Literature tends to offer us heroes and heroines who struggle to overcome challenges of all sorts, from medieval monsters to modern bankruptcy. And we quite naturally tend not only to admire but to identify with these heroic figures. (Honest show of hands: who read Pride and Prejudice and thought, “I’m definitely a Mr. Collins”?) While I don’t want to undermine the value of having heroes and heroines to imitate, I do think there’s a danger in our identification with and idealization of these fictional figures.
We are all, already, the centers of our own realities, inside our own heads, experiencing the world through our particular bodies in relation to our particular pasts. This leads to a proclivity to consider ourselves the center of the universe. This is inevitable. But casting ourselves in the defined literary role of “heroine” further skews our perspective—and certain kinds of literary works warn against this tendency.
Take, for example, Jane Austen’s Emma. Austen called Emma Woodhouse “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like,” and with good reason. Emma treats the people of her town like pawns because she idealizes her own role as matchmaker and do-gooder. We don’t like what she does to the people in her life, and Emma learns the hard way (read: public humiliation) about the importance of living life concretely rather than by seeing herself as the heroine of her own little drama.
Or, consider Dorothea Brooks, the ostensible heroine of George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Published some fifty years after Austen’s works, Middlemarch delves into questions of how literature relates to life and examines our ideas of heroism.
From the beginning of the book, Dorothea is presented as its tragic heroine—a role she has in fact designed for herself and is eager to fill. A starry-eyed idealist of the first degree, her days are spent dreaming up and trying to gather support for her well-intentioned but unrealizable plans to renovate homes for the poor. She ignores the genuine attention of a kind but unexceptional local lord, choosing instead to marry Mr. Casaubon, an aged minister who spends his days in historical and philosophical studies.
Casaubon is an absurd figure, and the rest of the town knows it. He takes himself too seriously, he is discourteous in his self-righteousness and self-centeredness, and his pride alienates him from his family and from the community. Dorothea falls for him because she misses this reality in her fuzzy sentiments of vague nobility and abstract excellence. He seems to be noble enough for her to devote her life to serving his vision, and she willingly hurls herself upon the altar of self-immolation—only to discover in the first few weeks of her marriage that his idealism is nothing but a mask for his selfishness, his fear of living actively and well, and his fear of being surpassed by his quick-minded young wife.
Dorothea was looking for an opportunity to lose herself in some great novelistic cause, and to that end had built this small and small-minded man into a pseudo-deity. When she gets her wish, she suffers the consequences as she is buried alive (metaphorically speaking) with her aging husband who first shuts himself off from her and then shuts her off from the world. Dorothea attempts to mend her ways by re-immersing herself in that world and learning to tolerate human imperfection.
Dorothea’s role as the “heroine” is quietly undermined as Eliot slowly but consistently forces us to focus on other characters with equal if not even greater emphasis. Two of these characters are women who instantiate the tension between idealism and realism. Rosie, daughter of the town mayor, is a spoiled but sweet young woman who sets her cap for the handsome new doctor in town. Envisioning a life of leisure and finery far beyond what his new practice can support, she pushes them into debt and social disgrace—all because she is determined to fit her life into the role she has cast for herself as a socialite and chivalric lady, a role that her real life doesn’t accommodate.
Unlike Rosie, Mary Garth, a poor girl who cares for Rosie’s uncle and with whom Rosie’s brother Fred is desperately in love, remains faithful to reality. She has to work to help her parents support her many siblings and, though Fred, whom she loves in return, repeatedly proposes marriage to her, she repeatedly refuses him because he is perpetually in debt and chronically lazy. Mary’s insistence that he face reality, work to pay his debts, and make something of himself inspires him to become a man almost worthy of her. Eliot’s narrator tells us lovingly that Mary Garth knew that “things were not likely to be arranged for her peculiar satisfaction” and she “wasted no time in astonishment and annoyance at that fact,” choosing instead “to take life very much as a comedy.” As the narrator implies, she was all the better for it.
It is a very human tendency to cast ourselves as the central figure in the drama of our life—and the remedy, I think, is not to swear off literature or narratives altogether, but, like Mary Garth, to “take life very much as a comedy.” While tragedy sets up a central hero or heroine, comedy, similar to life, offers an array of characters of relatively equal importance, mixed motives, and vying interests. Characters are at one moment absurd and at another profound. And for precisely this reason, comedy offers a bracing (and, well, funny) remedy to our inherently self-centered view of the world. Books like Middlemarch, and perhaps comedies in general, can help us better engage with and understand the humans around us.