Stephen Koch writes the following about Lucie Manette, the ideal woman in Tale of Two Cities: “She is a flawless paragon of sweetness and love, and the way we know it is true sweetness, true love, is that both are defined by the absolute absence of any conflicting impulse whatsoever. In two plain words, she is unbelievable and unbearable” (362).
In other words, though Lucie functions well as an ideal in a symbolic landscape, her very goodness is what makes her flat and boring to readers. You can get at the same point by asking yourself this question about Tale of Two Cities: who’s more interesting, Charles Darnay or Sydney Carton? The answer: DUH.
Conflicted people with tragic and/or questionable pasts are generally more interesting to us than those who are “just good.” I’m a Paradise Lost scholar; I know most readers prefer reading about Satan over God. But it also plays out in modern works: Zuko gets more interest than Aang, Batman is generally preferred over Superman.
During my most recent read-through of Tale of Two Cities, I was also in the midst of the fairy tale/historical fiction audiobook Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield. In that book, I beheld another (nearly) perfect character: Robert Armstrong. But where my reaction to Lucie is groans of pain, my reaction to Robert Armstrong was to perk up and lean forward. Here was a very good man, the closest to perfect that this novel depicts—but I was interested in him. In fact, it was his very goodness that made him so compelling.
And so I set myself a fun mental task: What other characters have been good and interesting? Or to make it even more difficult: what other characters are compelling because of their goodness rather than in spite of it?
I set some ground rules for my investigation:
- No gods/angels/spiritual forces allowed. For my purposes, that includes Aslan and MY BOY Abdiel from Paradise Lost. (But MAN is their goodness compelling.)
- On a slightly related note, the characters must have a sin nature to be reckoned with: in that case, no pre-Fall Paradise Lost Adam and Eve or Green Lady of Perelandra. In other words, they must have the option, moment by moment, to be bad.
- The primary reason the character is compelling must be goodness–not humor, not competence, not cleverness. For example, though I like Thor from Ragnarok very much, his goodness is not the primary reason I like him: it is his quippy, goofy humor and his ability to play off Loki that draws me to him, not his morals.
- In like manner, the reason the character is compelling can’t be the fact that he is “normally good”–possessing an “everyman” sort of goodness–but out of his depth. For me, that disinvites hobbits, Richard from Neverwhere, and most of the kids at Hogwarts. You might argue that some of these people are compellingly good apart from the odds stacked against them (Sam, Neville), but simply being out of your league can’t be the main reason your goodness is compelling for my challenge.
- No angsty brooding allowed. For example, though Aragorn of the Lord of the Rings BOOKS could be a contender, Aragorn from the MOVIES is not allowed (too much self-doubt based on past failure, even if that failure isn’t his). But I still love you, Aragorn from the movies–as the poster of you in my college apartment, which my future husband always found creepy, attests.
I realize this is a completely subjective thing. Some may already be in an outrage over the fact that I implied that Samwise Gamgee wasn’t compellingly good in and of himself. Sam is compellingly good, but that is not the primary reason I personally am drawn to him. In my subjective list here, I’m including only the characters I love just because they’re good, because they make good interesting. For Samwise, my love for the character is partially his compelling goodness—and partially because his rustic everyman hobbit-ness makes me go “Awwwww, CUTIE.” Some other people may well place him at the top of their lists, because different things draw people to different characters.
Well, if not Sam or Aslan—who’s left, you ask? Most of them will be in next week’s blog post. But as a tease, here’s the character who started it all:
Robert Armstrong, Once Upon a River. The inspiration for this post, Robert Armstrong is one of the most admirable characters I’ve ever encountered. My spoiler-iffic rant about his awesomeness follows: He marries a woman no one wanted because 1) she was crippled by a childhood disease and 2) she had been raped. Mr. Armstrong gives her a rich life of provision, happy children, and love. Since she’s smart, sensible, and able to see into people’s hearts with her awesome magic eye (you read that right), her respect for him speaks volumes.
Beyond that, he is a an upright farmer who can intuit the feelings of his animals and knows exactly how to make people comfortable. He is honorable and admirable and principled to the most extreme degree, but he adds to all those things a powerful compassion.
All these things could make him just as boring as Lucie, from a reader’s perspective. So why exactly is his goodness compelling?
In certain parts of the novel, his strict principles make me genuinely terrified for his safety—because I know they make him vulnerable to the unprincipled people with whom he has to deal. In other parts of the novel, it quickens the pulse to wonder whether his goodness is enough to save the broken and vulnerable people around him in a world filled with ugliness.
Finally, it is simply magnificent to see him being good—not bitter about a harder lot in life (he is black in nineteenth-century rural England), but living nobly and well, reacting to evil with bigness of heart and unflinching principles, and winning his bittersweet ending (emphasis on sweet) through a small act of kindness he performed out of habit earlier in the book.
Who are my others? Tune in next week to find out! And in the meantime, who are YOURS? I’d love to hear about some more compellingly good characters in the comments (whether they meet my rigid criteria or not)!
Koch, Stephen. Afterword. Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens, Bantam, 1989, pp. 353-65.