Since I recently wrote a post on tragedy, and am currently in the middle of writing another lesson on tragedy (Things Fall Apart), I felt it was high time to compile a list of my favorite characters who self-destruct. And this week’s Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by the Broke and the Bookish, gave me the perfect excuse to do so. I ran out of time and didn’t quite make it to ten, but that just gives me more room to play in the future.
Without further ado:
1. Michael Henchard (The Mayor of Casterbridge): The thing about Henchard is that he tries so hard. Maybe too hard: he tends to push himself just slightly past what’s reasonable, and all you can do is watch helplessly as everything falls apart. There’s a particularly excruciating moment late in the novel when he tries to give his estranged, sort-of daughter a pet bird as a wedding gift. He’s forced from the house and leaves the bird near the doorstep, where it dies before it’s finally discovered. I’m usually loath to read single scenes as metaphors for entire works, but that one has always struck me as painfully symbolic. For all his temper, there’s a tenderness to Henchard, but every attempt to give voice to it withers on the vine.
2. Captain Ahab (Moby-Dick): I feel a bit pretentious even mentioning this, since Moby-Dick has the reputation of being one of those books that everyone claims to like but no one actually likes. The thing is, though, I actually do like it—even love it. And 99% of my reason for loving it can be chalked up to Ahab and his destructive need to find a meaningful object for his anger and hatred amidst the chaos of the natural world.
3. Claude Frollo (The Hunchback of Notre Dame): I feel like I’m stretching the truth a little with this one, since it has been, erm, quite a while since I read The Hunchback of Notre Dame. And truth be told, I was more interested in Quasimodo when I first read it, because I was too young to really make heads or tails of a storyline driven entirely by sexual obsession. In retrospect, though, that’s exactly the part that I find compelling. And at the risk of sounding self-involved, I also find my own reaction interesting. On the one hand, the tendency to project your own neurotic desires onto someone else is something I find extremely repugnant in terms of its real-life consequences (“It wasn’t really rape. I couldn’t help it. She was asking for it.”). On the other hand, this kind of character virtually never fails to move me when he’s safely confined to a novel; Frollo scares me, but I also feel genuinely sorry for him.
4. Richard Carstone (Bleak House): I know, I know. I mention this novel in virtually every other post. But there’s a reason for that: it’s so expansive, so wide-reaching, that it includes basically every kind of storyline your heart could desire, including tragedy. What I find particularly poignant about Richard’s storyline (other than his youth and naiveté) is the fact that he never really grasps the full gravity of the situation. He acknowledges his mistake in pursuing the Chancery case to the bitter end, apologizes to his wife, and so on and so forth…but he never realizes the case has already killed him; he still believes that he and Ada can run away to the country and live an idyllic, lawyer-free existence. Right up until the moment of his death, he’s holding out for some kind of deus ex machina. It’s a terrible twist of the knife on Dickens’s part, and I love it.
5. Anna (Anna Karenina): Like The Hunchback of Notre Dame, this is a novel that I really ought to reread. I remember enough, though, to feel confident including it on this list. There are, of course, a large number of 19th-century novels dealing with “fallen” women, and there’s a tendency to pooh-pooh them nowadays, even when the novels themselves condemn the sexual double standard: we’ve gotten over that, the attitude seems to be, so why do we need to be preached at? Well, apart from the fact that we have demonstrably not gotten over the double standard, I think there’s a bit more to some of these stories. I remember reading an article once that argued (I believe) that Anna’s “problem” has less to do with society than it does with a bottomless need to love and be loved that simply isn’t satisfiable (especially by a man like Vronsky). It’s exacerbated by her isolation, certainly, but not caused by it, and it leads to depression, deeply counterproductive fits of jealousy, and ultimately suicide.
6. Othello: Choosing one Shakespearean play was painful, but in the end I went with Othello, largely because I’ve always felt it doesn’t quite get the respect it deserves. It’s Shakespeare, of course, but it’s never mentioned in the same breath as, say, Hamlet and King Lear. Certainly, there’s a lot that’s melodramatic and unbelievable about it. What fascinates me, though, is the psychology of the play. Other Shakespearean heroes go mad, but none of them go mad in quite the same way Othello does—and not just because they don’t all have sociopathic advisors working 24/7 to undo them. Iago works by undercutting every distinction between right and wrong, real and unreal; Lear may be crazy, but Othello’s mind becomes a strange, dark house of mirrors. It’s terrifying, and so compelling.
7. Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff (Wuthering Heights): I mean, you can’t really separate them, can you? I have heard many, many people (usually students trying to sound astute in introductory literature courses) say that Wuthering Heights isn’t a love story. I assume what they really mean is that it’s not a love story to aspire to, which I hope we can all agree is true. It’s absurd to say that it’s not a love story, though, and it also denies the novel its main source of power. Does anyone really respond to Cathy and Heathcliff’s story with smug indifference (“Ah, yes, you think this is a life-or-death issue, but I, in my greater wisdom, can tell that it’s just particularly vitriolic sexual attraction”)? Maybe, but I sort of doubt it. There’s a lot about Cathy and Heathcliff that’s repulsive, but it’s repulsive in a cataclysmic, larger-than-life, and, yes, occasionally moving way.
So that’s my tentative list. Maybe someday I’ll actually be able to recall something post-19th century, but don’t hold your breath.