Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Meme: Favorite Fictional Characters

I'd like to start a meme...even though I'm typing this on Blogspot, the site that seems set up to discourage blog comments and conversations. Any number can play, any number of times. The question is, "Who is one of your favorite fictional characters, and why?"

If you read a lot of fiction, you might want to limit your answers to the top fifty or hundred favorites.

The idea of posting this meme came to me after scheduling a post about Ursula Hegi's Stones from the River. I liked Trudi Montag (despite a certain physical resemblance to a student labor supervisor I consciously chose not to know, socially, as an adult). I don't like the majority of characters, or the majority of novels, but I've liked enough that I wanted to go back and start with the first characters I remembered liking in children's novels, as a child. I had four Official Favorite novels, all the way through elementary school, and thought I would have liked the child protagonists in each one of they'd been real people.

So let's start with Frances Hodgson Burnett's Sara Crewe in A Little Princess. If I ever took a fictional character seriously as a role model, or advised a child to, this would have been the one. Smart, creative, generous, brave, hardworking, and also willing and able to yank the chains of mean people just by being nice, Sara shares humor-impairment with other Burnett characters, but anybody who likes animals that much and speaks that many languages has to have some latent sense of humor somewhere.
I enjoyed Sara’s story when I was seven, and as an adult I remember it as probably the best, truest storybook I read as a child. Everyone says now, and in different ways everyone said in the 1880s, that how much money people have makes no difference to them. Their relationships are pure and spiritual and blah blah. Some people even believe they do react to other people in a pure and spiritual way that has nothing to do with who has more and who has less. Children need to know that this is, by and large, a lie. Mean, selfish people like Maria Minchin may of course hate other people just as much when it’s profitable for them to “make nice” as they do when it’s not...but notice how the ordinary people react to Sara when they see her as someone who has more or as someone who has less.
Notice that, although her idealism gives some emotional comfort to Sara, the mere fact that Sara has any emotional comfort aggravates Miss Minchin. (Burnett and some of her characters were attracted to early forms of Positive Thinking, but this had not led Burnett out of touch with reality.) Christians believe that the existence of good is a source of torment to those who have settled into evil ways. Sara’s independence of thought disturbs the unpleasant people she knows enough when they envy her money; it pushes them into violence when she no longer has money. Children as young as Sara is at the beginning of the book have already had time to observe that this is the way the world is. As a child I appreciated the information that some adults, even adults who write books, understand the complexity of human nature and aren’t trying to impose some demented philosophical theory of their own upon the world. Sara is about as lovable as a child can be...except to those who hate her.

We might as well admit to children that the more lovable they are to people of good will, the more hate they, too, will stir up in evildoers. Miss Minchin hates Sara not even so much for that careless, childish mistake of calling Miss Minchin a poor old thing who doesn’t know any better as for that horrid, creepy, crazy noble-heartedness that prompts Sara to share the penny buns with Anne.

The story is, of course, about how people react to Sara as rich child and as poor child. The plot that moves her up and down the socioeconomic ladder is a tiny bit obvious. I’ve never been able to decide whether the story Burnett actually wrote, where Captain Crewe is really dead and Sara has to be rescued by his friend, or the Hollywood version, where Captain Crewe is found to be alive in the hokiest Hollywood manner, is less plausible. I just generally prefer the book to the movie, although as 1930s movies went I suppose A Little Princess was above average—it had Shirley Temple in it. Then again that may have been one of the many points where the movie lost credibility. It was just too ironic that, in the book, Sara had been told that another child (described as looking more like Shirley Temple) was pretty and that Sara was not. 

In real life people move dramatically up and down the socioeconomic ladder in ways that might be more interesting for being real. I have; that's how I know firsthand that the way people react to Sara as rich girl and as poor girl in the book is true to life, no matter how much some people want to deny it. Frances Hodgson Burnett had seen some ups and downs in life too.