The literary critic Graham Handley writes of the difficulty of creating a character who is very good: ‘It is a strange but true fact that the truly good person is difficult to portray convincingly in fiction, and Hester Rose (a sort of secondary heroine in Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’) may be compared with Diana Morris in ‘Adam Bede’ where there is a similar partial failure of imagination.’

Why this should be so is possibly a question of fashion. These days, we don’t want our protagonists to be too admirable, and the dread spectres of Mary Sue and Gary Stu hover near, whereas in the mid-eighteenth century, Samuel Richardson rose to fame (or infamy) through writing about two Mary Sues and one Gary Stu, namely, Pamela Andrews, Clarissa Harlow and Sir Charles Grandison.

These endless novels were best sellers in that era; people just couldn’t get enough of them. Of course, with ‘Pamela’ there is the issue of whether he drew in the reader with the lure of,  ‘Attempted Rape as Titillation Whilst Expressing Every Sort of Moral Abhorrence’ . I tend to agree with Coleridge that he did, possibly unconsciously.

The rape in Clarissa takes place offstage, and not until Volume Six, so a reader would have had to be as patient as s/he was purile to keep on reading that long just for that, even if people did have longer attention spans in previous centuries. Probably the fascination  of that saga was the villain Lovelace as much as the heroine, and the depiction of his evil if far fetched machinations.

Clarissa is of course, a far more sophisticated creation than Pamela, who to most modern readers comes across as a prize opportunist hypocrite. I can’t answer for Sir Charles Grandison. I have heard that the character is unbearable, and it is worth reading just for that. I have also heard that in it, a woman actually apologises for preferring God to Sir Charles.

Still, having in recent years ploughed my way through ‘Pamela’, ‘Clarissa’ and ‘Pamela in Her Exulted Condition’ (it seriously is called that!) I don’t think I can stand reading any more of Richardson’s self-serving Puritan morality for a long while.

Both the eponymous heroine of ‘Evelina’ and the hero Lord Orville are extremely virtuous and outstandingly dull. I felt like going to sleep whenever Lord Orville spoke.  Fortunately, he does that only occasionally, usually to show a high minded understanding of whatever situation it is in which he is involved.

By contrast, the villain Sir Clement Willoughby (did Jane Austen borrow his name?) provides a great deal of amusement. He spends much of his time, when not involved in rascally plots, in insisting on his deep love for the heroine. Still, never – the cad -does he  so much as hint at marriage. At the end he informs Lord Orville that she is not well born enough for him to consider for anything but as a mistress.  Lord Orville proposes believing her to be ‘low born’ – but then, he is a hero.

It was left to the genius of Jane Austen to create a hero who insults both the heroine’s face and her family origins.

Charles Darnay and Lucie Manette in Dickens’ ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ are another virtuous and dull hero and heroine in a classic novel. Someone has commented somewhere (I have managed to lose the link) that Darnay is just like an android programmed to do good things – he seems to possess no mental life at all, and whenever he opens his mouth, virtuous platitudes come forth. Lucie Manette is an embodiment of a Domestic Angel.

I have to admit that I dislike that novel, because of the influence it has had in portraying the French Revolution in an entirely negative light, in particular shaping the popular misconception about the number of victims of the Terror.

As George Orwell says: ‘ Though he (Dickens) quotes no figures, he gives the impression of a frenzied massacre lasting for years, whereas in reality the whole of the Terror, so far as the number of deaths goes, was a joke compared with one of Napoleon’s battles. But the bloody knives and the tumbrils rolling to and fro create in (the reader’s) mind a special sinister vision which he has succeeded in passing on to generations of readers. To this day, to the average Englishman, the French Revolution means no more than a pyramid of severed heads. ’

That however, is off topic…

Intriguingly, Charles Darnay does come to life – twice – when he is in danger of death. Both when he is being tried for treason in the UK, and later when he is tried for it in France, he is suddenly there, real and believable.

In fact, I found the scene where Lucie Manette (who doesn’t yet know him) sheds tears because she is forced to give evidence against him, and they gaze at each other through the courtroom and obviously start to fall in love, both evocative and gripping.

Generally, then, I find it hard to think of a truly noble hero or heroine in a classic novel who is both interesting and believable.  Readers may have been more fortunate; if so, I’d love to hear of it.

4 thoughts on “The Difficulty in Portraying the Truly Good Hero and Heroine – Examples from Classic Novels

  1. I would love to be able to name some truly interesting and believable heroes and heroines, but none spring to mind (I’ve been racking my brains about this since reading your post!). The best I’ve been able to come up with is either the flawed hero or heroine, or the secondary, supporting character who is genuinely “good” in an unforced, unshowy, and usually rather humble way. I’m thinking of Nellie Dean in Wuthering Heights here: someone who provides some welcome relief to the rather monstrous characters surrounding her, and who seems the embodiment of good sense and honest, undemonstrative morality. But if anyone can come up with any suggestions, I’d love to hear them…

  2. It is fascinating, isn’t it, Mari, that we find it so hard to like and enjoy reading aboout truly virtuous characters? There is a terrible temptation to look at once for faults. In fact, this may be a fault of authorial style, in that the author tries to prove that character’s goodness by having other characters comment on it – and then the terms ‘Mary Sue’ and ‘Marty Stu’ immediately come to miind.
    I so agree with you about Nelly Dean – I thought she has been vastly misjudged by all sorts of critics and readers, and I do think Emily Bronte intended her to represent warm hearted, down to earth commen sense. She even tries to reconcile Heathcliff to the notions of Christianity when he is near death, and it took some heroism to do that. Of course, unpleasant as he was, he did actually have the sense to appreciate someof her worth (and that of Hareton).
    Thanks so much for commenting and always great to talk to you.

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