It comes up in every book group I’ve ever joined, but it still irked me when a woman made this contribution during my current book group’s last meeting:
“I hated it. I didn’t like the main character at all. She just seemed so weird.”
Cue a collective internal sigh from the rest of the group.
The main character she was referring to is the protagonist of Muriel Spark’s novella The Driver’s Seat. It’s a quick but intense read that yielded a pretty robust discussion that day, the kind that reminds you why book groups can be so valuable despite occasional disconnects between members.
I won’t divulge too much of the plot because I highly recommend reading it yourselves, but I will borrow Wikipedia’s description of The Driver’s Seat as a psychological thriller that involves “themes of alienation, isolation and loss of spiritual values.” Lise, the protagonist, is weird and then some; erratic, deceitful, and manipulative would be kind ways to describe her. (For a shorthand visual, here’s Liz Taylor’s interpretation of Lise from the book’s movie adaptation, Identikit.)
She’s also fascinatingly dark and destructive, and in my opinion that, combined with the basic humanity Spark gives her, is enough to hook any reader.
To be clear, I wasn’t frustrated because the woman who spoke held a different opinion, but because she voiced what I think is an unreasonable reader expectation: that fictional characters, particularly female ones, need to be likeable in order for us to enjoy the overall work of a book. (You could easily substitute “TV show” or “movie” here as well, but since I’m already tackling too much I’ll limit this to books.) To me it seems both arrogant and facile to give up on a book altogether because the protagonist is not your fictional friend.
Novelist Claire Messud got some press recently for voicing a similar opinion in Publisher’s Weekly after being asked if she would want to be friends with Nora, the often-infuriated protagonist of her new novel The Woman Upstairs. Messud addressed the question’s implied sexism (“Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert?”) before proposing a better one:
We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t “is this a potential friend for me?” but “is this character alive?”
It’s slightly depressing to think that even fictional women must adhere to some arbitrary likeability standard that undercuts not only their capacity as characters to be messily human, but our capacity as readers to extend empathy or even interest to them if they are. To echo Messud’s sentiments, who cares if she’s likeable–is she interesting? Complex? Conflicted? Captivating enough to keep you turning pages? And if so, what more can you ask of her?
I’ve read many female characters who match those adjectives, and when I do so I almost always feel grateful to their authors for subverting our expectations by writing them as such. None of these women would be my friend, but I was glad to entertain all of them for a while, or really to have them entertain me. To name very few:
- Lady Macbeth from Macbeth, William Shakespeare: Second only to Medea for unlikeable literary mothers.
- Miss Havisham from Great Expectations, Charles Dickens: Another clear choice, as you don’t win friends by rotting away in a mansion while raising your daughter specifically to torment men. But heartbreak can do that.
- Claudia Hampton from Moon Tiger, Penelope Lively: A more contemporary, if no more likeable example from a recent read. Privileged, apathetic, imperiously intelligent, and uninterested in raising her more ordinary daughter. She’s also lovelorn, independent, and not unkind to those in need.
Does anyone else have an unlikeable literary lady to submit to the list?