Tuesday, July 17, 2012
Alienation and Redemption
How bad does bad have to be before a character is simply beyond redemption?
I recently read a novel by one of my favorite authors that severely disappointed me. The prose was as insightful and beautiful as ever, the descriptions as poetic. So what was the problem? In the beginning, our author introduces a seriously nasty character, the kind we normally expect to see suffer his just deserts by the end of the book. Only, in this case, he doesn't. For reasons I will never understand, our author decides to take this truly despicable human being and "rehabilitate" him. At the end of the book, this disgusting piece of humanity does a noble deed and goes off to open a cafe in the Cascades with his newly acquired girl.
When the redemption of a fictional character works, it can be truly uplifting. But in my opinion, some deeds are simply unforgivable and the characters who commit them are beyond redemption. So just how nasty was this character? We're talking about a sadistic prison guard, an Abu Ghraib torturer, who inflicts a brutal, humiliating rape on a nice boy unfortunate enough to fall under his power. Sorry, but that I can't forgive.
What else can't I forgive? Ironically, I stumbled upon another example just last night while reading The Hunger Games. On page one, Katniss tells us she would have drowned a kitten if her little sister hadn't stopped her. There went my sympathy for this very popular character, and my sense of alienation has so far persisted through the first half of the book. I am continuing to read because I'm interested to see how the author develops this extraordinarily successful story, but I frankly couldn't care less if Katniss were to get killed in the next chapter. The author alienated me from her main character at first meeting. I don't care how hard their lives; real heroes do not kill kittens.
Actually, Katniss alienated me for another reason; she hates her mother and holds a really vicious grudge against her. That reduces her in my estimation. Compare Katniss to the protagonist of Winter's Bone, Ree. Ree also has a mother who emotionally buckles beneath adversity, forcing Ree to undertake the care of both her younger siblings and her mother. Only, unlike Katniss, Ree loves her mother anyway and is touchingly gentle with her. Ree is a heroic figure, whereas in comparison, Katniss comes off as unsympathetic and judgmental. Yes, she loves her little sister and makes a truly noble sacrifice for her. But somehow that doesn't redeem her in my eyes. As the mother of two daughters, I'm simply too alienated by Katniss's attitude toward her mother. Perhaps by the end of the book she will come to the conclusion she really does still love her mother. But it will be too late for me; I've disliked her for too long.
So, it seems that as far as I'm concerned, there are at least three unforgivable sins (I've no doubt there are more): drowning kittens, sodomizing boys, and hating your mother for her weaknesses. What about you? What are your unforgivable sins? Have you found characters whose redemption you simply can't accept?