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Strength of Character

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I am sitting here at the start of one of those days that you just know is going to me miserable, because it looks like rain outside when there isn’t any rain yet, and everything is so humid that the concrete block is wilting.

I am also in yet another spasm of temporary physical disability.  I was walking across the dining room early yesterday morning when I slipped on something.  I don’t know what.  The dining room floor is hardwood.  It looked perfectly clean. 

At any rate, I slipped and I fell and I came very close to breaking my knee.  I could feel it about to happen, and I went frantically twisting around to save myself.  I did, too, except that instead of breaking the thing I twisted it badly, and now it’s hard to straighten out and has swollen up like a casaba melon.

I think Rocky and Bullwinkle and Fractured Fairy Tales have branded casaba melons forever.

I am just coming to the end of Oliver Twist, and a friend of mine asked me yesterday if all the characters in it are passive, and, if they were, if that was a Good Thing.

I found this an interesting question, because it wasn’t the way I’d ever thought about it before.

The title character in Oliver Twist is not so much a character as he is a stand in for a problem–the way in which the society of Dickens’s day treated poor and homeless children. 

I don’t think it would have been believable for a character who is supposed to be so young and so physically frail to have been a great adventurer, or something else of that kind. 

I also think it would not have served the purpose.  Dickens wanted to call attention to the way the poor, and especially poor children, were treated, and conceived of.  An Oliver Twist who resolutely set off to Make His Fortune, and then Made It, would have presented an interesting enough story, but he would also have bolstered exactly the kind of thinking Dickens opposed–that if these children were actually worth anything, they would DO things and get themselves out of their predicament.

I am not much for helplessness in characters or people, but I do think it’s unlikely that a five year old, or even an eight year old, can Do about his own poverty.  There is less he can do about his maltreatment–beatings, and being nearly staved to death, and that kind of thing–in a society in which those things are considered to be just what he deserves.

Oliver Twist is also limited in its time.  We get a quick rehash of how Oliver came to be in a county poorhouse, then move forward until he’s about eight or nine, and then go from there no more than a year or two. 

And although Oliver is not exactly completely passive, he’s not in a position to know what it is he’s supposed to do, or what it is he is supposed to be looking for, although he does have the distinct feeling he is supposed to be looking for something.

He knows his mother is dead, and has been told she was a prostitute, and that his father was some Godforsaken john.  The one thing he consistently does is to fight anybody who says anything wrong about his mother, and it is such a fight that finally gets him in trouble with the law enough to feel he should light out for a new place.

The passivity, or lack of it, here, is, I think, an interesting question.  A lot of people have complained that Oliver is too good and pure (and passive) to be interested in.  One of those people is Jill Muller, who wrote the introduction to the edition I’m reading.

And goodness only knows, the Good and Pure thing can get annoying, and occurs regularly in Dickens’s work.  It occurs more than once in Oliver Twist, and not just in the character of Oliver.  Dickens was a sentimentalist by nature, and he wrote in a sentimentalist age. We’re in Victorian England, the world of saccharine sweetness of nature and the Angel of the House.

But although this is all true enough, it matters to me what happens to Oliver, and he does in fact do quite a few things that turn out to be frantically unsuccessful attempts to rectify his situation in one way or the other.

Brought along to help on a robbery, he makes up his mind to cry out and alert the house so that they can stop the attempt in its tracks–even though he knows that, by doing so, he will be caught along with the rest and almost certainly hanged. 

This does not seem, to me, like the act of somebody who is terminally passive. 

I don’t think it’s a count against  him that he gets shot before he has a chance to pull off his plan.

Thinking about it, though, a lead character who has a plan, knows what he wants, and sets about doing it isn’t something I dislike, but it also isn’t the only kind of character I’m interested in reading about.

It seems to me that there are other kinds of people in the world, and those other kinds of people often have stories, and they can be intrinisically interesting.

If I had to pick my favorite type of lead character, it would be this:  someone stuck in a situation so miserable and all-encompassing that there seems to be no way out of it without behaving in ways she thinks are morally reprehensible, and who comes, over time, through a series of events not directly related to the core problem, to see the way out.

That is, I think, the story at the core of Somebody Else’s Music, which is still my favorite of all the books I’ve written. 

I don’t want a doormat, but I’m also not usually interested in people who have a cause and are intent on pursuing it and succeeding–except in villains, where the object of their desire becomes one of the reasons they engage in their villainy.

Even in villains, though, this is not my favorite type of character. 

In villains, I prefer the kind of person so convinced of his or her own righteousness that she’d happily seen kittens strangled and small children run through woodchippers to bring about her own triumph. 

In other words, all my villains have the souls of bureaucrats in the helping professions.

I want to head something off at the pass here, in the probably vain hope that I can make this clear the first time.

I am NOT SAYING that there’s another wrong with strong and resolute heroes and heroines who know what they want and set out to get it.

I am NOT SAYING that such characters are in any way a  negative thing about a story.

And I am NOT COMPLAINING about such characters.

ALL I am saying is that, for me, other kinds of characters are more interesting.

Oliver Twist is interesting, at the moment, although not really for himself–for the fact that he is the focal point in bringing down Fagan and Sikes and the rest; and for the fact that I find it hard not to identify common themes between that time and this.

Treating children caught up in crimes as if they were adults is one of them.

Written by janeh

June 2nd, 2012 at 12:43 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

12 Responses to 'Strength of Character'

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  1. “If I had to pick my favorite type of lead character, it would be this: someone stuck in a situation so miserable and all-encompassing that there seems to be no way out of it without behaving in ways she thinks are morally reprehensible, and who comes, over time, through a series of events not directly related to the core problem, to see the way out.”

    This is not quite, but very close to, Huck Finn. In an otherwise sorry Nero Wolfe, Rex Stout has a character cite Huck’s “All right then, I’ll GO to Hell” as the epitome of American literature–of finding one’s own moral center regardless of public opinion.

    And I would agree in large measure–finding out what one ought to do is potentially at least as interesting as doing it. My ire is generally aimed not at the character who arrives at a decision late, but the one who never arrives there at all. (It does seem to me to be a common condition in Dickens. Even Scrooge spends most of the book not so much rethinking matters as being re-educated.)

    I agree that one can’t expect any but a very extraordinary boy of 8 or 10 to set his own agenda–but telling the story through him and not, say, a workhouse manager or a distant cousin tracking him down and finding out what happened to him, was an authorial decision. It wasn’t the only way to write a social problem novel.

    About that SPN. I do not say it is not a proper use of the form. I do not question the judgment of the author nor the taste of the reader, but they’re usually not for me. Set in the future as a distopia–1984, BRAVE NEW WORLD or ATLAS SHRUGGED–as the consequences of a policy or belief, I think they’re at their most effective and enduring. Set in the past–that is, written as historical novels–I find them distasteful. They’re the modern age come to pass smug judgment on its ancestors. Set in the time of their writing, as GREAT EXPECTATIONS and WE, THE LIVING were, they can be devastating, but they do tend to fade away with the problem. There are still lessons to be drawn in PERSUASION, but not in UNCLE TOM’S CABIN or GENTLEMEN’S AGREEMENT.

    For myself, it’s character and story, backed by narrative power and dialogue. If I just want an insightful look at a contemporary social problem, Theodore Dalrymple and company will do quite well, and often Veblen and Parkinson will do better.

    The problem, if it’s serious enough, will go away. The character, if she’s credible and intriguing enough, may stay with us forever. When no one but historians know what a workhouse was, the Dashwood sisters will still debate passion and propriety, and Lady MacBeth will still walk mad through Dunsinane Castle.

    But if we all wanted the same things in our reading, 500 titles a year would be more than enough.


    2 Jun 12 at 3:44 pm

  2. Robert, what do you mean by SPN?


    2 Jun 12 at 9:51 pm

  3. SPN?


    2 Jun 12 at 9:52 pm

  4. “Social Problem Novel.” Gotta watch that Robert, he always has a reference for his acronyms, but he doesn’t always capitalize it. ;)


    2 Jun 12 at 10:16 pm

  5. Well, to me the value to our generation of reading the likes of Dickens and his (approximate) contemporaries, eg Twain, Thackeray, Trollope and the like, is how they demonstrate that the more things change, the more they remain the same, and that much so-called social progress is simply rearranging the furniture and changing the covers on a very tatty old couch.

    Just about every social evil Dickens wrote about in Oliver Twist and elsewhere is as bad or worse today than it was then. The only thing that has changed is the growth in the bureaucracies created to “fix” the problems.


    2 Jun 12 at 10:42 pm

  6. Well Mique, if looking around you see nothing has changed except the “arraignment of the furniture”, then things must be far different in Australia than the U.S.

    Even here in the ‘south bay’ of San Diego where average incomes are much lower than in ‘north county’ we don’t have ragged orphans living in the streets and as death penalty happy as the U.S. is, so far even the deep south hasn’t reverted to hanging hungry 12 year olds for stealing a loaf of bread.

    What am I missing?


    3 Jun 12 at 6:10 am

  7. I’d have said that once policies were bad enough to be mocked by novelists, they were mostly changed–but we get fresh ones. We don’t auction off orphans to chimney sweeps, but we have the delights of the foster care system, and we shoot healthy, active boys full of tranquilizers. We got rid of Jim Crow–but now we have our race preferences and our Elizabeth Warrens. GREAT EXPECTATIONS and TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD are souvenirs of bygone eras, but there would still be room for a social problem novelist–if he were prepared to offend Leviathan.

    Let me give another example and hope Jane won’t be too offended. Within the last year she mentioned reading kipling’s “With the Night Mail” an early (1905) science fiction short about the rise of air travel–and technocratic government. The story included a notice of missing airchips, modeled after shipping notices of Kipling’s day, and Jane said that if we lost aircraft at such a rate, we’d stop flying. Well, we don’t lose commercial aircraft at the old shipping rate, of course. And thanks to “wireless” and improved ship design, we don’t lose shipping at any high rate, either. But I don’t think any writer of 1905 would have considered for a moment that over the next century the United States would kill 30,000-40,000 people EVERY YEAR in their cars off on vacation or going to and from work. Surely something would be done? Instead we hardly notice. Here, if you like, is a target for the social problem novelist as tempting as THE JUNGLE or FIVE NIGHTS IN A BAR ROOM. But I don’t think I’ll read that one, either.


    3 Jun 12 at 6:33 am

  8. Whatever the shortcomings of the foster care system, it is orders of magnitude better than leaving orphans to fend for themselves in the streets, and then hanging any who get caught simply trying to feed themselves.

    As for deaths from automobile accidents, from the not so liberal CATO.org I’m scanning through a document I found looking for statistics for accidental death for 19th century. This document {http://www.cato.org/pubs/pas/pa364.pdf} isn’t that, but page 6 there is a little statistical summary for early vs. late 20th century.

    Accidental deaths for 1900-1920 per 100,000 population was 88. For 1995-98 it was 34.

    I guarantee you it was far worse yet in the 19th century, although record keeping of the 19th century (and before) makes it a challenge to get accurate numbers. Suffice it to say (although I doubt I have the patience to find all the numbers)if we killing people on our highways at the same rate people died from accidents from transportation in the 19th century that 30,000-40,000 would probably increase by well more than ten fold. In fact, you’re pretty damned safe in a modern automobile on a modern road.

    So your hypothetical writer of 1905, if he were not innumerate and had access to the appropriate data would be overwhelmed with joy at the low number of deaths inflicted by modern transportation.


    3 Jun 12 at 7:41 am

  9. Yes, it’s true. Since the development of germ theory and antibiotics, getting sliced open by a sickle or jabbed by a pitchfork is a lot less likely to be fatal. But could we stay somewhere near the subject?

    There is room, I think, for some fine distinction between “accidental death” and “traffic fatality” and it’s a LOT harder to get someone killed when a dog cart and a hay wain meet at a cross-roads than when a semi and an econobox merge on I-95. (It is, I’ll grant you, easier to fall off a coach when roaring drunk than to fall out of your van–and you might want to contemplate what our statistics would be like if we combined work and drunkenness at 19th Century levels.)

    If it’s any comfort, automobile fatalities per passenger mile have been dropping right along, and the absolute numbers of traffic fatalities peaked decades ago. But can you imagine the reaction if terrorists killed in one year what drunk drivers kill every year?

    Doubtless Kipling would be surprised and pleased by some technological advances. On the other hand, in the world of “The Night Mail” we’d “stopped making war” some time back.


    3 Jun 12 at 9:40 am

  10. Germ theory and antibiotics are also covered by the mentioned reference. Deaths from infectious diseases fell from 700 per 100,000 in the span 1900-1920 to 50/100,000 in 1995-98.

    You car won’t have a snit fit and kick you in the head just because.

    As for as road accidents . . .

    From http://catskillarchive.com/rrextra/wkbkch22.Html we find that:

    “. During the eight years between September 30, 1870, and September 30, 1878, the entire railroad system of Massachusetts was operated at a cost of 1,165 lives, apart from all cases of injury which did not prove fatal. The returns in this respect also may be accepted as reasonably accurate, as the deaths were all returned, though the cases of merely personal injury probably were not. The annual average was 146 lives.”

    Checking http://archive.org/stream/annualreportvita1878mass#page/n11/mode/2up

    (image, can’t copy paste) we find that the population of Mass. at the time was about 1,700,000.

    If I’ve done my math right, that’s a fatality rate of 8.5 per 100/000.

    In 2010 the population of Mass. was 6,547,629. The last year I found for traffic fatalities is 2009 with 334.

    Again, if my math is right, that’s a fatality rate of about 5.1 per 100,000.

    And yes, I’m quite aware of the innumeracy of the general population and their subsequent inability to assess risk.


    3 Jun 12 at 10:22 am

  11. Oh, and remember, that’s just from railroads, it doesn’t include folks getting trampled by teams of horses or kicked or any other source of fatality related to transportation.


    3 Jun 12 at 10:38 am

  12. And just because I’ve got the data up so I might as well share.

    From a jacket note for “Death Rode the Rails: American Railroad Accidents and Safety, 1828-1965”: “Yet by 1907 railroads had also become the largest cause of violent death in the country, that year claiming the lives of nearly twelve thousand passengers, workers, and others. ”

    The 1910 Census gives a population of 92,228,496, so estimating a bit low for fatalities at 11,500, that works out to 12.5/100,000.

    For 2010, the U.S. population stood at 308,745,538, with a total traffic death toll of 32,885, for a rate of 10.6/100,000.

    The numbers would be far more skewed if we went by passenger miles traveled, but I haven’t searched for data for that.


    3 Jun 12 at 12:39 pm

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