Tale as Old as Time. Song as Old as Rhyme. People Criticizing a Text Because They Don’t “like” the Protagonist… And the Beast

I cannot begin to tell you how many times someone has told me they do not like a television show or book that I like because they do not like the protagonist or find them annoying. The first time I heard this was when I was in high school discussing The Catcher in the Rye. I remember being completely captivated by this novel and its narrator who I felt I could relate to. I, being sixteen at the time, assumed that everyone must feel the same way I did about this novel only to have one of my teachers say that he hated the book because its narrator, Holden Caulfield, was too “whiny.” Since this time, I have found that in most English classes, there is always one student who does not like a text because they “can’t stand” the narrator or protagonist. Interestingly I, a person who challenges almost everything, find I do not often have this reaction. I tend to usually accept a character and assume there is a good reason for them being portrayed the way they are. If characters, narrators, and authors never did anything to challenge me or the way I think, I suspect I would have become bored of reading years ago. After all, what would be the point?

It is for this reason that I felt the review by Michiko Kakutani was interesting. I really enjoyed The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon as well as Christopher’s character. Kakutani’s overall review of the novel is positive, and she did not shy away from addressing the emotional detachment sometimes displayed by Christopher. What she did, however, was look at this novel as a whole and address how this characteristic of Christopher’s, along with his logical approach to most situations, affects the work as a whole. Katutani states how the use of a narrator like this “enables the author to talk about the big issues of love and mortality and loss without sounding maudlin or trite.” I really appreciated that Kakutani did not add in her own personal feelings on whether she liked being “stuck” with this narrator for a whole novel, but simply addressed what the individual and unique characteristics of the narrator added to the work.

Laura Miller’s review of the novel is somewhat different. I was interested when, in the first few sentences of her review, Miller states that Christopher is an “imperfect narrator” (as if there is any such thing as a “perfect narrator”). She then later goes on to write that Christopher “makes for a daunting prospect as a narrator, emotionally detached and doggedly literal-minded. Yet Haddon manages to create in Christopher a character of great charm and appeal.” This is somewhat problematic for me. First Miller criticizes the narrator because he is so emotionally detached, and then immediately says that he is charming. So it’s okay? My question is, why does it matter if he is charming or not? The fact remains that the novel is a compelling read. Additionally, the narrator being so emotionally detached is not daunting or something to be criticized; it is simply different. The differences between characters, novels, and narrators is what makes each read unique and a text’s unique qualities, good or bad, should not need to be approved of based on how “charming” they are.

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It is very apt that Christopher’s hero is Sherlock Holmes considering the fact that many of the other characters in Arthur Conan Doyle’s short stories and novels about the famous detective find his emotional detachment bothersome. As someone who is a fan of the BBC’s Sherlock as well as the original texts, I have had people tell me on several occasions that they cannot stand a character who “behaves like a robot” most of the time. However, I would argue that it is this quality that makes the character so iconic and intriguing. Sherlock, similarly to Christopher, is different from every other character that we as readers so often see. He is brilliant, unique, intriguing, and misunderstood. Lastly, and most importantly, he, like Christopher, will continue to be all of these things regardless of whether or not a reader likes him. This is what I found most interesting in comparing these two reviews; one is more focused on how a character’s qualities affect the text itself, while the other is more based in how the reader feels about the character.

 

P.S. I know you all sang along with my title! I mean, who doesn’t love Disney? Hope everyone had a great week and a fun and safe Halloween! See you all soon! 🙂

4 comments

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  1. I think what you’re saying is true about how we don’t necessarily have to emotionally relate to a character to appreciate a good novel, but I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss people who do this. I think it’s a really interesting phenomenon that we have the ability to relate so strongly with fictional characters or care about them so much that we get upset when bad things happen to them or they die. I know that I definitely do this, in TV shows and films in addition to novels. So I think there are multiple ways to enjoy or engage with a text, one of them being more cerebral and evaluative and the other being emotional and visceral.

    1. I totally agree with you! I actually really like the fact that everyone can respond to a text differently and become so attached to characters in a cognitive and emotional way. The only time I see this as a problem is when people write off entire texts because of how they personally feel about a character. I think that sometimes our emotional responses to characters or narrators can be so strong that they can get in the way of us seeing the text as a whole. Luckily neither of the reviewers mentioned above really did this too much (if at all). I didn’t mean to make it sound like I dismiss people that do this, just express that I dislike when they dismiss or overlook entire works because of their personal feelings. Thanks for helping me address this and clear it up and, as always, thanks so much for your comment!

  2. I agree with you wholeheartedly as I’m sure most will when you say we don’t have to relate to a character to appreciate a good narrative. However, there will always be some small aspects of a narrative that some can relate to. It will happen in different degrees, but I think when there is less to relate to, people start to think that there is something wrong with the narrator because the narrator is not like them.

    It’s a rather closed minded way of thinking. After all, there have been many stories of murderers, fantastic fictional worlds and even terrible terrible individuals. Did we relate to all of those? Do we secretly wish to be in a fantasy land where we can do terrible things and murder people? Probably not, but that doesn’t make the narrative any less engaging or intriguing.

    Someone who “behaves like a robot” should be interesting! It’s unusual. It’s different. It allows us to question our own way of thinking. Unfortunately, there will always be those who allow the dislike of a character to ruin a story for them. I wonder how they feel when they’re presented with characters they’re not suppose to like! However, I share in your pain in thinking that a mere character or narrator could ruin an entire work is mere nonsense.

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