I am an obsessive bibliophile.
There. I said it. Sometimes stories just get inside my soul. There are characters who grip me tight and refuse to let go. And I’m left with an obsession that I simply have to study.
(If you’re interested, you can read part 1 of this rambling little character study here.)
The question is – what turns a character in a story into a favorite character in your world? I began thinking about this when I, once again, became so absorbed in a book, so invested in certain characters, that it occurred to me to question whether or not this is normal. (Whatever “normal” is.) I talked to a fellow book lover about it and discovered that we read quite differently. He is mostly drawn to the entire story, whereas I am drawn to individual characters within the story. So that’s where I began.
From Part 1:
Interestingly the stories that occupy me in this way MUST have characters that I adore. For the most part, if I can’t relate to an important character (preferrably the protagonist), I’m not likely to enjoy the book, unless the story is simply irresistible. There have been a few exceptions to that, but not many. I may LIKE a story, but I need to LOVE the characters. And it isn’t necessarily that the characters are bad or weak or uninteresting, just that I don’t always connect with them. There are books I’ve read and enjoyed the stories. I would recommend them to fellow bibliophiles, but they don’t take hold of me, not the way a story does in which I find a character to love and take to heart this way.
Then I asked what it is precisely that makes that character a favorite:
Is it being able to relate to the character?
Is it because you see a little (or a lot) of yourself in them?
Is it because you see a little (or a lot) of your own flaws or darkness in them, but also recognize their good qualities and that gives you hope about yourself?
Is it because they are the kind of person you would like to make your best friend? Do you want to be them? Be with them? Have a drink with them?
I know, to some degree, it’s likely all of these things.
And so, my current favorite character, the one that really got me thinking about this whole way of relating to these fictional friends, a character that has captured my imagination completely. Let’s slip between the pages of Les Miserables, Victor Hugo’s masterwork. This book (brick!) is chock full of diverse, profound, complicated, characters. There are a couple who are immensely fascinating to me. But the one who has taken root in my imagination and insisted upon being examined, is Grantaire.
I’m assuming, if you are reading this, you are familiar to some degree with the story of Les Miserables, either from reading it yourself, seeing one of the film adaptations, or watching the musical.
We are first introduced to Grantaire when we are introduced to the other principal members of Les Amis d’ABC. Of this group of nine, Hugo says,
“The greater part of the Friends of the A B C were students, who were on cordial terms with the working classes. Here are the names of the principal ones. They belong, in a certain measure, to history: Enjolras, Combeferre, Jean Prouvaire, Feuilly, Courfeyrac, Bahorel, Lesgle or Laigle, Joly, Grantaire. These young men formed a sort of family, through the bond of friendship. ” (Les Miserables, Book Four, Victor Hugo)
Hugo goes on to give us a portrait of each of these young men. This is a passage I go back to repeatedly, because of the detail given to each of them. Monsieur Hugo was guilty of much digression in his work, but his prose shines in passages like this one. He tells a bit about each one of these men, their passions, their reasons for meeting in this “group which barely missed becoming historic.” He gives a detailed picture of the first eight, followed by this summary:
“All these young men who differed so greatly, and who, on the whole, can only be discussed seriously, held the same religion: Progress. All were the direct sons of the French Revolution. The most giddy of them became solemn when they pronounced that date: ’89. Their fathers in the flesh had been, either royalists, doctrinaires, it matters not what; this confusion anterior to themselves, who were young, did not concern them at all; the pure blood of principle ran in their veins. They attached themselves, without intermediate shades, to incorruptible right and absolute duty. Affiliated and initiated, they sketched out the ideal underground.” (Les Miserables, Book Four, Victor Hugo)
And then, Grantaire stumbles in. Hugo immediately establishes him as the lone skeptic in the group, and says that he came to be there with them by simple juxtaposition. And he is certainly in contrast to the rest of les amis. Although he’s described as a drunk, a skeptic, a gambler, and a libertine, the rest tolerated him for his good humor. Grantaire (who likes to sign his name as simply R) believes in nothing. He tells his friends,
“There is but one certainty, my full glass.” (Les Miserables, Book Four, Victor Hugo)
He disdains devotion to anything at all, with one glaring exception.
“However, this sceptic had one fanaticism. This fanaticism was neither a dogma, nor an idea, nor an art, nor a science; it was a man: Enjolras. Grantaire admired, loved, and venerated Enjolras. To whom did this anarchical scoffer unite himself in this phalanx of absolute minds? To the most absolute. In what manner had Enjolras subjugated him? By his ideas? No. By his character. A phenomenon which is often observable. A sceptic who adheres to a believer is as simple as the law of complementary colors. That which we lack attracts us………Grantaire, in whom writhed doubt, loved to watch faith soar in Enjolras. He had need of Enjolras. That chaste, healthy, firm, upright, hard, candid nature charmed him, without his being clearly aware of it, and without the idea of explaining it to himself having occurred to him. He admired his opposite by instinct. His soft, yielding, dislocated, sickly, shapeless ideas attached themselves to Enjolras as to a spinal column. His moral backbone leaned on that firmness. Grantaire in the presence of Enjolras became some one once more. He was, himself, moreover, composed of two elements, which were, to all appearance, incompatible. He was ironical and cordial. His indifference loved. His mind could get along without belief, but his heart could not get along without friendship. A profound contradiction; for an affection is a conviction. His nature was thus constituted. There are men who seem to be born to be the reverse, the obverse, the wrong side. They are Pollux, Patrocles, Nisus, Eudamidas, Ephestion, Pechmeja. They only exist on condition that they are backed up with another man; their name is a sequel, and is only written preceded by the conjunction and; and their existence is not their own; it is the other side of an existence which is not theirs. Grantaire was one of these men. He was the obverse of Enjolras.” (Les Miserables, Book Four, Victor Hugo)
(Far right, the brilliant – seriously, I can not say enough about his performance – George Blagden, as Grantaire, in the 2012 film adaptation of Les Miserables.)
This passage is the one that sealed my fascination. A man who could survive without believing anything, but could not survive without friendship. The paradox of this floored me. Throughout the following chapters we see Grantaire continually snubbed, rebuked, and devalued by Enjolras. Enjolras belief and passion was such that he could not tolerate the apathy that he saw in R. And yet, Grantaire was not swayed, not in his cynicism toward belief, nor in his devotion to the manifestation of belief in Enjolras. That became, I believe, an internal war for him. (More about this friendship to come later, since this post has become too long already.)
Grantaire is not quite a pariah, since he is accepted by this group of friends, but it seems to me that acceptance was not the norm in his life. I imagine that he had been considered peculiar throughout his growing up years. How does one become such a cynic, after all? It seems unlikely that cynics are born, but rather made. I read once that a cynic is nothing more than a disappointed idealist. I can verify this theory by my own life. I clearly remember being idealistic, optimistic, to the point of annoyance. I still have unyielding beliefs, which are very important to me, they are much of what makes me who I am. Those beliefs are no longer accompanied by wide-eyed optimism though. There are lessons that, once learned, change the way you view the world and the people in it. This doesn’t change who I am, but it does change the way I relate to the world I see. I think Grantaire must have learned some of those hard lessons as he grew up, the ones that taught him more about people, more about what to expect of humanity, than he could learn in any other way. Cynics learn to protect themselves by lowering their expectations. I think Grantaire had so thoroughly convinced himself of his cynicism, had so carefully erected that wall around himself, that his devotion to Enjolras must have been a disconcerting thing for him (Grantaire). The passion that flowed out of Enjolras challenged Grantaire. He couldn’t quite bring himself to believe in the cause itself, but believed so fully in Enjolras, it became very nearly the same thing, as witnessed later on in the upstairs of the Corinthe.
And so, in examining Grantaire, do I find an answer? What is it about him that makes him a favorite character? The short answer, in this case, is that I see so, so much of myself in Grantaire. I find it easy to relate to his (rambling but still intelligent) ravings about random ideas. It takes no effort for me to feel his conflict as something inside him wants SO MUCH to believe, wants to believe in anything, but his fear battles that desire again and again. When he fails, I understand his shame. When he has a moment, brief as it seems, of redemption, I hope.
And, if I’m honest, I wouldn’t mind having a drink with him either.