I admit it: I like top-ten lists. Even though I might not always agree with the choices, I do enjoy reading what other people think are the most important of this and that. So in that vein, I’ve decided to put together some lists of my own. My versions aren’t top-ten lists (some don’t even reach to ten and others go past that arbitrary marker), since I’ve never been very good at ordering things by importance. I’m not quite sure if you can with something as subjective and memorable as literary characters.
Everybody has his own list of characters that have touched him in some way or left an indelible imprint on the cultural imagination. Mine, quite frankly, are my own, which is to say, you might not always agree with my selections, but they are certainly selections that are undeniably well-known even to non-readers. So how did I arrive at my decisions? Basically I stuck with choices that I had already read. While I agree that such characters as Scarlett O’Hara or Rabbit Angrim are memorable characters and have appeared on similar lists, I myself have never read Gone With the Wind or Roth’s Rabbit series. Rather, I chose characters from novels I’ve read that have touched me in some way or ones that I remembered even long after the novel’s plot has somehow faded from my own memory. I think that’s a pretty good determination of what’s memorable and what’s not.
So, therefore, in that vein, here are, in no particular order, my list of the most memorable characters found in literature.
The Wife of Bath (Canterbury Tales) – Feisty, opinionated, and independent, Alison, the Wife of Bath, is literally an original. Written by Geoffrey Chaucer during a time when women characters in English literature were little more than damsels in distress for Romantic heroes to express their chivalry, the Wife of Bath defied every role women were supposed to play, both in real life and in poetry, becoming, even to this day, a feminist role model. Married five times, the Wife of Bath makes a compelling argument in her prologue about the role of marriage and the church, while also displaying an earthiness that is sexy and funny. And the tale she relates to her fellow-travelers also plays up her unique vision about love and romance. Clearly, one of Chaucer’s most original and memorable creations.
Janie Crawford (Their Eyes Were Watching God) – Like the Wife of Bath, Janie Crawford from Zora Neale Hurston’s seminal 1930s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, is an original. A black woman in search of self-definition and love, Janie appeared on the scene after the Harlem Renaissance, when literature being created by Black authors approached W.E.B. DuBois’s belief in the “Talented Tenth,” African American professionals whose intellect and professionalism were going to uplift the race. This meant, of course, that Black literature should only represent Black people in the most complimentary light. Hurston, like her contemporary Langston Hughes, instead was more interested in presenting the Black experience in all of its beauty and ugliness. Crawford is the apotheosis of Hurston’s vision-a young woman, forced into marriage by her dying grandmother, leaves her first husband for another, then falls into a love affair with a young man, Teacake, after the death of her second. While Janie is abused by her second husband, in Hurston’s hands, she is never a victim. Rather, Janie refuses to allow circumstances or the moral and social codes of the small Black community in which she lives to define her. Her restless pursuit of her own desires for love and self-definition makes her an endlessly fascinating character, becoming for later writers, such as Alice Walker, who helped rescue both the book and the author from obscurity in the 1970s, a benchmark and model for their own literary inspirations. Her romance with Teacake, who unlike her other two husbands loves her with a fierceness that matches Janie’s own desires, is also one of the more memorable literary love stories ever created.
Boo Radley (To Kill A Mockingbird) – While most readers might point to either Scout or Atticus Finch as the most memorable characters from To Kill A Mockingbird (and I don’t disagree), I will settle on Boo Radley, largely because this character, despite the fact that he only makes an appearance toward the end of the novel, leaves an indelible impression, not only on the characters but the reader as well. While Radley is an archetypal figure of author Harper Lee’s theme of tolerance in her southern gothic story about racism and childhood innocence, he is also a tender character, one whose presence is known to Scout and her brother Jem only through the little gifts he leaves for them in the knot of a nearby tree. Radley’s reputation in the neighborhood is a horrible one, inspiring the kind of childhood fears that we all have of things we don’t know or understand. Don’t we all have a Boo Radley somewhere in our collective childhood memories? And yet, when Scout aknowledges Radley after he rescues them from the racist murderer Tom Ewell with a simple “Hey, Boo,” then we, the readers, see she sees a truth with far more clarity that nudges her toward a hard-earned maturity. Things aren’t always as they seem on the surface, and Radley’s gentility and tenderness, so delicately detailed by Lee’s fine hand, pulls all of her themes together, making Radley not only a memorable character, but an important one as well.
Sula (Sula) – Toni Morrison’s character Sula, in the novel of the same name, is a blues creation. Lyrical, gritty, and raw, Sula, like Janie Crawford, defies expectations and refuses to live life according to everybody else’s plans. Uncompromising, Sula can also be a fairly unlikeable character. When she has an affair with her best friend’s husband, she cuts off the one relationship she has had that defined her as much as her friendship with Nel was defined by Sula. And yet, despite their differences, the bond the two girls formed in childhood is too strong, surviving even Sula’s eventual death. Sula is a memorable character largely because she is so uncompromising, aggressive, and fearless in her pursuits, a rare quality found in Black female literary characters. Morrison is fearless as well in her rendition of Black women and the Black community, portraying them as uncompromisingly as Sula herself. Here is not a female character looking for acceptance and self-definition, but one who grabs it without illusion or delusions. She is the truth-teller in the community, the one who fearlessly tells and lives it like it is. When she returns to the Bottom, the Black community in Medallion, she sets in motions a series of supernatural events that forces those living there to acknowledge and recognize the power of truth. Like the blues song “Wild Women Don’t Get the Blues,” Sula is a character who sticks in the imagination for her fearless pursuit of life.
Jay Gatsby (The Great Gatsby) – When I first read The Great Gatsby, I wasn’t terribly impressed. In fact, it’s not one of my favorite novels. And yet, Jay Gatsby, the titular character of the novel, still makes an impression on me. Perhaps that is because he is such an arcetypal figure in American culture. Scratch beneath the surface of any P Diddy or Jay Z and you have a character cut from the very cloth of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s creation. Written during the 1920s Jazz Age, Gatsby is very much of his time. A self-made man from a criminal background, Gatsby is materialistic, obessive, and immoral. And yet, his pursuit of the American dream is one that is timeless, capturing the heart of this country’s obsessive pursuits of wealth, re-definition, and acceptance.
Bigger Thomas (Native Son) – Novelist Richard Wright used literature as a political statement, addressing the cancer at the heart of American society: racism. While many of his contemporaties criticized his portrayals of Black life, Wright’s novel Native Son, no doubt, is a classic in protest literature precisely because of his uncompromising vision of how racism and race relations stunt and devour its victims, namely young Black men. Bigger Thomas is a memorable character because of the way he forces readers to recognize this fact. Written after his successful short story collection, Uncle Tom’s Children, Wright wanted to create a character who would force white readers to recognize their own complicity in the racial dynamics that destroyed Black people without the sentamentality he feared was at the heart of his previous book’s success. Bigger Thomas, a young Black man, who finds himself caught in the trap of racism when he accidentally kills the daughter of his white employer, thus sending him on the run from the authorities, is ignorant, violent, and angry, and yet, beneath that core surface, lurks a soul yearning to find an escape from the poverty and racism that has entrapped him and his family in its steel jaws. Bigger is an archetypal character, one meant to represent many Black men, particularly those caught up in the legal and justice system, and his actions are not merely meant to shock readers, but to force them to accept that Bigger’s circumstances are shaped largely by a society that refuses to recognize his humanity. In other words, Bigger is a creation of American racism, poverty, and hatred. His reactions are an inevitable time bomb waiting to unleash its explosive fury. For this, Bigger is a memorable character, one that lingers in the mind long after the last word in Wright’s novel is read.
Holden Caulfield (Catcher in the Rye) – Every American teen has read J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. I was certainly one of them. There is something about its hero, Holden Caulfield, his posed cynicism and smart-alecky responses to life, that captures the teenaged imagination. Perhaps it is because it follows the conceit every teen has that he or she knows more or is a lot smarter than most adults, who seem to bungle along in their boring routines of mortgage payments and Friday night cocktails, if you really want to know. Caulfield is a memorable character because he lives on in popular culture, whether it is in John Hughes’s teen flicks of the 1980s or the recent Dawson’s Creek and, to a certain extent, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Sylvie (Housekeeper) – While the novel Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson, might not necessarily be well-known to most readers, its character is a memorable one for me. Like most of the female characters on my list, Sylvie, an itinerant who enters the lives of her two orphaned nieces after their grandmother dies, is an uncompromising woman who lives life on her own terms. If not fairly irresponsible in her housekeeping skills (not to mention her caretaking of her two nieces), she is nonetheless a likeable character because, despite her faults, she is admirable in her unwitting fight against the 1950s conformity of the Washington state small town of the novel’s setting. Told from the point-of-view of Ruthie, one of the orphaned nieces, Sylvie is odd, eccentric, and a free-spirit, but, someone who also becomes for Ruthie, a shy and withdrawn girl, a means to escape the tragic and stultifying circumstances of her life. Abandoned, even by her sister, who prefers the normality that Sylvie is not capable of providing for her, Ruthie turns to her aunt as an anchor for meaning and stability. Through Sylvie’s eyes, the world is not frightening, indifferent, or conformist, but rather rich with small and mundane surprises, such as the little children who supposedly lurk and hide in the brush on a nearby island or the way the bridge trestles feel when a train passes over it. Like Ruthie, the reader likewise learns to see the world through Sylvie’s eyes, seeing an uncomforming beauty in it.