Thus were my sympathies enlarged, and thus
Daily the common range of visible things
Grew dear to me
– William Wordsworth, ‘The Prelude: Book 2’ (1789)
“How are you a better person for having read this book?”
So asked my colleague to a student last week.
The book referred to is Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World. In response, I think the kid mumbled something about being braver, just like how the protagonist Danny rescues his dad from a pit-trap all by himself.
I don’t think the kid half-arsed his answer; I think he genuinely believed in what he was saying. I, for one, also wanted to believe in the kid; hand on heart, I truly did.
I still do.
But for what my cynical two cents are worth, I suspect that Dahl’s book didn’t actually make him a better person. At least not in the sense of the book having left a lasting impact on the student’s character. To be honest, I don’t think most books have the capacity to do that – to effect immediate character growth as if the process is as straightforward as flicking a light switch.
It begs the question, then, as to whether any novel or book can ever truly – lastingly – shape any reader into a ‘better person’.
What does being a ‘better’ person even mean?
Drawing on the past decade of my life, I think the point at which I began to mature – to become mentally and emotionally ‘better’, so to speak – was when I started taking an interest in classics. I don’t mean ‘Classics’ in the ancient Greek and Latin sense, or even Shakespeare or anything written before the 19th century or the Victorian age. A safe inaugural point would probably be 1821, the year in which Gustave Flaubert and Fyodor Dostoevsky – two of my first literary loves, were born.
I can still recall the dazed feeling after finishing Crime and Punishment in the summer of Year 9, mainly because I couldn’t understand how Raskolnikov, the protagonist who murdered his landlady in a fit of rage, was able to inspire such sympathy in me as a reader. For all of Raskolnikov’s moral failings, I found myself rooting for him all through the book, which concludes with Sonya, Raskolnikov’s lover and a ‘hooker with a heart of gold’, accompanying him to Siberia for eight years of penal servitude and spiritual redemption.
The same thing happened when I read Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, to which I was initially drawn, subsequently repelled, and ultimately won over by the adulterous protagonist Emma. At 15 years old, I don’t think my black-and-white self really understood why a woman, despite being in a stable and loving marriage, would want so badly to saddle off with emotionally stunted dickheads like Leon and Rodolph to be in self-destructive affairs, but for some reason, I never once felt like Emma was doing anything wrong, even when my personal values didn’t align with hers.
Children’s literature v. Classic literature: Which one is ‘better’ for you?
The cases of Raskolnikov and Emma are interesting, especially in light of the question that opens this post. In the gamut of children’s literature, the argument for moral instructivism and characters-as-role models usually holds, since children’s books tend to double up as ‘conduct manuals’, offering cookie cutter aphorisms on the Good, the Bad, the Right, the Wrong (and the Very Bad That Will Happen To You If You Ever Get It Wrong).
Harry Potter, for instance, isn’t just about the incredible imagination that gave us Bertie Botts Every Flavour Beans and Quidditch, but also the importance of sticking by your mates through thick and thin, of knowing that while “Books! And Cleverness!” are great stuff, “there are more important things – friendship and bravery”, as the brainy Granger puts it.
Nor is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory all about getting you to fall in love with the coco(a) or the hilarious Oompa-Loompa song that has terribly fat midgets lecturing you on the ills of getting, eh, “terribly fat”, but about the parabolic message of ‘poor man triumphing over rich man’, the consequences of being a glutton and the rewards of humility.
This is all clear enough, and the fact that these works spell out what they want to convey is, I suppose, a major reason behind their widespread appeal.
But what about literary classics, which are more often than not stories centred on less-than-pleasant, unattractive, weird, confused, complicated, morally questionable, or just straight-up repulsive people?
If learning by example is anything to go by, then surely these books can’t claim to instruct readers on being ‘better’ people or living the ‘good life’:
From Shakespeare’s Macbeth (murderer) to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (adulterer) to Bronte’s Rochester (wife-abandoner and suspected bigamist) to Joyce’s Bloom (poo-obsessed pervert) to Fitzgerald’s Gatsby (delusional profligate) to Hemingway’s Jake Barnes (homophobe) to Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert (paedophile) to Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom (serial cheater and misogynist) down to Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch (once minister of justice to wronged African-American man in To Kill a Mockingbird, now outed racist in Go Set a Watchman), it seems that no one – high or low, black or white, young or old – is exempt from the literary ‘curse’ of being flawed, of being all too human.
These aren’t characters anyone would aspire to become, but they are, in fact, closer to ourselves than we’d like to admit, as they amplify the parts in us which we consciously ignore and conceal from others. Such cracks and crevasses in our character are the equivalent of sewage pipes in a palace: hidden underneath a polished facade, but no less existent in the very edifice on which the façade depends.
And yet, by being the most honest version of our many alter egos, these human dummies hold up the best mirror for us to scrutinise our faults as we would those of others, to examine ourselves from a comfortable but honest remove, and to look deeper into our true nature through the judicial lens of a reader.
Never thought I’d say this, but I owe a lot of who I am today to paedophiles, womanisers and alcoholics.
Barnes asks: Can we become ‘better’ people by reading more novels?
Incidentally, I came across a related question while reading Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending (2011), in which the narrator, Tony Webster, lives through adolescence, adulthood and retirement only to find himself grappling with the same question for over half a century:
Does character develop over time?
As a cocksure, philosophic 16-year old at boarding school, Tony once feared that –
Life wouldn’t turn out to be like Literature. Look at our parents – were they the stuff of Literature? At best, they might aspire to the condition of onlookers and bystanders, part of a social backdrop against which real, true, important things could happen… Real literature was about psychological, emotional and social truth as demonstrated by the actions and reflections of its protagonists; the novel was about character developed over time.
But when the precocious youth quizzes (somewhat nosily) his friend Adrian on the latter’s turbulent, “novel-worthy” family history, he is disappointed to learn that people in real life don’t exactly undergo the same growth curve as characters do in novels:
“Why did your mom leave your dad, [Adrian]?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Did your mum have another bloke?” (He’s thinking of Anna Karenina here)
“Was your father a cuckold?” (Othello, obviously)
“Did your dad have a mistress?” (Too many examples but Rabbit, Run is the first one that comes to mind)
“I don’t know. They said I’d understand when I was older.” […]
“Maybe your mom has a young lover?” (Definitely Madame Bovary, or maybe Lady Chatterley’s Lover…)*
“How would I know. We never meet [in her house]. She always comes up to London.”
This was hopeless. In a novel, Adrian wouldn’t just have accepted things as they were put to him. What was the point of having a situation worthy of fiction if the protagonist didn’t behave as he would have done in a book? Adrian should have gone snooping, or saved up his pocket money and employed a private detective; [or] gone off on a Quest to Discover the Truth. Or would that have been less like literature and too much like a kids’ story?
(p.16-17, Vintage edition)
*All comments in parentheses mine
Even at sixteen, Tony suspected that there may have been more than a tinge of naiveté in his understanding of human character. Fast forward to 50 years (and 100 pages) later, he revisits the perennial question that has bothered him for so long:
Does character develop over time? In novels, of course it does: otherwise there wouldn’t be much of a story. But in life? I sometimes wonder.
The distinction Tony makes between ‘literature’ and ‘kids’ story’ is apt: reading about characters in “Real Lit” is usually less satisfying than reading about those in Kiddie Lit. But the kind of “novels” he’s talking about here as a 60-year old retiree is actually not the “Real Literature” his 16-year old self was referring to – the “George Orwell and Aldous Huxley” that he used to love and read.
Instead, this sort of novel is closer to popular fiction, more specifically, bestseller paperbacks written with the commercial imperative of appealing to “story”-hungry readers, and by authors who would forgo psychological honesty (e.g. Adrian’s ‘I don’t know/I’m not sure’) for any crude or contrived character ‘shift’.
Literature, however, is nuanced and complex like life, in that there are usually no rational answers to irrational, spur of the moment actions that people often come to regret long after doing them but keep doing them anyway. This is why, at 60 years of age, Tony Webster finally realises that people are –
just stuck with what we’ve got. We are on our own. If so, that would explain a lot of lives… and also – if this isn’t too grand a word – our tragedy.
Lahiri answers (or does she?)
Still, it’s unfair of me to tar all ‘bestseller paperbacks’ with the same brush, if not because I’ve recently read one that I’m almost certain will become canonised as a 21st century classic in the future – Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland (2013).
I say this because one of its protagonists, Gauri Mitra, is afflicted with the same literary ‘seal of authentication’ for being deeply flawed and powerfully alluring because of her flaws. After losing her husband Udayan to the Naxalbari peasant killings in 1970s Calcutta, Gauri agrees to marry Udayan’s Rhode Island-based brother, Subhash, out of desperation, believing that by leaving India she can realise for herself and her daughter a new life in the States.
And yet (spoiler alert!), the Land of the Free delivers neither freedom nor happiness to the woman, and even with Subhash’s love and adoration, Gauri cannot bring herself to fill the traditional shoes of a wife-and-mother stereotype, preferring instead to pursue a ‘life of the mind’ by becoming a philosophy professor.
As such, she makes the unthinkable leap after being given a job offer by a college in Claremont: geographically, she moves from East to West – Calcutta to Rhode Island to California; personally, she transitions from forced domesticity to self-imposed solitude – wife to mother to singlehood and childlessness.
And so, in the tenth year of her daughter’s life, Gauri, in an act that will scar the family for the rest of their lives, leaves Subhash and Bela behind and cut off all contact from them.
But here’s the irony:
In the classroom [at Claremont] she led groups of ten or twelve, introducing them to the great books of philosophy, to the unanswerable questions, to centuries of contention and debate. She taught a survey of political philosophy, a course on metaphysics, a senior seminar on the hermeneutics of time. She had established her areas of specialisation, German Idealism and the philosophy of the Frankfurt School.
She broke her larger classes into discussion groups, sometimes inviting small batches of students to her apartment, making tea for them on Sunday afternoons. During office hours she spoke to them in her book-lined office in the soft light of a lamp she’d brought from home. She listened to them confess that they were not able to hand in a paper because of a personal crisis that was overwhelming their lives. If needed, she handed them a tissue from the box she kept in her drawer, telling them not to worry, to file for an incomplete, telling them that she understood.
The obligation to be open to others, to forge these alliances, had initially been an unexpected strain… [but] over time these temporary relationships came to fill a certain space. Her colleagues welcomed her. Her students admired her, were loyal. For three or four months they depended on her, they accompanied her, they grew fond of her, and then they went away. She came to miss the measured contact, once the classes ended. She became an alternate guardian to a few.
(p.282, Vintage edition)
Instead of being the rightful, permanent guardian to one – her daughter, Gauri chooses to be “an alternate guardian” to a few who come and go and visit and leave in seasonal cycles.
Is Gauri’s decision irresponsible or courageous, immature or feministic?
Is she wrong for abandoning her daughter, and is she right for going after her goals?
If she didn’t leave her family behind in Rhode Island, would she be more appealing or boring of a character?
Does preferring “temporary relationships” to an umbilical bond make you less of an ideal mother, but more of your own person?
After reading Lahiri’s novel, do I aspire to become a better mother, or am I inspired to go down the ‘strong-independent-woman-at-all-costs’ route?
Had I been in her position, would I have done the same?
While these are questions which may seem to invite polarising responses, I think my truth is closer to this:
I don’t know.
I’m not sure.
And this, I suspect, may be the one response that ‘real’, timeless literature hopes to get from all of its readers.
Because it is the only one that can set literature free.
Just like Gauri.