Who Cares About Literary Likeability?

From the L.A. Times:

In a widely circulated interview with Publishers Weekly, writer Claire Messud was asked if she would want to be friends with the protagonist of her new novel, “The Woman Upstairs.” She responded with frustration: “For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert?”

Her point: Humbert Humbert was a creep, but “Lolita” didn’t suffer from his lack of likability.

It’s helpful to take that apart a little. Certainly, as an unrepentant pedophile, Humbert Humbert is a man who performs repellent deeds. I’d hate to have a real person like him as a neighbor, a friend, a tennis partner, or a spouse. If he were a real person, I’d avoid him as I would a rabid dog.

There’s just one thing: Humbert Humbert isn’t real. Not now, never was. He’s a figment of authorial imagination, just like Indiana Jones, James Bond, Mrs. Dalloway, King Lear, Achilles, Electra, Jehovah, and Gilgamesh. Lolita can’t suffer for Humbert Humbert’s lack of likability because we don’t read his confession the same way we would the confessions of a real pedophile. We read them as an anxiety dream, where we can imagine through Humbert Humbert what it must be to live as a witty, charming, erudite person who is nonetheless a slave to sick passions that compel him to rape and murder. Lolitas major theme–that intellectual sophistication isn’t a bulwark against depravity but often a device to help beautify and justify base urges–is endlessly fascinating. The novel reminds us of times in real life when people gussy up the vilest crimes in gorgeous prose, and makes us shudder at how easily we can use language to deceive others and ourselves.

We don’t need to like Humbert Humbert. We need to find meaning in his problem. That’s what literary characters are good for. Some of them exist so that we can wish we were like them, but others, usually the more interesting ones, exist to remind us of how badly even the brightest of us can go wrong.

From Northrop Frye:

You recall that terrible scene in King Lear where Gloucester’s eyes are put out on the stage. That’s part of a play, and a play’s supposed to be entertaining. Now in what sense can a scene like that be entertaining? The fact that it’s not really happening is certainly important. It would be degrading to watch a real blinding scene, and far more so to get any pleasure out of watching it. Consequently, the entertainment doesn’t consist in its reminding us of a real blinding scene. If it did, one of the great scenes of drama would turn into a piece of repulsive pornography…In a scene of dramatic cruelty and hatred we’re seeing cruelty and hatred, which we know are permanently real things in human life, from the point of view of the imagination. What the imagination suggests is horror, not the paralyzing sickness horror of a real blinding scene, but an exuberant horror, full of the energy of repudiation. This is as powerful a rendering as we can ever get of life as we don’t want it to be.

“…as powerful a rendering as we can ever get of life as we don’t want it to be.” That’s what Humbert Humbert’s appeal is. Compared with that, a likable character’s charms seem kind of paltry, don’t they?

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