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Humiliating Your Heroes

March 19, 2015

In a slightly different twist to Throwback Thusday, I’m going to start featuring some posts from the past on Thursdays – probably not every Thursday, but every now and then, say once a month. Here’s one I wrote back in June 2010, right after I finished reading Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky. In this book, one of the characters, a writer, muses on his craft:Suite Francoise

“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.

In Grapes of Wrath John Steinbeck tells the story of the Joad family, forced out of their home in STEINBECK, JohnOklahoma 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.

So … that’s what I said almost five years ago. I love looking back and thinking about books I’ve read. For me, it’s another one of the many joys of reading.

Happy reading, everyone.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. March 19, 2015 4:09 PM

    I so agree. I, but I think humiliation is only one factor crucial to empathetic characterization. There should also be a moment when the character must face a fear, must show some form of growth, and be multi-dimensional with flaws and virtues.

    • March 19, 2015 8:17 PM

      True, Gina. There are so many factors in creating a believable, interesting character, one worth rooting for. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. March 19, 2015 6:50 PM

    Enjoyed your post, and I agree. My favorite heroes/heroines succeeded despite their imperfections and humiliations.

    • March 19, 2015 8:14 PM

      Mine too, Laura. A hero with smooth sailing wouldn’t need to be heroic. Thanks for stopping by.

  3. Sydell Voeller permalink
    March 20, 2015 9:10 AM

    Great points to ponder, Sandy! It’s true that our characters must be flawed, in some way, and grow at the story’s resolution. I’m glad you decided to revisit your earlier posts.

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