I spent several hours yesterday listening to the rest of Melanie Gideon’s Wife 22, not just because I said I was going to but because it finally engaged me enough to keep going. There are some good scenes, funny or moving or both. There are some vivid characters and great dialogue. But in the end I felt it dealt in a banal and contrived way with things I care deeply about–the way social media “connectedness” might displace real life connections; the way loneliness can open in a long marriage; our midlife grappling with the ways life has failed to match our youthful dreams and whether that’s okay. I couldn’t forgive that banality and contrivance. And while I sometimes liked Alice, and came to sympathize with her at moments, I didn’t feel she breathed much life into the collection of stereotypes that made her up.
And that would be that, except for a few things that made me realize I had more to say about the whole notion of sympathetic characters.
First, litlove commented on my last post that maybe “the problem lies . . . in the way we think about ‘sympathy.’” Hmm.
Then I remembered the late, great Laurie Colwin’s Family Happiness, a novel that covers some of the same territory as Gideon’s. Polly, Colwin’s main character, makes much more morally troubling choices than Alice does. The back blurb tells us Polly has an affair, and let’s just say Colwin’s ending is not neat and contrived like Gideon’s. At the end of Wife 22 everything is perfectly perfect. Family Happiness is partly about giving up the need to be perfect. Almost the last line of the novel, the thing that has stuck with me all these years, is this:
Polly felt her heart break open to love and pain, and to the complexity of things.
I didn’t approve of Polly’s actions (and I don’t think the book asks me to), but I understood them, and I sympathized with her, even when she’s wrong or foolish, in a way I never did with Alice. That sympathy came not from the character being likable (though she was) or nice or doing the right thing, but from Colwin’s ability to make me care about her.
And then I thought, What the hell? I wrote a post about sympathy and fiction and never mentioned George Eliot? This must be remedied at once! Now, you know how authors talk about “plot bunnies” and get all excited about a new story idea? This is how I feel about Eliot and sympathy. It’s my literary-critical bunny. (If your eyes are glazing over at the thought, you can duck out now with these take-aways: I was meh on Wife 22 but there was enough good stuff I’d consider reading Gideon again, and if you like chick-lit more than I do or the novel’s subject matter isn’t as hot-button for you, you might enjoy it. Also, Laurie Colwin is amazing but don’t read Family Happiness if you can’t stand to read about adultery. I’d suggest Happy All the Time or A Big Storm Knocked It Over as better fits for a romance-reader who wants to try her.)
Why turn to George Eliot when talking about sympathy with fictional characters? Because she had a lot to say about it. Arguably, her whole fictional project, the moral underpinning of her realism, is an education in sympathy. The passages in which she pauses in her narrative to lecture her reader on the subject are for me some of the most memorable and best loved in Victorian literature. Among them are the opening pages of Chapter 17 of Adam Bede, “In Which the Story Pauses a Little.” Eliot imagines a reader protesting that her clergyman character is not perfect or preachy enough. Her purpose, she explains to this reader, is to depict people and things as they really are, not as we might wish they were. Why? Because our real-life
fellow-mortals, every one, must be accepted as they are: you can neither brighten their wit, nor rectify their dispositions; and it is these people–amongst whom your life is passed–that it is needful you should tolerate, pity, and love: it is these more or less ugly, stupid, inconsistent people, whose movements of goodness you should be able to admire–for whom you should cherish all possible hopes, all possible patience. And I would not, even if I had the choice, be the clever novelist who could create a world so much better than this, in which we get up in the morning to do our daily work, that you would be likely to turn a harder, colder eye on the dusty streets and the common green fields–on the real breathing men and women, who can be chilled by your indifference or injured by your prejudice; who can be cheered and helped onward by your fellow-feeling, your forbearance, your outspoken, brave justice.
I’ve restrained myself from quoting five pages, but you can read it all here.
Sympathizing with fictional characters, Eliot suggests, might teach us to sympathize with real people. And thus it’s important that fictional characters not all be nice, likable, idealized, because the real people with whom we must sympathize are not. (It’s worth noting that this passage comes from a novel that made me sympathize with a woman who commits infanticide). Sympathy here does not reside in the character, which takes us back to litlove’s point that “we’re thinking about sympathy the wrong way.” Rather, sympathy is a moral imperative placed on the reader, an act we must perform, and the author’s responsibility is to help us do it.
This tension is inherent in the dictionary definitions of “sympathy.” One (OED) definition is “conformity of feelings, inclinations, or temperament, which makes persons agreeable to each other.” In this sense, we find “sympathetic” characters who are like us, and the need to make characters sympathetic limits what they can be or do. But sympathy can also mean “the fact or capacity of entering into or sharing the feelings of another” or “the quality or state of being . . . affected by the suffering or sorrow of another; a feeling of compassion.” And in that sense, any character can be sympathetic, as long as the author finds a way to make us feel for them. Eliot’s main strategy for evoking that sympathy is her omniscient narrator, who is not only all-seeing, explaining to us the motives for her characters’ actions, but deeply compassionate even as she is unsparing about the characters’ flaws. Thus when I read Middlemarch, I come to sympathize not only with naive Dorothea Brooke, who wants so badly to do good but sometimes goes about it in rather foolish ways, but with the the utterly shallow and unredeemed Rosamund Vincy. I don’t sympathize with everything they do, and certainly sympathy doesn’t mean excusing their errors; I do feel moments of compassion for even the weakest and worst of her characters. In fact, I sympathize with their weakness, because I am weak sometimes too. I think Eliot makes it “safe” to sympathize with them (and thus with our own weakness), because her narrator extends them compassion as well as condemnation.
Eliot is implicitly arguing against other visions of the novel’s role in the moral education of its reader. In his Rambler [an 18th-century periodical] essay “On Fiction,” for instance, Samuel Johnson argues that since novels are read by the young and idle women, people who really need educating, the novelist should depict good people being rewarded and bad punished, and show us characters worth emulating. Otherwise, we might actually be led to sympathize (horrors!) with flawed people:
Many writers, for the sake of following nature, so mingle good and bad qualities in their principal personages, that they are both equally conspicuous; and as we accompany them through their adventures with delight, and are led by degrees to interest ourselves in their favour, we lose the abhorrence of their faults, because they do not hinder our pleasure, or, perhaps, regard them with some kindness, for being united with so much merit.
Jane Austen is a writer more in this Johnsonian tradition. Much as I love her, she turns a far “colder, harder eye” on her characters than Eliot does. Characters like Wickham in Pride and Prejudice or the Crawfords in Mansfield Park could be depicted sympathetically, but Austen doesn’t do so.
Of course, whatever novelists do to invite readers’ sympathy for their characters, it doesn’t always work, or work on every reader. There are people who like Mary Crawford, hate Fanny Price, and can’t stand Middlemarch. I think that readers of Wife 22 are supposed to sympathize with Alice Buckle; I found I couldn’t because she seemed so self-centered and lacking in self-knowledge, and there was no omniscient narrator to filter or comment on her and help me find a way to sympathize.
This failure of sympathy is something Eliot anticipates. Indeed, it’s not only inevitable but desirable. The omniscient narrator is a fictional device. No one could or would want to be that all-seeing, sympathetic consciousness in real life. In Middlemarch, Eliot comments that she doesn’t expect people to be much moved by Dorothea’s unhappiness when the reality of her marriage to Casaubon fails to live up to her dreams, for such disappointment “is not unusual, and we do not expect people to be deeply moved by what is not unusual.” By pointing this out, the narrator demonstrates that she is moved and sympathetic; but she understands–and extends her sympathy to–those coarser real people who fail to be moved:
[i]f we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of the roar that lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.
In her novella The Lifted Veil, an odd little work of speculative fiction, Eliot imagines a character who lacks this “wadding of stupidity.” I always thought of this novella as a kind of philosophical hypothetical: what would it be like if the omniscient narrator were a real person? Latimer, the novella’s first-person narrator, develops a kind of clairvoyance that gives him both visions of the future and the ability to read the thoughts of those around him–or rather, since he can’t control this ability, the thoughts of others “would force themselves on my consciousness like an importunate, ill-played musical instrument.” Imagine if you did know, if you had to know, what everyone around you was thinking and feeling. No wonder the novella opens with Latimer eagerly awaiting his death.
So what does all this get me, besides a chance to ramble on about some of my favorite bits of George Eliot? I think she can resolve for us what litlove called “the curse of the sympathetic character.” Perhaps we can speak, instead, of “the sympathetic reader.” I do want to sympathize with at least some of the characters when I’m reading a book; I want to feel with and for them, to care about what happens to them. But this doesn’t have to mean that writers create characters who are nice enough, middle of the road enough, inoffensive enough, to be “sympathetic.” It means, instead, that they have to find ways to help readers sympathize with whatever characters they create–recognizing that there are limits to our sympathy, and that sometimes the effort will fail.
In some ways authors in genres like romance or chick-lit have it much harder than Eliot when it comes to creating sympathy. The deep third-person or first-person narration employed in these genres doesn’t allow for a compassionate omniscient narrator to educate and direct a reader’s sympathy. Somehow, there has to be space for that compassion even when all we have is the character’s own thoughts. I admire writers who work to create sympathy for “difficult” characters in the reader rather than falling back on safely sympathetic characters. I want to find a variety of characters in my genre reading. For my part, I pledge to do my best to be a sympathetic reader, to feel with and for characters even when we lack “a conformity of feelings . . . or temperament.” Inevitably, sometimes, both reader and writer will fail. But I think it’s a risk worth taking. I think it’s a risk we have to take sometimes, to push boundaries, to move past the formulaic, safe and familiar, to make the genre great.