Friday, February 29, 2008

(Un)Sympathetic Characters

Recently, I read Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (one of the few classics I didn't read in high school). Good book. I enjoyed many of the themes, but one in particular stood out: responsibility for the creation of life.

Dr. Frankenstein (the main character, not the monster) spends years trying to figure out how to create life from dead tissue. When he succeeds, he freaks out and runs - leaving his creation to fend for itself. He tries to forget about what he's done, and suffers what appears to be a complete mental breakdown. He recovers, and goes about his business as though his creation doesn't exist. Of course, fate puts the two together, and Frankenstein seems shocked that his creation hates him, even wants to kill him. Well, duh. This creation didn't ask to be brought into the world, but he was. Seconds later, he was abandoned. And if he'd been an infant, he would not have survived. I had no sympathy for Dr. Frankenstein - rather, I thought he deserved his fate.

I shared my thoughts with a fellow book lover, and he was surprised at my opinion (not offended, just surprised). Perhaps it's because I'm a mother, or perhaps I have little patience for people who can't find the courage to do the right thing no matter how difficult it may be. Which reminds me of another story...

In high school, I read The Necklace by Guy de Maupassant. The main character, Mme. Loisel, borrows a diamond necklace, then accidentally loses it. Instead of owning up to her mistake, she tells her friend that a broken clasp is being repaired. She then replaces it with a diamond necklace of similar design, and spends the next ten years paying off the debt to the jeweler. Then, just after the debt is paid, Mme Loisel runs into her old friend. Bitter about being poverty stricken all those years, she tells the truth about the necklace, and even tries to lay the blame on her friend (she says something like "your necklace did this to me," which is another discussion entirely). In the end, she finds out the necklace was fake and cost a fraction of what Mme Loisel paid for its replacement.

My reaction to this story was: So? The whole situation was Mme Loisel's fault. She lost the necklace, and she lied about it. No one else. But, as my English class discussed the story, no one else shared my sentiments. Or rather, no one voiced it (I didn't either; I'm very shy). Not even the teacher. Everyone felt incredible amounts of sympathy for Mme Loisel.

But why? Why do people feel sorry for those who can't shoulder responsibility? Do we feel sorry for a woman who has given birth to a baby, realizes she can't take care of it, then throws it into a dumpster? Or a man who's been sucked into a life of servitude and poverty because he was too proud or too scared to admit he'd made a mistake? I certainly don't.

So what does all this mean? I don't know; probably nothing. I guess I just don't find Dr. Frankenstein and Mme Loisel very sympathetic characters. If they had made the right decisions, and still everything went wrong, I'd have much more sympathy for them. But maybe that's just me. :)


Marian said...

That was an interesting post, because until I read it, I didn't really think critically about my sympathy for Mme Loisel. You're right. She brings it on herself by firstly, being vain enough to want a diamond necklace, and secondly, being too proud to tell her friend that she lost it. Though I can understand feeling horrible about the loss and trying to cover it up in the only saving-face way. Her husband doesn't argue with the decision to buy a replacement and say nothing, which indicates that this may be what society expects them to do.

I think one reason for the sympathy is because the Loisels paid so heavily for their pride and vanity. Ten years of grinding work and poverty and hardship, and the story makes it clear that Mme Loisel has lost her beauty (one thing she valued highly) at the end of it. That's a hefty punishment. I wouldn't be so sorry if they'd only suffered for, say, a few months before everything was fine. I'm sure there's also an element of relief that we personally haven't been punished so harshly for our mistakes, whatever those were.

It's an intriguing topic. Now I'm thinking of blogging about it as well. :)

Tabitha said...

It's really interesting to hear from someone who feels sympathy for Mme. Loisel, and where that sympathy comes from. :)

You're absolutely right that Mme L paid dearly for her vanity and pride. Probably more than she'd have been willing to pay, had she known what she was getting herself in to. And the fact that she didn't learn anything about where her pride brought her (she marches up to her friend at the end, still bitter and proud), makes her pretty darned tragic.

As for her husband, yes I can see that this could just have been what people did in those times. But I can also see that her husband loved her so much, and wanted to give her whatever she wanted, that he was willing to sink into absolute poverty so she could keep her pride. But his character wasn't fully explored, so I'm just guessing. :)

Again, really interesting discussion. Thanks for sharing. :)