LitBits: Literary Virtue


Hi, folks! Adam Andrews here. Can you think of a literary protagonist whose chief characteristic is a virtue worthy of emulation? I’ll give you a minute to think about that. Let me give you a couple of examples. Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Ask yourself, “For what quality or characterstic is Shakespeare’s Hamlet primarily known?” What virtuous quality, what strength of character defines Shakespeare’s Hamlet one of the great literary protagonists of all time? Bravery? Decision? Ability to firmly follow a course of action? Not exactly. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is universally known, on the other hand, for indecision, for weakness, for the inability to see his end and go after it. He’s morally kind of a repugnant character. Take another example: Hester Prynne protagonist of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s great classic, The Scarlet Letter. For what moral virtue is she universally known? Is it a virtue worth emulating? Not exactly, unless you call adultery a virtue worth emulating! Let’s go even further back. John Milton’s Satan from Paradise Lost. Please. How about even further? How about Achilles, hero of Homer’s Illiad? For what moral virtues, for what strength of character is Achilles primarily known? Let me broaden the question. For what quality is Achilles primarily known, good or bad? If you answer bitterness, vengeance, a complete inability to see past his own desires to the good of his society and community– Congratulations! You go to the head of the class! The truth is you’ll have a hard time finding virtuous protagonists in literature. Even if you go all the way back to the very beginning. Why is this? Why do you suppose the world’s great classics are so devoid of characters we can look up to? I suspect it’s because creating such characters is not the primary reason that writers write. They don’t write primarily to say, “Here’s a great guy! Everybody go be like him.” I don’t believe Homer actually thought that: “Everybody should be like Achilles in all of his greatnes.” I think Homer was saying something else. I think Homer was saying “you are just like Achilles in your bitterness, in your wrathful vengeance, in your inability to overlook an insult or an offence.” I think in creating Achilles in such bold colors, Homer was saying here’s a character that’s just like all of us in our brokenness, in our finitude, in our humanity. And instead of trying to call us up to some higher moral plane, he was trying to create fellowship among us in the actual conditions in which we find ourselves. I think that’s true of all the other works I mentioned too. Hathorne’s The Scarlet Letter–Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale, the two star-crossed lovers of that story, stand as symbols for all humanity, caught in the midst of mortal sin with no way towards freedom except through embracing that sin and repenting publically, finding the fellowship that exists in being broken, being limited, being sinful, being human. I would argue that you would search long and hard to find a literary protagonist whose main characteristic is a virtue worthy of emulation. When I was thinking about this I came up with Hucklebery Finn by Mark Twain. There’s a possible exception. Huck, after all, has the instinct to moral uprightness and that’s his main characteristic that carries him through the story. But if you think about it for a minute, it’s his instinct that carries him through the story. In other words, something that is by definition not imitatable. You either have an instinct or you don’t. I think Mark Twain was trying to hold up a model of virtue, but leave it to Twain to do it ironically by saying this model of virtue is something that you absolutley cannot imitate. It’s an interesting question. And it goes right down to the heart of why we read literature in the first place. Do you read to find models to show your students? To show your children? Let’s go an be like Achilles. Or do you read to see artistic representations of the common human condition that we are all heir to? To find neighbors, and friends, and brothers in every age of the world. There’s a certain empathy, a certain fellowship that’s available to us in the great works of literature that we miss if we’re always looking for a sermon or a moral lesson in every book we read. Let’s remember to read the way the author’s intended us to read. To see ourselves pictured as in a mirror in the great books that we come across. To see the authors saying “ecce homo.” Behold the man. Behold the reader. To see ourselves mirrored in Hamlet’s glory and his destruction. I hope the next classic that you read reminds you of your humanness, reminds you that you have friends and brothers in every age of the world and makes you more human in the process. Until then, happy reading!

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