Fictional, yet personal
The following literary characters are world-famous. They’re ageless creations, introduced to each new generation by a school teacher or cultured family member. Why? Their plights are so identifiable.
These characters face problems worse than the ordinary life-and-death plots seen in fiction. Their dilemmas are more poignant, involving the fate of the soul and the fairness of humanity—the reason to live at all.
Readers identify with classic literary heroes in a profound way.
In great books, the characters become personal to us. Readers identify with classic literary heroes in a profound way. We can easily put ourselves in their place. What would I do?
A lesson in perseverence
Classic characters do even more. They get us to examine our beliefs. They get us thinking.
What makes these literary characters particularly noteworthy is the way they press on. Every fictional hero wants something and struggles to achieve a result. The outcome in fiction is cut and dried, success or failure.
These characters endure despite incredible odds. Some of their difficulties are external. Others are internal. In one case, the main character does an evil thing and brings calamity upon himself. Still, he pushes forward until his humanity wins out and he confesses his heinous crime.
… these characters inspire us, even encourage us to follow a noble example.
In this spirit, we present five characters who fight the good fight. Even though art isn’t required to teach us (and in most cases shouldn’t), it can be argued these characters inspire us, even encourage us to follow a noble example.
Pip in GREAT EXPECTATIONS
Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens, is the story of a naive boy with a good heart who becomes a worldly man and then back again. Everyone loves this novel because everyone loves Pip. We love Pip because he meets a mountain of unfairness with grace.
We love Pip because he meets a mountain of unfairness with grace.
Pip is a sensitive orphan without anyone to champion him. It would seem Pip is too young to know bitterness is an option. However, he has only his sister, Mrs. Joe Gargery, to demonstrate a negative outlook. Pip has a more humble way of coping. For one, he doesn’t judge his situation as fair or unfair. He takes life as it comes, trying to avoid the worst of it while searching for better if he can find it.
What makes Pip’s troubles so memorable is how personal they are. There are people in his life who want to tear that soft heart right out of him. First, his sister scolds and abuses him for nothing more than being a normal boy. Then Mrs. Havisham, the jilted now-elderly bride, preys on Pip’s affection for Estelle. These two adults try to shame Pip into being like them.
Instead, for being good, good comes back to Pip. He is given the path of a gentleman of means. A different challenge presents itself, pride. Once Pip rises above the station of his dear friend Joe he avoids him, and by extension his own conscience. Most of us would live with these guilt feelings while enjoying posh London life. Pip comes to his senses and embraces his past.
Pip comes to his senses and embraces his past.
Pip doesn’t fight against those out to get him. He endures with a good attitude. It never grows old following a character with such a charming way about him. And Dickens gives Pip an ending that rewards his soft-hearted disposition. The girl who for years tormented Pip for having a soft heart comes around herself.
Josef K. in THE TRIAL
The Trial, by Franz Kafka, follows an innocent man persecuted by a government run amok. The authorities want Josef K. to play the role of guilty party. Josef K. refuses. His disobedience becomes a greater crime.
Joesf K. refuses. His disobedience becomes a greater crime.
Josef K. understands he will likely be killed for standing up to the government. He is naturally afraid of the powers-that-be, but his sense of justice requires him to oppose his masters.
The system tries its best to corrupt and compromise Josef K. He is hounded at work, at his boarding house. Women connected to the judicial apparatus attempt to seduce him into complying. Josef K. stumbles in areas that come back to hurt him. An innocent man is not a perfect man. In The Trial, it takes one imperfection for the state to prove its case.
Josef K. shows self-respect in a society where others grovel …
He knows he’s doomed, but Josef K. shows self-respect in a society where others grovel to stay safe. Along the way, we note the vanity that Josef K. displays for showing bravery. He wants recognition for being strong. It seems impossible to fight long odds without becoming self-focused.
As with everyone, Josef K. does not win his fight. Death wins. And yet, a lesser man than Josef K. would have negotiated with his prosecutors. He maintains his innocence, knowing truth is the only thing that will keep him free. He dies, but he dies a free man. That we might enjoy the same fate, Kafka seems to say.
Christian in THE PILGRIM’S PROGRESS
The Pilgrim’s Progress, by John Bunyan, is an allegory, which is to say, the people and places in the novel are named after symbols and concepts. The main character is Christian. His goal is to leave the City of Destruction for the Celestial City, which represents eternal salvation. He is aided by Evangelist and is steered wrong by many corrupt figures, from Mr. Worldly Wiseman to Giant Despair.
Christian faces bitter disappointment as often as he finds hope.
An allegory is often viewed today as a Trojan Horse for political opinion. We believe The Pilgrim’s Progress overcomes this charge. For one thing, the hero of the story doesn’t have it easy. Christian faces bitter disappointment as often as he finds hope. Largely confused, Christian continues on his path toward the Celestial City through trial, error, and perseverance, often alone.
The author John Bunyan creates a menacing world that leads us to fear for Christian’s life. His friend Faithful is executed in Vanity Fair. Christian barely escapes the Slough of Despond and the Doubting Castle. Christian has left his wife and children on his pilgrimage. No one believes in his quest.
… we see the humility required of Christian to fail continually and keep going.
Christian is not a glamorous symbol for religious belief. He is a believable seeker of truth, often duped by the cons of the tricksters he meets. He is lectured sternly by his guide Evangelist and is nearly killed several times. It doesn’t change his goal to reach the Celestial City. Regardless of a person’s viewpoint, we see the humility required of Christian to fail continually and keep going. Christian succeeds in his personal mission, at great cost.
Published in 1678, The Pilgrim’s Progress still has an edge. It’s gothic and, at times, horrifying. Christian isn’t coddled by anyone, even those who help him. He must do the work himself to reach his destination. Though his temporary companions Pliable, Obstinate, and Ignorance all fail, he doesn’t turn back.
The Dashwood sisters in SENSE AND SENSIBILITY
Sense and Sensibility, by Jane Austen, is the story of redemption for two virtuous women, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood. In 18th-century England, the upper-class struggle is one of finances and keeping up appearances. The Dashwood sisters face public humiliation when they’re left poor by their father’s death. They find themselves in a vulnerable position and scorned by close family.
The Dashwood sisters face public humiliation …
A marriage of convenience is the common solution. Elinor and Marianne are committed not to fall into this trap. The sisters aim to retain their dignity and marry for love. Will either sister lower her standards, and in turn, her principles to overcome disgrace? Or, will she stand tall and wait for love to come?
The younger sister Marianne actually must learn to raise her standards. Her infatuation with the playboy Willoughby is shown to be ill-advised. Turning his back on Marianne, Willoughby marries another to improve his financial standing. Older sister Elinor is stronger and won’t change her goals for love. She must wait for Edward to choose her. In time he does, after he’s disinherited by his wealthy mother. Edward resists the lure of money and is able to fall in love for real.
Both women maintain their dignity in a world where few do.
Elinor finds a husband under the right circumstances. Marianne follows her sister’s sensible example and puts away her infatuation with a man of low morals. She marries an older bachelor with a good heart. Both women maintain their dignity in a world where few do. Jane Austen’s story is, like Great Expectations, filled with graceful attitudes in a society that’s competitive and underhanded.
Jane Austen makes us believe people like the Dashwoods exist, and that we can emulate their principled stand.
Raskolnikov in CRIME AND PUNISHMENT
Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, is a novel about a man who struggles against the goodness inside of himself, and how, eventually, he yields to it. Many will see the anti-hero Raskolnikov as crazy. For whatever reason, young Raskolnikov has lost the ability to see what is sacred in life.
Raskolnikov has lost the ability to see what is sacred in life.
Ultimately, Raskolnikov believes he can rewrite morality to his whims. He decides he can murder someone without penalty. We watch as Raskolnikov allows this attitude to take hold. He strikes down a stingy old moneylender and steals from her to aid his destitute sister. However, Raskolnikov finds himself going beyond his own moral code when the moneylender’s young niece discovers him.
None of us can relate to the double crime Raskolnikov commits. It takes a reader’s patience to continue. We wonder how the novel’s protagonist allowed himself to take two lives, and how anyone could live with himself afterward.
Raskolnikov’s first reaction is self-preservation, to avoid being caught. His true struggle is with his conscience. Slowly, Raskolnikov gives clues to the police that he is guilty. He wants the detective Porfiry to figure it out.
His true struggle is with his conscience.
It won’t be that simple. Raskolnikov must come clean. Later, he confides in a woman of high moral character who understands the twists that life can take, having fallen into prostitution to save her family. Sonya encourages him to confess.
His love for Sonya allows Raskolnikov to break free of selfish fears. Raskolnikov goes to the police station and gives himself up. He’s sent to Siberia. There, we see Raskolnikov transform into a man who cares once again. Though we can’t relate to his problems, we understand his desire to put things right. In this way, his struggle is a grim reminder of what we don’t want to be.