"Why, what's the matter?"
"Nothing, Pooh Bear, nothing. We can't all, and some of us don't. That's all there is to it."
"Can't all what?" said Pooh, rubbing his nose.
"Gaiety. Song-and-dance. Here we go round the mulberry bush."
-The World of Pooh by A.A. Milne
Ah, Eeyore, the most dejected and famous donkey in literature. (Admittedly, a fairly small niche.) Pooh isn’t actually oblivious to Eeyore’s negativity --- like most things in the Hundred Acre Wood, Pooh takes it rather pragmatically --- but also like most things, it really doesn’t faze him much. Pooh moves on. And therefore we do also.
Because... really, we’re following Pooh. Frankly, Eeyore is a bit player --- which I’m sure wouldn’t surprise him. “I thought so,” he might gloomily declaim. “Upstaged by a bear. A clueless bear at that. It figures.”
Most of us find Eeyore by turns amusing and sympathetic (possibly pathetic) --- although I suspect that’s because he isn’t the protagonist of A.A. Milne’s beloved stories. But what if Eeyore was the protagonist? Would his attitude become wearing? I think so. Too much negativity in a protagonist is very difficult to live with after a while. I was thinking about this just the other day.
It all started when I showed my students the film Dead Poets’ Society, which despite some cutesy moments has many really nice ones --- I like it a lot. A pivotal character is well played by a young Robert Sean Leonard, who went on to star in the television series House... and I started ruminating about that series (talk about free association moments). The protagonist of House was a medical doctor named Gregory House (scruffily played by Hugh Laurie, another actor I enjoy). I watched faithfully for the first few seasons, but eventually just... stopped. Not because House was Eeyore, or even Eeyore on steroids... no, no; the gloom would actually have been easier to take. Gregory House was one of the most unlikeable protagonists I’ve ever run across. He wasn’t gloomy. He may have been depressed, but if so, he coped by lashing out viciously --- at everyone. He was arrogant. He was self-destructive. He was cynical. He was misanthropic AND misogynistic. All of the above. In the extreme. He was just nasty. To say House was negative is like saying the Pacific contains some water.
Now, we all have our off days, but my gosh, House made his negativity into some sort of obsessive life train wreck. I watched as long as I did because I sought redemption in this man. There’s got to be some good in him, I thought. Nope. Couldn’t find any. But he was a medical doctor, you say. He cured deathly ill people afflicted with bizarre ailments. That indicates compassion, right? Nope again. He was only interested in those patients because of the intellectual problems they afforded. He couldn’t have cared less about them as people, as individuals. He maligned friends and enemies alike (Robert Sean Leonard played his best friend, and I was incredulous how the character was such a doormat for House’s various abuses).
Eventually, I gave up. Gregory House was a toxic excuse for a human being, and I just couldn’t continue watching him spew his toxicity at everyone and everything. I also couldn’t understand why people put up with him as they did. I don’t care how brilliant someone is, if he’s as awful as House, he’d either be fired or people would leave. Unless they’re masochists. (Maybe they didn’t have a choice, you say. Uh uh. There’s always a choice. I know --- from personal experience.)
Another protagonist I really didn’t like: Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever in a fantasy series by Stephen Donaldson. The protagonist --- who could be a close relative of House, for all we know --- discovers he has leprosy before being yanked into another world, where he promptly sexually assaults a woman. He was an angry, amoral character like House, and apparently I’m not the only one to think so: Wikipedia quotes reviewer James Nicoll as saying Thomas Covenant would win a "special lifetime achievement award" for the "most unlikeable supposedly sympathetic protagonist.” Yep. Donaldson lost me after the first book. I know people like House and Covenant exist. But do I want to encounter such protagonists in my leisure reading? Again, nope. I want to like protagonists, maybe identify with them --- not despise and hate them.
I enjoyed the Hunger Games trilogy, but also didn’t really like Katniss Everdeen very much, although with her, it’s not that she’s amoral or misanthropic. As I said in a previous post: “Katniss,” I wanted to tell her, “I get it: you don’t want to be the hero. I don’t really care. You’re drafted, ‘cause strange as it may seem, you are the Katalyst.” (Sorry. Awful pun.) “So suck it up, sweetheart, and stop being sulkily reluctant about it. You’re the hero. Deal with it. I’m not saying you have to behave like you’re having the time of your life, but I want a little more can-do mentality and a little less moody teen angst from you.”
There’s nothing wrong with giving protagonists issues. After all, in Gryphon’s Heir I bestow on Rhiss, my protagonist, a lack of self-confidence that borders on crippling at times. We all struggle with stuff. We’ve all got baggage. That’s part of being human, and giving protagonists baggage makes them relatable. But I also think Rhiss is a pretty likable guy. In fact, he resembles Tolkien’s protagonist, because both Rhiss and Frodo doubt they have what it takes to be a hero. But like Frodo, when confronted with the choice, Rhiss sighs, spends a minute privately wishing he didn’t have to do this... then puts his hand up and volunteers, saying, in effect, “I’m not sure I can do what’s needed... but... I’ll try.” That’s what’s needed in a protagonist, I think: more Frodo, less House.
Because, as American poet Max Ehrmann wrote in his poem Desiderata: “Avoid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexatious to the spirit.”
You betcha, Max. Good advice --- in life and literature.