19/04/2011

THE NOVEL, A BRITISH PASSION. WATCHING FAULKS ON FICTION - PART I THE HERO



This is quite an interesting programme for one who's fond of  English classic literature like me.  In it,  Sebastian Faulks reflects on  the fact that millions of novels are read every year. And also on the fact that very often we return to the old ones again and again. Why? Is it the prose? Is it the plot? Or is it the writer? In recent years, he says, people talking about novels have focused on authors. In his opinion, instead, the only people who matter are the characters: the heroes, lovers, snobs and villains. People whose inner life we get to know so well that they are more familiar to us than our family and friends. So much so,  that it  is in the power of their experiences that we see our all lives in a new light. These characters live beyond their time and beyond the page. The lives of these characters help to understand ourselves. 

Here are some of the classic heroes he introduced: 
Robinson Crusoe, Tom Jones, Becky Sharp, Sherlock Holmes.
  
ROBINSON CRUSOE (1719)

 Everything started with a character that we think we all know: Robinson Crusoe. The British novel found its first hero in a desert island , washed up on a beach after a shipwreck. For about 28 years he defeated everything life could throw at him: wild animals, storms, cannibals and,  most painfully of all, his own agonizing solitude. In the past, in Homer, the Bible or Shakespeare, the hero was noble and remote, but Crusoe isn’t like that. He’s more like … anyone of us. He’s practical and resourceful, he gets things done. But for all his bravery he’s still a human being. 
He could still be one of us. Crusoe is an ordinary man caught up in extraordinary circumstances. His greatest challenge comes from within. He survives without the sound a human voice or the touch of a human hand. He also has to wrestle with his inner, psychological turmoil. Ultimately, Crusoe survives on his inner strength. For this reason, the  story of his lonely life can be read as an allegory for all sorts of things. Crusoe is a child of his time, of the Enlightnment. Defoe made him the embodiment of  the new middle-class that championed individualism and enterprise among their main values.

TOM JONES (1749)

The normally tolerant Dr Johnson wrote that he had scarcely known a more corrupted work! The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling by Henry Fielding was published in1749. It is the story of a picaresque hero who tries to find his way in a chaotic world. Tom may not be devout but he has other not less surprising qualities: he is generous, compassionate, good-hearted but he seldom thinks before he acts. He is too chivalrous to turn down the advances of a woman, he is too honorouble to stand down from a fight, he is too polite to say no to a second bottle of wine. 
Tom's sense of right and wrong does not come from many books but it's purely instinctive. Fielding himself called his hero a rogue, but he is a rogue we would all quite like to be. 
In the course of the novel, Tom discovers that he only is responsible for what happens to him, "..I am myself the cause of all my misery..."  You can forgive a man for fornication and drunkeness when he is prepared to give the last coins in his purse to a family in need. Tom Jones was a hero for the way that his good-heartedness exposed the hyposcrisy that surrounded him. Fielding really believed that he genuinely wrote a morality tale. Just that his morality was more challenging and, certainly, a lot  more fun that anything  readers had encountered before. Henry Fielding believed his book was moral, only not in an orthodox or pious way!


BECKY SHARP (1847)

William Thackeray teasingly called Vanity Fair " a novel without a hero" . But we know better: there is a hero. And ...she is a woman. Her name is Becky Sharp. She has charm, she has sex appeal, she has immense cunning and she uses them to secure the two things she doesn't have: position and money. She's indistructable, impermeable. And she must be. A traditionally good person couldn't survive in the grotesque society described in the novel, let alone rise above it. There's a great quantity of eating and drinking, of making love and cheating, fighting and dancing. Yes, this is Vanity Fair. Not a moral place, certainly. Nor a merry one and very noisy. What Thackeray understood was that what is important in a hero is that they interest us: vitality is more important than virtue. 
If you met Becky Sharp in real life you'd probably have an enjoyable  evening but you would soon start disapproving her behaviour. But the standards of people in novels are different: not only we like Becky, we start rooting for her to succeed. 
For a man to be like that was all right, for a woman it was completely unacceptable. The ideal woman of the period was the angel of the heart, self-sacrificing, caring, loving. Everything that Becky is not. She just wants to know how much money she's still got in her purse. But the heoric quality that Becky has and which Tom Jones lacks is that she knows exactly what she wants and that she thinks before sche acts. There's no room in her life for romance, falling in love is the last thing she's interested in. She has the greatest  wit, the greatest need, the greatest ambition. And we happen to back her all the time.


SHERLOCK HOLMES

 In the 1890s Arthur Conan Doyle drew a picture of London where crime pervaded the streets and many people lived in the shadows. What was needed now was a hero that understood the dark side of humankind as well as any criminal. What Gotham City is to Batman, London is to Sherlock Holmes. He is the novel's first superhero. Holmes has the resource to combat any sort of criminal challenge:, physical as well as intellectual. In the fight against the criminal darkness, Holmes brings something entirely new, his scientific mind. 

But in Holmes there is a thin line between light and darkness, between insight and something more like madness. And it is the relationship between logic and lunacy that he puts together. Holmes is an obsessive. The most shadowy side of his character include his being a chronic depressive, his incapacity at forming even the most elementary emotional attachments. He can barely face the world ifit doesn't contain at least a lurid crime for him to solve. A new hero for the new genre of crime fiction. Holmes was the last fictional hero to take on the world and win.


World War I changed everything. There were no more superheroes. We want to believe that individual people and exceptional qualities could change the world. Not anymore. Faulks goes on with his narration through the wars as far as George Orwell's 1984 and ends his analysis of the hero with John Self, the protagonist of a 1984 novel titled Money by Martin Amis. 
John Self looks like the end of the line for the hero. Yet the hero hasn't completely vanished according to Stephen Faulks: he's just moved further afield into crime and children's fiction. So the modern novelistic hero is ...well... Harry Potter. But for literary novels, it's over. The hero is dead. Do you agree with him?



5 comments:

Traxy said...

I didn't like Faulks on Fiction, and I was hoping it would be brilliant. Part one had NO women in it whatsoever. None were interviewed, no female authors were mentioned, and all the heroes were male - aside from Becky, who isn't all that heroic, as Faulks actually admits. It was disappointing, to say the least. Why no mention of strong, female heroes, written by strong, female authors? There were a few women interviewed in the other episodes but the main focus was still on male authors. Brontë (Emily) and Austen were only mentioned in the "Lovers" episode (because women can only write romance novels, presumably?) - and then only Heathcliff and Darcy. What about Jane Eyre? What about Lizzie Bennett? Gahhhh!

Rant over.

Your post is way better than that show, MG!

MARIA GRAZIA said...

@Traxy
Thanks for your comment, Traxy. I'm sorry you didn't like this show. However, if you like the post, it's Falks's merit, I just wrote down some of his ideas which I found quite good. We don't have good shows about literature and novels in Italy and, if any is on, it is in the middle of the night, when you are fast asleep. I was really interested in Faulks's analysis of the hero in the novel, and, maybe, he chose what he knows and studied best. That's it.Furthermore, I think Jane Eyre is very similar to Robinson Crusoe in her succeeding through vicissitudes never forgetting integrity, morality and ... what was expected from her as the heroine of a Victorian novel still indebted to the Romantic Age. Becky Sharp is definitely new and disrupting as a heroine of the Victorian Age and, in general, as a heroine. She's bad!
I rarely read Jane Eyre or Pride and Prejudice with my students (especially because most of them are boys) in the last year classes. This does not mean I don't love them. I'm reading Jekyll and Hyde and going to read Dorian Gray. Those are tales and heroes my students usually like. So you see ... girls in my classes might be disappointed!

Traxy said...

Thanks for your response, MG. :)

While an interesting show (and you're right, far too few of this kind of programme), I just thought episode one was really one-sided, and for the most part throughout the series, he ignored female writers. Austen and the Brontës are world famous, and for good reasons. There are plenty of great male AND female authors over the course of UK literature history, just a shame he chose to focus so hard on just one of them instead of both. :(

On the plus side, the series showed a beautiful Gothic building (where he talks about The Castle of Otranto, which prompted me to download it for Kindle) and made me listen to Clarissa starring Richard Armitage. So that's good! :)

JaneGS said...

Well, chances are I won't get to watch the series, but your summary of his discussion of a handful of protagonists was simply wonderful. Exactly the kind of thing I love to read. I haven't actually read Robinson Crusoe, but now I feel I must. I'm fascinated by Becky Sharp, not only as a character in a novel, but as a meta type. And who could not love Tom Jones--he is completely lovable and heroic in his humanity.

Well done, Maria.

MARIA GRAZIA said...

@Jane GS
Thank you, Jane. Your comments are always precious contributions. To my good mood :-) and to my posts! Have a nice weekend. MG