My favorite morally bankrupt characters

I don’t like overly sunny novels. I can’t stand to read about ridiculously virtuous characters. As a child, I hated Nancy Drew (“Nancy tossed her blond hair over her shoulder and called, ‘Ned! Wait for me,’ as she jumped into his shiny red convertible…”) and flatly rejected those utterly dreadful books for Christian girls, like Elsie Dinsmore and The Basket of Flowers. Barf. Even when I was little, I formed the strong opinion that saints and angels make for really tedious and boring literature.

I like reading books with complex characters, with fictional people who have both virtue AND vice, people whose stories don’t always get that shiny, happy ending. I like to read about real life. This is why I shun most of Dickens, most of the Victorians, and most fantasy literature. I don’t think it’s wrong or terrible; it’s just not my thing.

That being said, I tend to enjoy a lot of books with unhappy endings and messy characters. Here are some of my favorite morally bankrupt characters.

SCARLETT O’HARA
Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell

Scarlett is the pretty poster child for morally bankrupt characters. I had seen the movie many years before I got around to reading Mitchell’s novel, and when I did, the full force of Scarlett’s personality hit me even stronger than it did on film. Mitchell managed to make someone wicked and admirable at the same time. Scarlett is selfish, manipulative, and conniving — and yet we are pulling for her the whole time. Regardless of the unpleasant racial controversies of this book, I think it is hard to deny the genius of a writer who can create a character as complex and multifaceted as this one.

BAZAROV
Fathers and Sons, Ivan Turgenev

Bazarov is a snob. He’s like those kids who go off to grad school and become unbearably pretentious about… everything. Turgenev uses Bazarov as a standard for the young Nihilists of his Russia, the men of reason and science, rejecting all tradition and forms of authority. Bazarov fits his archetype neatly — he’s absurdly arrogant and vain — and yet, we feel for him. He gets his heart broken, even though he won’t admit it. He has a magnetic effect on people, even though no one wants to admit to actually liking him. Bazarov reminds me that people that I am quick to write off with a certain label are never that simple — and always deserving of more time and mercy.

PATTY BERGLUND
Freedom, Jonathan Franzen

Patty Berglund isn’t exactly “morally bankrupt;” rather, she doesn’t seem to know where her morals stand exactly. This might be the hallmark of Franzen’s characters (from what I can glean from the cast of people in The Corrections and Freedom, both of which I unashamedly love). Patty represents, to me, the best of what Franzen can do. She is made so real in the pages of this novel that you finish it feeling that she is your best friend, that well-loved person  In my opinion, she makes the entire novel. She is downcast and confused, but she is painfully honest and reflective about her life and its variegated failures. If we could all be as truthful with ourselves as Patty Berglund, we could learn a tremendous amount about life.

MR. HENRY WILCOX
Howards End, E.M. Forster

Mr. Wilcox is a crueler version of Jack Donaghy: He’s rich, controlling silver fox who lives by conservative business morals and generally gets whatever he wants. Including the novel’s heroine, Margaret Schlegel. Margaret is not so easily bought, however, and her goodness eventually softens Mr. Wilcox — but not before he has been brutal, demanding, and insensitive toward practically every character. Still. You like him. He doesn’t back down. And even this crusty old miser has a soft spot.

RASKOLNIKOV
Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky

He murdered his old landlady with an axe for no good reason! Pinnacle of morally bankrupt. But the novel is about his SOUL. And it’s a great one. So, this book is always worth reading. (My father, by the way, still has not fulfilled his end of our challenge. He sent me a text that said: “I used to love naps. Now I hate them. Because I have to read Crime and Punishment.”)

MRS. RAMSAY
To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf

OK, so “morally bankrupt” is also far too strong a description for Mrs. Ramsay, but she’s no angel. The central character of my all-time favorite novel, Mrs. Ramsay is usually an overbearing, controlling matriarch. She sets up people who don’t necessarily want to be set up. She insists on domestic tranquility, even when emotions may need to be forcibly expressed. But I will always love Mrs. Ramsay, mainly because she is one of the deepest and most intricately drawn characters I have ever met. She chooses to live by the way of grace–and she lives well, in spite of herself.

How about you? Any quasi-villains or just ignoble characters you love reading about?

Monday Snax

My favorite photograph of Woolf, just shy of her nineteenth birthday. Just because.

Another full, enjoyable weekend, despite the weather. I am at the stage in which winter has become personally offensive to me. It is a terrible stage to be in. The first thing out of my mouth in every conversation is now: “Yeah, I’m fine. But WHEN DOES SPRING COME TO VIRGINIA??” I ask it very aggressively, too, as if it were my companion’s fault that sleet, hail, and snow were still on the not-too-distant horizon. I have had enough. Sometimes, if I feel like sinking myself even further into depression, I’ll look at the weather forecast for Davidson or Chapel Hill and a faint tear will form in my eye as I think, “Ah, balmy North Carolina. How I miss thee.”

Winter aside, Nettles (aka my husband, accompanied by other wonderful local musicians and friends) played a great shut-in show at The Garage on Friday night. He dazzled. You really should have been there, but you probably wouldn’t have fit, since The Garage can hold about 10 people inside it, instruments included. And on Friday night I think we had about 20. It was great.

Snax with fistfuls of kale, since kale is having The Best Year Ever, in the words of one J.Hecht:

59 Things You Didn’t Know About Virginia Woolf. I mean, OF COURSE I was going to talk about this. It was, after all, my all-time muse’s birthday last week. Some of these facts are kind of stupid, but some of them are quite interesting. For instance, did you know that Woolf was “a formidable bowler” as a child? Naturally. Anyway, happy belated birthday, Virginia. Thanks for being a constant fountain of inspiration in my life. (Flavorwire)

Living In: Howards End. I am leading our church classics book club on Howards End this week and so I was naturally delighted to see this feature on “Howards End,” the 1992 film with Emma Thompson, Anthony Hopkins, Vanessa Redgrave, and Helena Bonham-Carter, which is incredibly beautiful and perfect–much like the novel. (Design Sponge)

In Another Man’s Prayer Cap. Jonathan Pinckney–the son of one of our good family friends and husband to Grace’s mentor in India–undertook an interesting social experiment: He dressed as a conservative Muslim while flying home. His experience is graciously expressed and very eye-opening. Highly recommended. (On Islam)

Orhan Pamuk Attacks “Marginalization” of Non-English Writers. Guys, Pamuk is MAD. I think he makes a good point, though. And I think he’s an unbelievably wonderful writer. So, translators, thanks for bringing him to English eyes. But maybe we can bring over some other great writers, too, lest many more go undiscovered. (The Guardian)

Japanese Woman Is Best-Selling Poet at Age 99. You go, girl! I’d love to read her work. I highly doubt I’d recall enough Japanese to understand it now, but I’d love to get my hands on a copy. (The Guardian)

The 10 Greatest Child Geniuses in Child Literature. A fun list, because I’ve met most of these characters in my reading life. What do you think? Do you agree with the rankings? If not, who would you vote for as the most eerily brilliant child in fiction? (Flavorwire)

It Doesn’t Get Much Cuter Than This. I don’t know what crimes I have to commit to get a Japanese baby, but I DON’T EVEN CARE. I will do what I have to. Photographs by Kawashima Kotori. (Miss Moss)

FRANCES. The world’s most posh and gorgeous bunny has come home to live with Angela! I swear you won’t be able to get enough of her. I’ve had the privilege of a Skype conversation with Mme Francoise and I must say, she is the ultimate lady. (WXTCHOU)

Magazine Monday: Feng Shui at Work. Can we all just agree that we are totally jealous of Meredith’s gorgeous office and now–completely feng shui–desk? I’m in love! (And Unlimited)

Valentines and Some News. If I ever got a card or letter from famed calligrapher Betsy Dunlap, I think I’d frame it and put it on my wall forever. Such beautiful work. (Betsy Dunlap)

Portraits of Criminals. Haunting vintage photographs of an assortment of Sydney vagrants from the early 20th century. (Wolf Eyebrows)

Better Learning Through Handwriting. Recent study argues that writing by hand strengthens the memory, whereas typing on a keyboard may weaken it. I believe it. (Science Daily)

Am I Compatible With Dad? This is just amazing. And hilarious. And yet I feel like it’s something that would feature in a Franzen novel. (Postcards From Yo Momma)

Model Dude Looks Like a Model Lady. There’s a popular game show in Japan in which contestants have to guess, among a line-up of men in drag, which of them is actually a woman (there is always one woman among them). It’s always very hilarious, because very often, they cannot tell the difference between the men and the real woman. This guy would fool you EVERY TIME. Seriously. He is… upsettingly beautiful. In a thoroughly female way. (Best Week Ever)

Study: 89 Percent of Networking Nonconsensual. Recent college grad = understands how deeply true this is. Guilty! Thanks for being tolerant anyway, professors and former internship bosses. (The Onion)