I know you’re not looking for yet-another reference to Milton’s Paradise Lost. We all know it; we all love it; right? Well, these’s a lesson in Paradise Lost that is currently under discussion in the Sunday Book Review at the New York Times. The title of this article adequately presents the theme which we will tie back to John Milton.
Are We Too Concerned That Characters Be ‘Likable’?
Each week in Bookends, two writers take on pressing and provocative questions about the world of books. This week, Mohsin Hamid and Zoë Heller on whether it’s important that fictional characters be likable.
I invite you to read the article in the Times. True, it discusses the likability of the characters in fiction but it takes a knee-jerk turn to associate views on likability to a conflict between unsophisticated readers and stuffy academicians.
But back to Milton. Is Paradise Lost the one work that epitomizes the conflict between likable and unlikable characters? Although this would be a great time to pause and reread what is often considered the greatest poem in the English language, I will offer a simple statement about the conflict to contemplate, and then you can pull your volume of Milton off the shelf and make your own conclusion about likable characters.
Just to set the mood, here’s the beginning of the poem:
Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of EDEN, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,
Sing Heav’nly Muse, that on the secret top
Of OREB, or of SINAI, didst inspire
That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed,
In the Beginning how the Heav’ns and Earth
Rose out of CHAOS: Or if SION Hill
Delight thee more, and SILOA’S Brook that flow’d
Fast by the Oracle of God; I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventrous Song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th’ AONIAN Mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime.
And chiefly Thou O Spirit, that dost prefer
Before all Temples th’ upright heart and pure,
Instruct me, for Thou know’st; Thou from the first
Wast present, and with mighty wings outspread
Dove-like satst brooding on the vast Abyss
And mad’st it pregnant: What in me is dark
Illumine, what is low raise and support;
That to the highth of this great Argument
I may assert th’ Eternal Providence,
And justifie the wayes of God to men.
It’s a common conundrum to present Paradise Lost to undergraduates and have them realize that the character of Satan is a pretty dynamic, highly likable character, despite being the arch demon. Not only that, God is boring and stuffy, not nearly as likable as Satan. What is that about?
Well, John Milton was out to “justify the ways of God to men” and some of the best discussions I remember as an undergraduate involved a very close reading of this poem and the artistic revelation of why Milton presents the characters of God and Satan as he does. In this case, it might be a valid concern that a better understanding of the likability of the characters is more a matter for the stuffy academicians than it is for beach reading. But if you are reading Paradise Lost for entertainment or to fill time at the beach, how do you accept the fact that Satan is the character that most speaks to you … that you identify with?
The same question could be asked of many works of fiction. Sometimes the authors of these works see a better opportunity to present their themes in a character that isn’t very likable, We should applaud these authors since they are taking the chance that they will lose readers who insist on having characters that are likable and that can be identified with.
Of course, there’s another little twist here: no reader is going to identify with the unsavory characters. Human beings just don’t work that way. Or do they? What do we think about the modern “anti-hero;” is this just a more pedestrian example of the great Satan in Paradise Lost?