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

All bears. All blood. All the time. We enjoyed a wonderful weekend visit with the Watson-Ormonds!

We had the perfect, fresh, spring weekend with Rose and Kemp. Rose and I spent our time on Saturday walking all around town and talking about Life and Other Issues while the boys brewed. We ate tons of good food together and just generally lazed around, too. It was just ideal and we hated to see them go.

Snax on a bed of eggs benedict, whatever that is:

Nettles to Play March 28 with The Welcome Wagon! Yes, that’s right, kids: my brilliant husband and his band will be opening for The Welcome Wagon on March 28 at The Haven in Charlottesville. If you’re around, do come; it’s going to be an awesome show. (Nettles)

In Which These Are the Hundred Greatest Novels. The folks at This Recording have made their definitive list of the 100 all-time greatest novels. This list contains dozens of books I’ve never even heard of, much less read. But that doesn’t mean that I didn’t derive deep satisfaction that they ranked To the Lighthouse as the #8 best novel and Lolita, wow, as the #1 best novel of all time. That’s saying something. (And Ulysses was #12! How Woolf must be laughing in her grave right now.) At the very least, the list has certainly given me lots of great titles to add to my ever-growing reading list.  (This Recording)

Zooming Out: How Writers Create Our Visual Grammar. This analysis by Rob Goodman claims that great authors–he cites examples from Milton and Dickens, and closes with a few lines from Psalm 8–are responsible for the first true “cinematic jump-cuts.” The article is very well-written and fascinating. I like the notion of a “visual grammar,” of the keen and yet oft-unnoticed importance that grammar and syntax possess over our visual understanding of a narrative.  (The Millions)

A Ravishing Knockout of a Book. Novelist Gary Shteyngart talks about his favorite novel, Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, in this 2006 review from NPR. I love Shteyngart AND Turgenev, so I was naturally delighted to find this piece, which I stumbled upon while doing some preliminary research on the novel for book club. If you haven’t read it yet, let Shteyngart convince you that you need to. (NPR, All Things Considered)

Real-Life House from Up. I loved that movie; first animated film to make me sob since Bambi, and this is just great. Well done, people at National Geographic. I wonder where the house came from and who was brave enough to actually take a ride in it? Enjoy, even though this has already been around the Interwebs a few times now. This should brighten anyone’s day. (Vulture via National Geographic)

Best Rare Bird Pictures of 2010. In my experience, birds make somewhat terrible pets, but they are such beautiful creatures to watch. National Geographic has released its awards for the best photographs of rare birds from last year. The whooping crane in the air? Amazing. And the tail feathers of the last bird? Gimme a break! That’s crazy. (National Geographic)

Van Gogh Paintings as Pie Charts. I’m all about your color palette, Vincent. (WXTCHOU)

See You Never Again In My Life. One of the best notes from a runaway I’ve ever read. (Passive-Aggressive Notes)

Newt Gingrich Cheated On His Wives for America. The most hilariously absurd explanation for infidelity, maybe ever. No one takes this man seriously, right? (Daily Intel)

First Lady Michelle Obama. I really, really hope this story is true. Go Michelle! (Got a Girl Crush On)

Where Are All the Daring Women’s Heroines? The Guardian’s book blog attempts to address the discrepancy between a plethora of heroines in children’s fiction and a positive dearth of them by the time one gets to adult literature. (The Guardian Book Blog)

Trend Watch: Houses with Slides. I assume these are the homes of multi-millionaires with young children, but, hey, I kind of want a slide in my house. (Flavorwire)

Blue Eyes Are Not Actually Blue. Well. I learned something new today. I can’t tell if I feel downcast because my irises are just an optical illusion or extra cool. (Broken Secrets)

Monday Snax

So. I had a dream last night that I was stricken by another wave of pregnancy terror (not too unrealistic) and so I took a pregnancy test at home. When I looked at the stick to see the result, it said: “MIGHT BE.” I was so mad. NOT helpful! Really, not cool, Psyche. Then I woke up. Hi, Monday morning, nice to meet you.

Great weekend with Guion. His concert on Saturday night was fantastic and it was the most well-attended show I’ve been to at The Garage thus far. Everybody loved him, of course. We went to Pen Park yesterday and flopped on the ground and read Ivan Turgenev’s Spring Torrents aloud to each other. It was romantic. And hilarious.

Snax, with extra cream cheese:

Ally + Kate. Aww. Miss these girls; can’t wait to see them over Thanksgiving. Such beautiful shots of such beautiful kids. (Como Say What?)

Life at Home. Another post from Grace. This makes me really, really, really want to pack up, jump in the car, and hit the road for Davidson. (Como Say What?)

1010 Project. A bit old now, but still worth looking at: A challenge to some of the best blog-based photographers to take 10 pictures on 10/10/10. The results are very charming. (1010 Project)

Lucas Foglia: Re-Wilding. These are some of the craziest photos I’ve seen. Photographer Lucas Foglia wandered into the wilderness of the southeast to find people living off the grid. These humans are fascinating, and the photographs are riveting. (Lucas Foglia)

Tata Vislevskaya: In Switzerland. I want to go to there. (Modish)

Why Can’t Middle-Aged Women Have Long Hair? An interesting question, and it seems to be universally mandated by American culture: older women with long hair get instantly labeled as witches or hippies. Why must this be? (The New York Times)

Chris Pratt’s Weight-Gain Tips. I don’t watch “Parks and Recreation,” but this is pretty funny. (Vulture)

TWO, yes two, features from NYT’s amazing Great Homes section:

Who Lives There: The Pyramid Atop Seattle’s Smith Tower. All I want to know is HOW did these people score this place to live?? Crazy! (New York Times)

A Log Home in Chapel Hill. But not just any log home… Never knew this existed in town. Looks magical, doesn’t it? The owner is a twig sculptor. What a fascinating profession. (New York Times)

A Comprehensive Glossary of GIFs. I don’t know why these are so funny. But they are. You will LOL. (Jezebel)

Why Don’t You? I always get excited to see curly-haired models, because they are so rare. From a recent copy of Vogue. I think this is Doutzen Kroes, but Grace could confirm that… (Dress, Design, Decor)

Living In: Rear Window. One of my all-time favorite classic movies! I still get antsy every time she breaks into the supposed murderer’s apartment and Jimmy Stewart can’t do anything to help her. Kills me. Also, Grace Kelly totally rocks out in this film. (Design Sponge)

Christine O’Donnell Introduced to Concept of ‘Separation of Church and State’ for First Time. OMG. PEOPLE. How is anyone still considering her a viable candidate for office? Anyone? (Daily Intel)

Out-of-Print Clothing. What a cool idea: T-shirts with the covers of out-of-print classic books. Super trendy, I know, but I still can’t help wanting a few of them (1984 and Song of Solomon are pretty rad). (Wide Open Spaces)

A Brief Survey of the Short Story, Part 29: Eudora Welty. I’ve been a big Welty fan ever since Dave gave me her collected short stories when I was a teenager. It’s great to hear someone else praise her as a masterful writer, and a masterful writer who isn’t just a “Southern lady author.” And this is from a Brit, too! (The Guardian’s Books Blog)