Marked for Greatness

How to Read Literature Like a Professor - Thomas C. Foster 2003

Marked for Greatness

QUASIMODO IS A HUNCHBACK. So is Richard III (Shakespeare’s, not history’s). Mary Shelley’s better-known creation, not Victor Frankenstein, but his monster, is a man of parts. Oedipus has damaged feet. And Grendel—well, he is another monster. All characters who are as famous for their shape as for their behavior. Their shapes tell us something, and probably very different somethings, about them or other people in the story.

First, the obvious but nonetheless necessary observation: in real life, when people have any physical mark or imperfection, it means nothing thematically, metaphorically, or spiritually. Well, a scar on your cheek might tell us something if you got it as a member of a dueling fraternity at Heidelberg, and certain self-inflicted marks—Grateful Dead tattoos for instance—might say something about your musical tastes. But by and large a short leg is just a short leg, and scoliosis is just scoliosis.

But put that scoliosis on Richard III and, voilà, you have something else entirely. Richard, as morally and spiritually twisted as his back, is one of the most completely repugnant figures in all of literature. And while it might strike us as cruel and unjust to equate physical deformity with character or moral deformity, it seemed not only acceptable to the Elizabethans but almost inevitable. Shakespeare is very much a product of his time in suggesting that one’s proximity to or distance from God is manifested in external signs. The Puritans, only a few years after him, saw failure in business—ruined crops, bankruptcy, financial mismanagement, even disease in one’s herd—as clear evidence of God’s displeasure and therefore of moral shortcomings. Evidently the story of Job didn’t play in Plymouth.

Right. The Elizabethans and Jacobeans weren’t politically correct. So now what? you ask. Meaning, what about four centuries later?

Things have changed pretty dramatically in terms of equating scars or deformities with moral shortcomings or divine displeasure, but in literature we continue to understand physical imperfection in symbolic terms. It has to do with being different, really. Sameness doesn’t present us with metaphorical possibilities, whereas difference—from the average, the typical, the expected—is always rich with possibility.

Vladimir Propp, in his landmark study of folktales back in the 1920s, Morphology of the Folktale, separates the story of the folk quester into thirty or so separate steps. One of the initial steps is that the hero is marked in some way. He may be scarred or lamed or wounded or painted or born with a short leg, but he bears some mark that sets him apart. The tales Propp looks at go back hundreds of years and have scores of variants, and while they happen to be Slavic in origin, structurally they resemble the Germanic, Celtic, French, and Italian folktales better known in the West. Many of those tales continue to inform our understanding of how stories are told.

You doubt? How many stories do you know in which the hero is different from everyone else in some way, and how many times is that difference physically visible? Why does Harry Potter have a scar, where is it, how did he get it, and what does it resemble?

Consider the ways Toni Morrison marks her characters. One quester, our old friend Milkman Dead from Song of Solomon, bears an initial marking, one leg being shorter than the other. He spends much of his youth adopting ways of walking that will hide his deficiency, as he perceives it. Later he will be scarred twice, once on his cheek by a beer bottle in a fight in Shalimar, Virginia, and once on his hands when his former pal Guitar tries to garotte him and Milkman gets his hands up just in time. In Beloved, Sethe has been whipped so severely in her past that she wears elaborate scars resembling a tree on her back. Her mother-in-law and mentor, Baby Suggs, has a bad hip. Beloved herself is perfect, except for three scratches on her forehead; on the other hand, Beloved is something else again, not merely human. These character markings stand as indicators of the damage life inflicts. In the case of Sethe and Beloved, that life involves slavery, so the violence that marks them is of a very specific sort. But even the others bear signs illustrating the way life marks all who pass through it.

Beyond that, though, is another element: character differentiation. At the end of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, the king blinds himself, which is very definitely a kind of marking—of atonement, guilt, and contrition—and one that he will wear throughout the subsequent play, Oedipus at Colonus. But he was marked much, much earlier. In fact, being good Greeks, we knew this before we arrived at the theater, just from the meaning of the name, Oedipus—“Wounded Foot.” If we were headed to the theater to watch a play called Wounded Foot the King (which is what that title means), we’d already know something was up. The oddity of the name, the way it calls attention to a physical problem, suggests that this aspect of his identity will come into play. Indeed, Oedipus’s feet are damaged from the thong that was put through his Achilles tendons when, as an infant, he was sent away to die in the wilderness. His parents, fearing the terrible prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother, have him taken out to the country to be killed. Knowing how hard it will be for their servant to be the agent of death, they intend for the infant to be left on a mountain where he will perish of exposure. Just to be safe, they cause his feet to be lashed together so he doesn’t get up and crawl away. Later his feet will become a piece of evidence proving that he is in fact the doomed infant. You might think that his mother, Jocasta, would be well advised either (a) never to remarry, or (b) to avoid marrying anyone with damaged ankles, but she chooses option (c) instead, thereby providing us with a plot. Quite lucky for Sophocles, if catastrophic for poor Oedipus. His scars speak of his personal history, which of course is hidden from him until it is revealed during the course of the play. Moreover, they address the personality of his parents, especially Jocasta, who tried to elude the curse, and of Oedipus himself, who seems never to have inquired as to how he came to have these scars. This lack of inquisitiveness is diagnostic, since the basis of his downfall is his inability to know himself.

Something more modern? Sure. Ernest Hemingway. The Sun Also Rises. Modern enough? The novel, which deals with the generation that was damaged in so many ways by World War I, is an ironic reworking of the wasteland motif. Like T. S. Eliot’s poetic masterpiece The Waste Land, it presents a society that has been rendered barren—spiritually, morally, intellectually, and sexually—by the war. Such a treatment is not at all surprising, given the death and destruction of millions of young, virile males. Traditionally, the wasteland myth concerns the struggle, the quest, to restore fertility. This quest is undertaken by or on behalf of the Fisher King, a character who exhibits physical damage in many versions. That’s the original. Hemingway’s Fisher King? Jake Barnes, newspaper correspondent and wounded war veteran. How do we know he’s the Fisher King? He goes fishing. Actually, his fishing trip is quite extensive and, in its own way, restorative. It is also highly symbolic. And what, you ask, is the wound that makes him right for the role? This is tricky, since Jake, who narrates, never says. There’s only one thing, though, that can make a grown man, looking at himself naked in the mirror, weep. In real life, Hemingway’s own wound was in the upper thigh; in the novel, he moved it just north. Poor Jake, all the sexual desire and none of the ability to act upon it.

So what’s going on here? Character differentiation, certainly. The missing member sets Jake apart from everyone else in the novel, or any other novel I know of, for that matter. It also sets up parallels to the operative wasteland myth. Perhaps a touch of Isis and Osiris thrown in; Osiris was torn apart, and the goddess Isis succeeded in reassembling him except for the part that makes Jake Barnes resemble him (the Osiris myth is an Egyptian fertility story). Priestesses of Isis took human lovers as symbolical stand-ins for the damaged Osiris, not unlike the way Lady Brett Ashley in the novel takes other lovers because she and Jake cannot consummate their passion. But chiefly, the injury is symbolic of the destruction of possibilities, spiritual as well as procreative, accomplished by the war. When millions of young men die in war, they take with them not merely reproductive possibilities but also tremendous intellectual, creative, and artistic resources. The war was, in short, the death of culture, or at least of a very great chunk of it. Moreover, those who survived, like Hemingway and his characters, were badly damaged from the experience. The Great War generation probably suffered more devastating psychic damage and spiritual displacement than any other in history. Hemingway captures that damage three times over: once in the Nick Adams stories culminating in “Big Two-Hearted River” (1925), where Nick goes off alone to Michigan’s then remote Upper Peninsula on a fishing trip to repair his broken psyche after the horrors of his war experience; a second in Jake Barnes’s war wound and the fractured festivities in Pamplona; and a third in Lieutenant Frederic Henry’s separate peace, broken by his lover’s death in childbirth in A Farewell to Arms. All three cover the same ground of mental damage, spiritual despair, the death of hope. Jake’s wounding, then, is personal, historical, cultural, mythic. That’s a lot of impact for one little piece of shrapnel.

In his Alexandria Quartet, Lawrence Durrell introduces numerous characters with disabilities and deformities of various sorts—two with eye patches (although one is faking it) and one with a glass eye, one with a harelip, one who contracts smallpox and is badly scarred, one whose hand, impaled by an accidental speargun shot, must be amputated to save her life, one who is deaf, and several with limbs missing. On one level, being Durrell characters, they are simply versions of the exotic. Yet collectively they come to represent something else: everyone, Durrell seems to be saying, is damaged in some way or other, and no matter how careful or fortunate we might seem to be, we don’t get through life without being marked by the experience. Interestingly enough, his damaged characters are not particularly incommoded by their deficiencies. The harelipped Nahfouz becomes a celebrated mystic and preacher, while Clea, the painter, reports late in the final novel that her prosthetic hand can paint. The gift lies not in her hand, in other words, but in her heart, her mind, her soul.

What’s Mary Shelley up to then? Her monster doesn’t carry the specific historical baggage of a Jake Barnes, so what does his deformity represent? Let’s look at where he comes from. Victor Frankenstein builds his spare-parts masterpiece not only out of a graveyard but also out of a specific historical situation. The industrial revolution was just starting up, and this new world would threaten everything people had known during the Enlightenment; at the same time, the new science and the new faith in science—including anatomical research, of course—imperiled many religious and philosophical tenets of English society in the first decades of the nineteenth century. Thanks to Hollywood, the monster looks like Boris Karloff or Lon Chaney and intimidates us by its sheer physical menace. But in the novel it’s the idea of the monster that is frightening, or perhaps it’s really the idea of the man, the scientist-sorcerer, forging an unholy alliance with dark knowledge that scares us. The monster represents, among other things, forbidden insights, a modern pact with the devil, the result of science without ethics. You don’t need me to tell you this, naturally. Every time there’s an advance in the state of knowledge, a movement into a brave new world (another literary reference, of course), some commentator or other informs us that we’re closer to meeting a Frankenstein (meaning, of course, the monster).

The monster has several other possible frames of reference. The most obvious literary angle is the Faustian pact with the devil. We keep getting versions of Faust, from Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus to Goethe’s Faust to Stephen Vincent Benét’s The Devil and Daniel Webster to Damned Yankees to movie versions of Bedazzled (and, of course, Darth Vader’s turn to the Dark Side) to bluesman Robert Johnson’s stories of how he acquired his musical skill in a meeting with a mysterious stranger at a crossroads. The enduring appeal of this cautionary tale suggests how deeply embedded it is in our collective consciousness. Unlike other versions, however, Frankenstein involves no demonic personage offering the damning bargain, so the cautionary being is the product (the monster) rather than the source (the devil) of the unholy act. In his deformity he projects the perils of man seeking to play God, perils that, as in other (noncomic) versions, consume the power seeker.

Beyond these cautionary elements, though, the real monster is Victor, the monster’s maker. Or at least a portion of him. Romanticism gave us the notion, rampant throughout the nineteenth century and still with us in the twenty-first, of the dual nature of humanity, that in each of us, no matter how well made or socially groomed, a monstrous Other exists. The concept explains the fondness for doubles and self-contained Others in Victorian fiction: The Prince and the Pauper (1882), The Master of Ballantrae, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Significantly, these last two also involve hideous Others, the portrait of Dorian that reveals his corruption and decay while he himself remains beautiful, and the monstrous Mr. Hyde, into whom the good doctor turns when he drinks the fateful elixir. What they share with Shelley’s monster is the implication that within each of us, no matter how civilized, lurk elements that we’d really prefer not to acknowledge—the exact opposite of The Hunchback of Notre Dame or “Beauty and the Beast,” where a hideous outer form hides the beauty of the inner person.

Are deformities and scars therefore always significant? Perhaps not. Perhaps sometimes a scar is simply a scar, a short leg or a hunchback merely that. But more often than not physical markings by their very nature call attention to themselves and signify some psychological or thematic point the writer wants to make. After all, it’s easier to introduce characters without imperfections. You give a guy a limp in Chapter 2, he can’t go sprinting after the train in Chapter 24. So if a writer brings up a physical problem or handicap or deficiency, he probably means something by it.

Now, go figure out Harry Potter’s scar.