You usually know who you’re supposed to cheer for in a book. Miss Bingley is not the heroine of Pride and Prejudice. Inspector Javert is clearly in the wrong, clinging to an unworkable view of good and evil, in Les Miserables. Gollum is twisted and pathetic, and his better side does not win out in the end. But sometimes, we know we’re not Elizabeth Bennett. Our darker side is sometimes stronger, and we don’t really appear like a heroine to others. And the thought occurs to me that though I don’t like the antagonist, though I know I’m not supposed to be like them – all too often, I am.
Take Miss Bingley. She uses all sorts of manipulative feminine wiles – putting down other females, putting herself in the best light, flattering males she is interested in – which are clearly condemned by both Jane Austen and Elizabeth Bennett. But what female has not been tempting to use stupid tactics like this when faced with other female competition? I’ve certainly let a snarky comment or two escape my lips – and immediately known it was a very Miss-Bingley-ish thing to say. Because the reality is that being Elizabeth, being the character that attracts the interest of very desirable young men despite doing nothing to invite such interest, and despising the young men in question, is very rare. Most men are not brave enough to show interest without encouragement, and so women compete to show interest – often in sad and petty ways. And when you’re not the character of Elizabeth yourself, you often feel tempted to resent the characters that are.
Ugh, I always do wonder what happened to Miss Bingley after the events of Pride and Prejudice, as her characters sort of slides out of the story towards the end. She was driven by circumstances that fortunately we females today don’t have to experience – all of her womanly identity at the time depending on her making a good match. If she didn’t, she was nothing, and possibly poor as well, as she couldn’t work for a living. Would any of us really be more well behaved than she? Which of us, upon discovering a guy we have a strong interest in and whom we thought may return the interest in time, actually be at peace when he suddenly showed signs of interest in some random female he has just met? Miss Bingley showed her resentfulness strongly, and did not look better for doing so. But she really had no way of winning in that situation.
Inspector Javert – I’m treading on shaky ground here, because I have no actually read the gigantic tome known as Les Misérables, but only seen the movie. But from what I know of the character, he has a very black-and-white version of right and wrong. Which I do as well, unfortunately. This, I heartily agree, may not be a failing of many of the readers of this blog, but it is something I struggle with. In theory, I can see the arguments for both sides of morally gray areas (for example, I once wrote a nursing paper on the benefits of safe injection sites, though I know many people who oppose it), and think I feel comfortable reserving judgement on such things. But then, when faced with making a choice in reality – when actually having to take actions that indicate I am comfortable with leaving things in morally gray areas – I struggle. I feel like my soul is torn. Sometimes I snap, and make harsh judgements. Would I, if I had been an inspector at the time the numerous revolutions in France, have acted far more like Javert than Jean Valjean? Maybe I would have, and the thought scares me. If the world was easily divided into black and white, this would be a valid way to think. But it’s not.
And then – there is Gollum, who is probably the most human of the antagonists in Lord of the Rings (well, at times he functions as an antagonist, anyway). Tolkien did not believe in trying to relate to evil, which is why Sauron is always such a far-off and mysterious figure. But Gollum, in a rather relatable way, struggles with trying to be a better version of himself, and falling into his old, sneaky ways. He fails at overcoming his faults – the pull of the ring is too strong. But the beauty of Lord of the Rings is that – Frodo, the hero, fails at this too. He claims the ring at Mount Doom as well, and no character is able to defeat the worst part of themselves on their own. It was only through a providential force stronger than any of the characters (which, Tolkien being Catholic, is likely similar to how he viewed God worked in the world, but probably would’ve resented anyone equating this concept in Middle Earth to God) – a force which worked so Sauron overlooked the weakness of hobbits, and provided Frodo with the pity to save Gollum’s life in the first place – that prevented the end of Middle Earth.*
All too often I am like Gollum, pulled by the same old struggles, and making no progress in improving myself. And I know, on my own, I will not get much better, and likely will just become more selfish, judgemental, and resentful. (But maybe, just maybe, there is more to my story than this… grace and mercy do exist, after all).
I’m not the person I want to be. Literature holds up a mirror to both the best parts of myself, the best parts of what I could be – and also sometimes the worst parts. Sometimes it is important to face up to your worse parts, and admit that they exist. That Jane Austen might not have liked you if she’d met you. That you, too, might’ve claimed the ring as your own.
The power of literature is just this.
* Tolkien talks more about how he worked out this idea in Letter 246, if you’re interested.