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Character types

July 4, 2011

Or, the 20th century, where all the professors are divorced, all the priests are drunk, and all the books are above average.

Georges Bernanos. Diary of a Country Priest. 1936.
Saul Bellow. Herzog. 1964.
Graham Greene. The Power and the Glory. 1940.
J.M. Coetzee. Disgrace. 1999.

I read these four novels, in this order, a few weeks ago, as part of my (ultimately pointless) endeavor to spend this summer reading all the books I ought to have already read. I chose these four basically at random; it could have been any four novels.

But when these four happened to be juxtaposed, I noticed an interesting thing. They are written by a fairly diverse group: a Catholic Frenchman, a Jewish American, a lapsed Catholic Englishman, an agnostic South African. But their main characters are surprisingly similar, and represent, I think, two archetypes often found in particularly modern literature. In essence, the heroes of both the Bernanos and Greene novels are nameless priests associated with insobriety (one is accused of being a drunkard, the other actually is one) who constantly worry that they are not capable of fulfilling their priestly duties; the heroes of both of the Bellow and Coetzee novels are twice-divorced professors obsessed with sex who have lost the ability/interest to do regular academic work and continually try to start a major project that will transcend academia but never manage to get anything done. To put it in the form of an extended formal analogy:

priest:professor … (In a lot of ways, a professor has authority like that of a priest. All four of these books take as their hero not an “everyman,” but a leader of men.)

::nameless:twice-divorced … (The priest has no name, and so has no personal identity. As far as the rest of society is concerned, he is “Father,” not “Father _____.” In contrast, the professor has been divorced twice. He has tried to make a place for himself in the world, to establish his personal identity, independent of his office, but he has failed, and it is his own fault. Divorced once, shame on her, divorced twice, shame on you, or something like that.)

::drunkard:obsessed with sex … (The hero must have a vice; this is a modern novel, after all. For the professor, representative of sex-obsessed modernity, the answer is easy–worry too much about sex and sleep with too many women. The priest can’t be lustful, though, because that would make him unambiguously a bad priest. Neither can either figure be gluttonous, because gluttony isn’t very sympathetic. Our reaction is, have a bit more self-control! But drunkenness is the obvious alternative–it’s a chemical addiction, and so more sympathetic, it offers oblivion, which works well with the priest’s lack of a name, and it makes for interesting play with sacramental imagery.)

::worried about own sanctity:unable to do academic work … (The hero must feel himself unable to go on; this is a modern novel, after all. But the priest’s worry stems from shame, while the professor’s stems from malaise.)

Anyway, these were all decent books; good books, even. But none struck me with the same awe as does a Melville or a Faulkner or even a McCarthy. That’s probably part of why I decided to write about them as a group.

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