The success of a great novel does not lie entirely in the hands of its hero. Many of my favourite novels come with a surprise gift – the character who is most interesting of all, who is not the main protagonist. This is the character you wonder about later, the character that seems to step outside the story and comment on it, or the one whose dilemma is never really solved by the outcome of the plot. Here are three examples:
1) Mr Bennett in Pride and Prejudice
Lizzie’s father Mr Bennett is the character around whom the story problem – the Entailment – is centred. He could have seen the crisis coming, and had the power to avert it – Lydia’s elopement with Wickham, which threatened to ruin all of them. Instead, he allows himself the luxury of standing outside the story and commenting flippantly on it, as if the fate of his family had never hung on the decisions he made. In the end, the family is saved, by good fortune operating through the characters of Lizzie and Darcy – and not by Mr Bennett fulfiling his duty. And yet he says, And so Darcy did everything… I shall offer to pay him tomorrow; he will rant and storm, about his love for you, and there will be an end to the matter. And near the end we have Mr Bennett’s delicious irony in this remark to Lizzie: I admire all my three sons-in-law highly. Wickham, perhaps is my favourite; but I think I shall like your husband quite as well as Jane’s.
2) Gollum in The Lord of the Rings
Gollum is for me the most haunting character in Tolkien’s great novel. Starting out as one of the River Folk, who evolved from the loveable hobbits, he became consumed by his lust for the Ring. And yet he is offered redemption, by Frodo. Frodo uses his original name, Smeagol, to try and recall him to a sense of who he once was. He demonstrates trust in Gollum. This indicates Gollum can be redeemed if he chooses. And there are moments when he comes close, moments when we long for him to be redeemed. Yet Gollum’s final choice, to grasp the Ring, brings about his own destruction, and that of the Ring itself.
3) Mr Tumnus in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
Mr Tumnus the Fawn is the character who first comes into my mind whenever I think of The Lion,the Witch and the Wardrobe. Childlike, pure, guileless, representing the natural world, the first inhabitant of Narnia whom Lucy meets, who offers her hospitality and friendship – yet he’s prevailed upon to spy for the White Witch, and first alerts her to the presence in Narnia of a Daughter of Eve. And he suffers for it. But ultimately he is redeemed.
Do you have any examples of minor, or secondary characters in your favourite novels? Perhaps they may be for you the most interesting character of all. Let me know. I’d love to hear from you!