Failing with Style

Inspired by NPR’s latest “Three Books” article, “Try and Try Again:  3 Tales of Spectacular Failure,” here is my own list of three notable literary “failures” (or are they?).

Stargirl, the title character of Jerry Spinelli’s  YA novel.

I can’t say too much about this one without giving too much away.  Stargirl is the ultimate high-school non-conformist.  You could argue that her out-of-this-world-ness is at least somewhat deliberate — her lunchroom birthday serenades, her cheers for the opposing basketball team, her tendency to dress like it’s Halloween every other day, are at least partly conscious attempts to shake things up.  On the other hand, she isn’t doing these things just to make a point.  As the narrator, Leo, realizes very early on, Stargirl’s weirdness is absolutely genuine.  She has no agenda.

So, in what way is she a “failure,” and in what way isn’t she?  Sorry for the vague cliche, but… it’s complicated/you decide!  ^^;;

Tom Jones, the title character of Henry Fielding’s novel, is destined from birth to be Made Of Fail.  So say the self-righteous and hoity-toity, anyway.  Rumored to be the illegitimate son of a poor young woman, Tom is constantly treated as guilty-until-proven-innocent.  Only his adoptive father-figure, Mr. Allworthy, sees the good intentions behind Tom’s seemingly scandalous behavior.  But then Tom seems to go too far, and even Mr. Allworthy turns against him.  Cue an epic series of adventures, mishaps, and misunderstandings as Tom tries to clear his name and find true love.

Antoinette Mason né Cosway, from Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea (but first from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre).  If you haven’t read Jane Eyre, the following are SPOILERS.

In Jane Eyre, Antoinette “Bertha” Mason is already doomed.  She is the proverbial skeleton in Rochester’s closet, the obstacle to his and Jane’s marriage.  Sure, Jane feels sorry for her, but in the end, the only good thing “Bertha” can do for the story is die.

Wide Sargasso Sea is Jean Rhys’ elegy for Antoinette.  Like Tom Jones, she is considered a lost cause from birth.  In the post-abolition Jamaica, Antoinette’s family is despised because their ancestors were slave-owners.  Yet she is shunned by those of European descent because they consider her to be of mixed race, and because of her psychologically disturbed mother, whose madness they assume Antoinette will take after.

In the end, Rhys’ “mad woman” is more tragic because we see how things could have happened differently.  Then again, what does happen could be seen as Antoinette’s one victory.  What do you think?

Who are some of your favorite “failing” characters?

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