Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Melancholy heroes, Byronic and otherwise

What does a 21st-century girl do when she's got (not so) deep philosophical questions? She turns to Twitter!

Don't laugh, 'cause I got answers.

Not everyone agreed with my premise:
When it comes to Heathcliff, I'm with Lit_Gal. But you have to admit that, at least on the level of generalities, there's something to this whole melancholy/brooding thing. Otherwise, Beauty & the Beast1 would just be a tale of cross-species vindictiveness.

Which is, I think, what both Todd and Laurel are getting at. The Beast isn't antisocial, he's "deep & emotional"!
Anindita's response brought in the other cultural signifier that we usually associate with this kind of character: the Byronic hero.

Here, I have to admit to some gaps in my reading. Byron and his fellow Romantics just don't interest me much, so I have next to no firsthand knowledge of their work. But as a concept -- yeah, Byron & Co. have a lot to answer for.

(Like Heathcliff and Rochester. Having just spent a year-plus with Jane Eyre I'm not going to spend even more pixels on it here. And I've only read Wuthering Heights once (listened to it, actually -- it makes a great audiobook, with all those Yorkshire accents), so I just don't have the knowledge base to get into it.)


When I pushed back on Vladimir's initial response, he offered this, which I love (because I never would have come up with it myself)2:

A couple other things that did occur to me, based on some favorites:
  • The Bean Trees: Esteban is already off-limits. The fact that his very appealing melancholy is the result of a pretty horrific past just adds to that -- while making him attractive at the same time.
  • Major Pettigrew's Last Stand: In his review (which was what finally prompted me to actually read my ARC), Ron Charles wrote something4 along the lines of "the underlying sadness of the protagonists is what keeps this from being cloying and twee." Not that there's anything wrong with happy stories -- I've gone on the record many times with my sheer dislike of depressing books -- but there's something to be said for depth, too.
  • Dear Enemy: Sandy's standoffishness/moodiness/Scotchness/occasional moments of sunshine are what make him an effective foil for Sallie. There would be no relationship worth reading about if he were as frivolous/upbeat/playful/etc as she was.
  • Fire: A great line from the end of the book: "Your sadness is one of the things that makes you beautiful to me. Don't you see that? I understand it. It makes my own sadness less frightening." So is the enduring appeal of the Beast character the way that it lets us (collectively, in the abstract) deal with our own versions of brooding and melancholy?
What initially inspired all this musing wasn't a book. (Well, wasn't directly a book. I was enjoying the lovely Stewart Finlay-McLennan, but Neil MacNeill was rather the Beast in the original Christy.)

(Quick primer, for everyone who wasn't hooked on period dramas in the 90s.)

Still not sure I've answered my initial question. I've got some half-formed thoughts bopping around, but none that quite make sense. So I'm still working on the topic.

Anyone else?

1 For purposes of discussion, I'm using Beauty & the Beast -- not a particular version, just the story concept -- as the prototype for this kind of relationship in books and movies and such. Because if I kept typing "melancholy/brooding/etc." at every reference, you'd be just as tired of it as I would.
2 Of course, this is totally unrelated to my collosal Twitter-crush3 on @3rdplacepress. No connection whatsoever.
3 Which is not allowed to turn into a full-fledged twelve-year-old-girl-type crush because he's on the opposite side of the country from me.
4 I'd be happy to tell you precisely what he wrote, but the Washington Post wants me to pay for articles more than 60 days old, and this one ran in March 2010. I'm not whining about newspaper paywalls -- if Buick5 hadn't offered me free reading through the end of the year, I'd be paying my $20 to the Times each month -- but archive paywalls are just dumb.
5 No, I don't get it either. But I'll take it.

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