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HUMILIATING OUR HEROES

June 28, 2010

I’m currently reading: Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky. In it, one of the characters, a writer, muses on his craft:

“In a novel, there is nothing more valuable than teaching the lesson of humility to the heroes.”

I had to stop reading to think about that. For me, it was a different way of looking at what writers do to characters in order to tell their stories. Is the statement true? I felt that it was, but, needing to test it, I thought about some of the fictional heroes (both male and female) who have seemed particularly alive to me and whose stories have stuck with me through the years.

Jane Eyre, a long-time favorite, certainly fits the profile. Bronte begins the story when Jane is a child, an orphan, forced to live with relatives who never let her forget her dependent status. Bessie, one of the servants, tells her: “You ought to be aware, miss, that you are under obligation to Mrs. Reed; she keeps you; if she were to turn you out, you would have to go to the poorhouse.” How humiliating is that! But what a great way to begin a story–we have an appealing character to sympathize with, an underdog to root for. A little later, Bessie tells Jane, ” …you ought not to think yourself on an equality with the Misses Reed and Master Reed . . . they will have a great deal of money and you will have none; it’s your place to be humble, and to try to make yourself agreeable to them.” Does Jane take Bessie’s advice? Of course not. She fights back–and thus begins a life filled with one humiliation after another until, at the book’s end, she has faced every imaginable adversity–and we, the readers, feel an almost personal pride in the woman the child has become.

Grapes of Wrath tells the story of the Joad family, forced out of their home in Oklahoma by the economic desperation of the dust-bowl years. I can’t think of a character who faces more humiliation than Tom Joad–or a hero I admire more.

Who can forget Tom Sawyer, forced to paint the fence on a Saturday morning while his fancy-free schoolmates stop by to gloat? We all know how Tom turned that humiliation into a boy’s dream of riches.

Think of Toni Morrison. Her novels are filled with characters who face humiliation with heroic dignity. We cry with them. We root for them. We remember them.

The list could go on. I’m sure everyone has a personal favorite they could add. So the statement must be true, but I have to wonder why. Do we enjoy seeing other people humiliated? I refuse to believe that. Maybe it’s because, while we all dream about the guy on the white horse, the hero we hold in our hearts is the one with whom we can identify. That makes more sense to me. And it makes a much better story.

A note: In case anyone wonders, I heartily recommend Suite Francaise. The book is set in France during World War II and is populated with complex, vulnerable characters. They’re not all likable, but they are totally believable–and memorable. 

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. June 28, 2010 10:05 AM

    I’ve noted the title of the books, Sandy. Also, you’ve given great examples of tragic heroes and their humiliations.

  2. June 28, 2010 12:29 PM

    Thanks, Loretta, for stopping by.

  3. June 29, 2010 2:39 PM

    My main charachter has none of that. I have to revise it. This post is timely for me because I don’t want a forgettable MC. Thanks so much.

  4. June 29, 2010 3:21 PM

    Actually, that makes sense. In my latest upcoming book, LIghts! Camera! Murder, I humiliated my character from the start. It gives the character a point from which to grow. I did it with many other characters now that I think about it. Humiliation serves to make characters humble, fragile, vulnerable, just like us real folks. Life would be pretty boring and predicable if all went our way every day. A person, and character, has to learn how to win and lose. Very interesting post, thanks!

    • July 1, 2010 10:02 PM

      Love your title, Loni. I agree with your comment that humiliation gives a character a point from which to grow. Thanks for sharing.

  5. June 29, 2010 7:02 PM

    I agree with your statement:
    “Maybe it’s because, while we all dream about the guy on the white horse, the hero we hold in our hearts is the one with whom we can identify.”

    Who cares for the perfect hero, and, although we don’t want our friends to suffer, we do like our characters more when they do.

  6. June 30, 2010 7:23 AM

    Thanks for stopping by Ladies.

    Carmen, glad you agree.

    Carole, good luck with your MC. I think we’re all trying to avoid forgettable MCs. That why (well, one of the reasons) we read other writers’ blogs – we all hope to pick up some tips. My prediction is that, since you have a conscious goal in mind, you’ll achieve it.

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