Good Characters in a Culture That Can Only Read Hell


bookFr. James Lavelle: I think there’s too much talk about sins and not enough about virtues.

Fiona Lavelle: What would be your number one?

Fr. James Lavelle: I think forgiveness has been highly underrated.

-John Michael McDonagh, Calvary

A friend of mine once asked if The Divine Comedy is the greatest achievement in human letters. Someone replied that only Inferno was interesting, whereas Purgatorio was “meh” and Paradiso “boring AF.” (We won’t spell out that abbreviation for you.) My friend later commented that our culture is one which can only read Hell.

I Hate It. It Must Be Great.

As an example of this, take what Jennifer Weiner says, that “likeable has become the latest code employed by literary authors to tell their best-selling brethren that their work sucks.” She cites various authors who disparage novels with likeable characters, whom readers treat as if these characters are friends. Indeed, Weiner quotes author Claire Messud as saying, “Don’t go around asking the question, ‘Is this character likeable?’ and expect that to be compatible with serious literary endeavors.” Many of these authors want to avoid being perceived as writing popular fiction, as opposed to great literature, and they try to do this partly by writing unlikeable characters.

There is a sense in which this is somewhat understandable. One might think that an unlikeable person could potentially offer a more interesting range of qualities to explore. It also avoids the scourge of relatability; as Rebecca Mead says, “to reject any work because we feel that it does not reflect us in a shape that we can easily recognize—because it does not exempt us from the active exercise of imagination or the effortful summoning of empathy—is our own failure.” This emphasizes the perspective that literature is about broadening one’s views to include the more abrasive. Furthermore, if an author were to succeed in writing a compelling novel about a despicable person, this success might seem even more obviously due to the author’s skill. Finally, Messud says that “it’s totally unacceptable for a woman to be angry. I wanted to write a voice that, for me, as a reader, had been missing from the chorus.” For her, it’s a matter of representation to write unlikeable female characters.

You Keep Using That word. I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means

I think, however, that this idea that quote-unquote “serious” literature is about the unlikeable is in part a distortion of what author Flannery O’Connor says, that “the serious writer has always taken the flaw in human nature for his starting point. Drama usually bases itself on the basis of original sin, whether the writer thinks in theological terms or not,” and so the “greatest dramas naturally involve the salvation or loss of the soul.” For O’Connor, the qualities her characters possess that we might call “unlikeable” have more to do with sin than unattractiveness. If certain qualities in her characters are unattractive, it is because they are rooted in vice, and the important question is what these characters do when they encounter grace, generally violently.

However, if a culture does not really believe in sin, in the fallenness of creation and its alienation from its source, then O’Connor’s terms no longer make sense, even as the story of redemption remains compelling. The philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre – of whom I’ve read only a minimal amount, so this is about the extent of my familiarity with him – describes a world in which the sciences have been lost, but then reconstructed by people who have only encountered fragments of those sciences. The reconstructed sciences would be something very different from the originals; even if the same words are used, they would mean slightly different things, and would be being used in a completely new context.

MacIntyre uses this story to demonstrate how moral concepts as they are used in our culture do not quite match up with how they were originally used, and so they become incoherent in this new context. I think that we can also apply this to literature, in how stories still base themselves on the flaw in human nature, but without the understanding of original sin to enlighten it. Instead, we get simple abrasiveness. Yes, secular post-Christian culture has a residual memory of the existence of wrong actions, but this memory has not the profundity of the Christian awareness of sin, and so the focus on unlikeability becomes detached from its moorings and incoherent.

It is not enough to just give readers an unlikeable character – and to be fair to the writers who call this necessary, most of whom I have not read, I don’t necessarily imagine that they do leave it at that. One can’t do unlikeability for the sake of doing unlikeability and be a serious writer. This is not to say that every story must devolve into sentimentality (as I have criticized in “The Problems with Christian Film”) with a happy ending in which the character melodramatically realizes the errors of his or her ways, but to write as if there is no hope for that conversion is to present a nihilistic outlook on life that cannot nurture growth and hope. Without that hope, we can only be reading Hell. Indeed, for O’Connor, to write a novel is fundamentally an act of hope, in that a novel should be able to show grace operating in the world, and because to expend one’s energy in composing an almost useless collection of words is to declare that these words are important beyond the value society bestows or withholds upon them.

Show me how to understand what makes a good man.

Even if Christians should possess the theological understanding to depict evil as sin, and not just despicability, philosopher John McAteer argues that the Christian imagination has still failed when it comes to storytelling because “we don’t know how to make goodness seem attractive.” Goodness seems bland. Where, after all, is the conflict? If you can’t have a character struggling with something, presumably complex psychological issues, surely you don’t have a worthwhile story? If you’re already good, what story of conversion can you tell? Even Dan Brown can talk about the importance of having an interesting villain, but McAtter argues that there are few, if any, examples of compelling American film heroes bringing about justice through Christian virtue.

Now, I’m not sure I see cinema overall as being quite so barren in this regard as McAteer does but I certainly agree that heroes who solve the world’s problems through might alone are perhaps overrepresented in mainstream Hollywood films. He asks, “How could you represent a hero with specifically Christian virtues of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control? In the context of American cinema, would such a person be a hero or a wuss? Attractive or boring?”

Daniel Kaszor touches on this question in discussing whether Superman or Batman is the greater superhero. Batman, he says, might initially seem to offer material for more mature storytelling, working through the pain of his being orphaned while exposing the grey morals of society, while Superman can simply leap over any problems in a single bound, but in reality,

since every power-fantasy slider is set to maximum for Superman, the tension in the plots has to come elsewhere. Which means that the best Superman stories are different, and better, than Batman stories. It isn’t impressive when Superman out-punches his opponents. It isn’t even impressive when he out-thinks them. Superman’s greatest foes test his ability to build a just and free society — to maintain this utopian city that he lives in. That can be a sticky proposition even when you can punch a bad guy into space.

Arguably one of the greatest Superman stories of all time is “All-Star Superman” by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely. The crux of that story is that Superman is at odds with his greatest foe, Lex Luthor, and to stop him he needs to make Luthor understand his point of view.

The story takes numerous twists and turns, but ultimately it hinges on Superman being able to evoke radical empathy in his foe. To make a man who hates him see things from his perspective. He’s ultimately successful in changing Luthor’s mind, but in in that act he sacrifices himself, holding together the better society he has built through his own pain and loss.

Many people who argue that the reading of literature makes one a more ethically excellent person say that this is, at least in part, due to the fact that good literature forces one to see from a new and different perspective. While I’m skeptical of this argument – which is irrelevant here – this example vividly demonstrates the potential advantages in a story revolving around an indisputably good character, in that the importance of seeing from other perspectives becomes paramount, fulfilling this argument. The authors who believe that great literature revolves around the despicable might not see the Superman comics as attaining that standard of greatness, but the basic principle is still applicable to both the popular and the allegedly more artistic.

Holding out for a Christian hero

However, McAteer is not satisfied with simply looking for a hero who makes goodness attractive, whose virtue is broadly compatible with Christianity. He wants a specifically Christian hero, one who will truly turn the other cheek. He goes so far as to question whether even the portrayal of Jesus Himself in The Passion of the Christ is but a “manifestation of Mel Gibson’s image of masculinity and heroism (compare Braveheart), an image formed more by macho American action movies than by scripture.” If this is true, who can match this standard?

Ultimately, I think that while the heroes McAteer is asking for by no means dominate the market, they are there for the finding. While not a mainstream American film, one recent candidate is Fr. James Lavelle of John Michael McDonagh’s film Calvary. It highlights, among other things, the difficulties of being good while surrounded by corruption. As McDonagh says, “One of the impetuses for making Calvary was I thought there was going to be a lot of movies about these sorts of [child abuse] scandals coming out, and I thought we’d get ahead of the game and we’d flip it on its head. Instead of doing a film about a bad priest, we’d do one about a good one surrounded by bad people.”

Calvary also largely fulfills McAteer’s standard of pacifism by underplaying the violence Fr. Lavelle commits; his shooting up a bar is unquestionably his lowest point, and we don’t see him fight the bartender bearing a baseball, assuming that he lost that particular fight until we briefly see the bartender’s injuries. More importantly, he throws away his gun before going to meet the man who intends to kill him, willing to sacrifice his own life if need be, but only trying to save it through love and humility.

Fr. Lavelle’s goodness, it must be noted, is not absolute; anyone who can respond to a disclosure of childhood abuse by calling it a “startling opening line” has some irony issues through which to work. However, as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI says, “Holiness does not consist in never having erred or sinned. Holiness increases the capacity for conversion, for repentance, for willingness to start again and, especially, for reconciliation and forgiveness.” Fr. Lavelle repents of his sins, offers forgiveness to those who wrong him, and seeks to help sinners in their conversion. This the project that Calvary depicts, and so it seems to largely – if not perfectly – answer McAteer’s question, and it’s a compelling refutation of the idea that storytelling cannot be serious absent an abrasive antihero, and even if McDonagh is no longer a practicing Catholic, his imagination is certainly engaging with Catholic thought and life. Space precludes further examples, but it’s certainly possible to find examples of the Christian imagination presenting virtue as good, even if the movie business is loudly doing its best to distract us with the latest action blockbuster.







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