alienation makes them difficult to handle and often unpredictable. And each of them is responsible for the death of someone close. Jim Stark’s recklessness leads to the death of a rival, Buzz Gunderson, in a foolish automotive challenge game when his car goes off a cliff. Jim’s acolyte, young Plato Crawford (Sal Mineo), also dies after coming unhinged at the intensity of the events and rushing the police with a pistol Jim had secretly unloaded in an attempt to keep everyone safe. Tony’s antics lead to the death of Bobby C., who falls from the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Maverick’s risk-taking turns dark when he loses control of his F-16, and his Radio Intercept Operator and best friend, Goose (Anthony Edwards), dies in the resulting crash. There’s a lot of death here involving falls from great heights, so that might be something to investigate another day.
Structurally, these three films are very similar: the immature young man must learn the lessons he needs to grow up. But because of the nature of the lessons and the cinematic need for drama, those lessons are learned vicariously. In other words, a major motion picture isn’t much if the main character dies well before the end. Instead, his lieutenant (or, occasionally, his rival; sometimes both) must do the dying for him. Then we get drama, death, and guilt: the movie trifecta. There are plenty of other instances of this phenomenon. In Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim, Jim’s overconfidence leads to the death of the local chieftain’s son, Dain Waris, whom he treats like a brother. For this transgression, Jim willingly submits to being shot through the heart by the chieftain, Doramin, reminding us that Conrad is, at root, a tragedian. In David Lean’s masterpiece, the film Lawrence of Arabia, T. E. Lawrence’s (Peter O’Toole, who also played Lord Jim) two young disciples die horribly (quicksand, accident with dynamite) while trying to emulate him, chiefly so that he can learn firsthand that his war is not a game.
These mishaps for seconds-in-command can take many shapes. I’ve focused on the tragic side here, but they can also be comic or mixed. Huck Finn gets into scrapes, but the bad things happen to the escaped slave Jim, who shares the raft. All kinds of perils threaten Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp in his various silent films, but the board across the face or the anvil on the head (okay, I don’t think there are actually any of those) almost always befalls whatever hapless colleague or pursuer happens to be standing beside him. The pie in the face only occasionally hits the comic lead; more commonly, he ducks to pick up a nickel and it hits the wealthy woman or bank president behind him.
There are all kinds of sources of this next-man-over mayhem—cosmic spite, bad luck, the need for a whipping boy, you name it—but they nearly all come under the heading of plot exigency. The plot needs something to happen in order to move forward, so someone must be sacrificed. That “someone” is rarely the protagonist. Oh, the unfairness of it all. In truth, it’s worse than that.
You see, literary works are not democracies. We hold this truth to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal. We may, but the country of Novels, Etc., doesn’t. In that faraway place, no character is created equal. One or two get all the breaks; the rest exist to get them to the finish line. Here’s what E. M. Forster, whose name you see a lot in these pages, had to say on the subject in his book Aspects of the Novel: the fictive world (I’m paraphrasing here) is divided up into round and flat characters. Round characters are what we could call three-dimensional, full of traits and strengths and weaknesses and contradictions, capable of change and growth. Flat characters, not so much. They lack full development in the narrative or drama, so they’re more two-dimensional, like cartoon cutouts. Some critics call these two types of literary personnel dynamic and static, but we’ll go with round and flat. And between these two, round characters get all the breaks. What this means is that, conventionally, the point of a work is to follow one or two major figures through to their endpoint for good or ill, to watch how they develop or grow. Or don’t. Pretty much everyone else exists as a plot device and is subject to cancellation whenever the plot demands a sacrifice. If to get to the finish line the hero must walk over a sea of bodies, then so be it. He can die at said line, but he’s got to get there. See also Hamlet.
I’m going to go out on a limb here, take the generous view, and suggest that in real life, everyone is a fully rounded character. I have from time to time had my doubts, but let’s go with it. What I mean is that we are all complete beings. We have many different qualities that don’t always fit together very smoothly. More important, we’re all capable of growth, development, and change. We can get better, although we sometimes fail to do so. To put this another way, we are all, each and every last one of us, the protagonist of our own story. Those stories frequently clash with one another, so other people may not seem as complete, or at least as urgently complete, as ourselves, but that doesn’t alter the other person’s reality. But that basic truth has nothing to do with literature. In fictive works, some characters are more equal than other characters. A lot more equal.
To get our heads around this notion, we need to go back to that basic point about characters not being people. They are representations, in greater or lesser detail, of human beings. Real people are made out of a whole lot of things—flesh, bone, blood, nerves, stuff like that. Literary people are made out of words. Can’t breathe, can’t bleed (even if a surprising number appear to), can’t eat, can’t love. They can be made to seem to do those things, but they don’t actually do them. If you met one on the street, you’d be seriously disappointed. If writers made them as whole as we are, you’d be seriously bored. Even round characters are somewhat less than complete beings. They are merely simulacra, illusions meant to suggest fully formed humans. To the extent that we believe in them, that is a credit to the writer. And to us. But this creates a problem for us. The trick is to believe in them, as reader, and to recognize the unreality, as critic. What we’re trying to do here is create expert readers, folks we might describe as reader-critics. You know, readers who can simultaneously take pleasure from a work and analyze it. Yeah, yeah, I know all that Wordsworth noise about “we murder to dissect.” It’s nonsense. I don’t know a soul who appreciates and enjoys literature as much as experts who can really take it apart. Why do you think we became experts in the first place? Because we loved reading this stuff. Intelligent readers can keep both these notions in mind at once. Analysis only sounds threatening to pleasure; in practice, no sweat.
So why aren’t all characters round?
Very logical question. Good one, too. The answers are mostly practical, rather than aesthetic. Characters are created on something like a need-to-know basis. Their utility is all that matters. Writers give them only as much reality as they need to do their jobs. Why?
First of all, focus. If every character was developed to the same highly articulated degree, then how would we know on whom to focus our attention? That could get really confusing, and one thing we know about readers is that they don’t like to be any more confused than necessary.
Second, intensity of labor. Thinking up a full backstory for every character, no matter how minor, as well as the complete panoply of qualities, interests, shortcomings, phobias, and so on would be exhausting. It’s hard enough to deal with them the way they are.
Third, confusion of purpose. If a character is there to be a villain, finding out he loves his mother or owns a dog may be a distraction from the main point. Unless he kicks it (or her). Flat characters are easier to know in terms of their intent and narrative purpose, and we readers can use all the help we can get.
Fourth, just consider length. Almost every short story would become a novella, perhaps a novel, in order to get in all that detail. Every novel would become War and Peace, and War and Peace would simply crush your chest. That’s a heavy loss of conciseness with no corresponding gain in information. As we saw in the first point, that expansion of information would also be a loss. And I think we can agree that literary works are as long as we wish them to be already.
I’ve made this flat/round thing sound binary, but it is really more of a continuum. There are wholly flat characters, to be sure. But there are also those who fall somewhere closer to the rounded end of the graph, were we to make one. We find out, for instance, that Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle and the villain of the play, is capable of remorse over his actions. Hamlet sees him at prayer; what he doesn’t know but we discover is that Claudius is so blackened that he finds himself incapable of praying. Best friend Horatio is loyalty itself, but even he has doubts about the prince from time to time. So if we were to make a scale with, say Rosencrantz and Guildenstern or the gravediggers at one end and Hamlet at the other, we wouldn’t see something like a barbell with a long flat line connecting two bundles gathered at either end. Somewhere along that line would appear (in something like this order from flatter on toward rounder) Polonius, Laertes, Horatio, Ophelia, Gertrude, Claudius, Hamlet. In case you’re wondering, the ghost of Hamlet’s father is pretty flat. Yorick doesn’t count. In order to be a character, you have to be more than a skull.
Novelists and playwrights have considered these matters over the years, as we see in their essays and sometimes in their works. Numerous pieces of advice from Forster, John Gardner, Henry James, David Lodge, and others have addressed the question of minor characters. Dickens tries to make up for the lack of attention that his minor figures receive by making them memorable, by giving them some astonishing tic or tagline, as with Mrs. Micawber’s “I never will desert Mr. Micawber.” No one ever asks her to, making her repeated use of the line more eye-catching. Indeed, when we recall characters from Dickens, it is chiefly the rogue’s gallery of secondary figures who spring to mind: Magwitch, Miss Havisham, Jaggers, Bill Sikes, Mr. Micawber, Barkis and Peggotty, Uriah Heep.
During the postmodern era, questions about the inner lives of minor characters have made their way to the page and stage. I mentioned Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966) earlier. Its main thrust is the question, where do minor characters go when they’re not onstage? Stoppard is not speaking of the actors playing those roles but of the characters themselves. For those of you who may be a little rusty on your Hamletology, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are those two hapless dupes who shepherd Hamlet off to England, there ostensibly (but unknown to them) to be killed. Hamlet, however, is not so dim, and he engineers not only an escape but a scheme in which the two messengers deliver their own death warrants to the English king. They have—what?—maybe five minutes of stage time out of three-plus hours of tragedy. What, Stoppard asks, do they get up to during all that downtime? The play seems a bit of absurdist nonsense, but it’s nonsense with a purpose. More recently, Jon Clinch gave us the novel Finn (2007), which examines in full the life of one of American literature’s most odious specimens, Huck Finn’s Pap. If anything, he’s even worse when given more space. Then there is the cottage industry that seems determined to cover every aspect of all things Austen, including giving minor characters more room to run amok. This trend may be one of the first for which the twenty-first century will need to apologize.
All of this discussion of major and minor characters goes back a long, long way. Aristotle suggested an intimate connection between the shape of the plot and the nature of the characters involved. His discussion is sometimes reduced to the formulation, “Plot is character revealed in action.” There have not been a lot of improvements on that notion over the millennia. What he means is that plot, not actions themselves but the way those actions are structured, grows out of the nature of the characters, which we then discover through their actions. The contemporary formulation is this bit of circular thinking: plot is character in action; character is revealed and shaped by plot. We must recognize that character is essential to fictional and dramatic literature. That includes all kinds of characters. We need flat ones as well as round, static as well as dynamic. In the final analysis, they’re all doing the same thing, making the story or novel or play reach its end and making that end seem inevitable. What happens to Gatsby must feel like the only outcome, given who Gatsby is and who Nick is and who Daisy is. And Tom and George Wilson and Myrtle Wilson. It takes a village to murder a character.
What’s that? You say this time the hero gets bumped off?
Are you sure about that? Maybe we should have a talk.