Do you imagine yourself as those characters? Do you see yourself as some and not as others? Or do you imagine yourself meeting these characters rather than being them?
It occurred to me, recently, that my reaction to characters often hinges on whether or not I would like to know them. This is why, I think, I tend to side with the “good and boring” characters in books rather than the frequently “complex” characters.
I think this is also why She from H. Rider Haggard’s She drove me absolutely up the wall. A woman who enslaves men with her beauty and turns them into fatuous idiots and has no use for other women? Yeah, I would definitely hate meeting that kind of women. Yet other readers have enjoyed her power over men. Are they, perhaps, identifying with her rather than imagining meet her?
But as Richard Jenkins wrote in A Fine Brush On Ivory: An Appreciation of Jane Austen in regards to the worldly Mary Crawford’s affectionate response to Fanny Price and the people of Mansfield Park, “it is simply more agreeable to be among decent, good-hearted people than out in the cold wide world.” This, of course, mostly applies to meeting real people rather than fictional ones.
But on the whole, I do not identify with characters and rarely see myself in them.
There is one character, however, I identify with. Not because she’s just like me, but because I could so easily imagine myself in her place, thinking as she does and reacting similarly. It’s Fanny Price from Mansfield Park, perhaps my most cherished Jane Austen novel. I’ve read Pride and Prejudice more often, but I have a special affection for Mansfield Park and a special sense of protectiveness towards Fanny Price…not that she is likely to need it by the end of the book.
But most people do not warm to Fanny Price. They find her powerless and insipid. She’s certainly not Jane Eyre. But I find her intellectually curious, timid, possessing a powerful response to nature and beauty, a warm heart, unalterable principles that she is willing to stand up for, overly anxious about her interactions with people, a sharp and incisive mind in regard to her assessment of people (though she has to learn confidence in her own judgments), sensitive (perhaps overly so), inexperience with the ways of the world, and a strong sense of duty. But she’s not an exciting person.
Though Richard Jenkins writes (whose book I love because he loves Mansfield Park as much as I do) in response to the frequently expressed thought that one cannot have a mousy heroine, “It has been one of the boasts of the novel that it does not restrict itself to the splendours and miseries of the grand, the glamorous, and the clever; all human life, however ordinary and unspectacular, comes within its purview…Plenty of people are dull or insignificant or lacking in talent and resources. If they cannot play a leading role in a work of literature, we must conclude that there is much that literature cannot do.”
But in truth, if I am going to identify with anything, it is usually feelings or emotions or ways of thinking rather than actual characters. Many people talk of identifying with Jo March. I never did. Quick temper? Not me (have you ever noticed that mild personalities rarely garner respect in novels? Mild personalities frequently translate as tepid. Literature loves nothing so much as a quick temper). But the last time I read Little Women, I managed to look beyond the externals of her personality and recognize – not character – but feelings and thoughts that resonated with me.
This still is not a common sensation for me, though. It has occurred most frequently with Jane Austen and Leo Tolstoy’s novels. They have an extraordinary ability to convey how real people think and react.
I’ve always thought there was a dearth of certain kinds of personalities, though, and my question has been, do I not identify because people tend not to write about characters who I would identify with, or is it simply the way that I approach books that prevents me from more closely seeing myself in other characters?
Of course, there is also the instances where I simply enjoy the creation of an unusual and fascinating (or humorous character), quite apart from whether I like them or identify with them or would want to meet them. Mrs. Gibson from Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters. Mrs. Bennett and Mr. Collins from Pride and Prejudice. Jeeves and Wooster. These are characters who are simply a joy to read about.