Almost every story has good guys and bad guys, heroes and villains, winners and losers. Convention goes that readers are supposed to root for the former, but let’s face it: The “good guys” aren’t always the most interesting.
Take J. K. Rowling’s Voldemort, for instance. Harry Potter might be the Boy Who Lived, but how did a young man named Tom Riddle come to despise half-bloods, split his soul seven ways, and become one of the most powerful wizards in the world? The Atlantic writer Julie Beck argues that while it would’ve been simpler to make Voldemort a thoroughly wicked villain, the human elements of his backstory provide a greater message about how to defeat evil. John Milton, in Paradise Lost, does something similar by letting readers into the mind of the ultimate baddie to understand Lucifer’s motives. The contrast between heaven and hell, and God and the devil, isn’t as binary as one might imagine.
Human antiheroes can also make for insightful stories. The writer Koa Beck points to a group of “unlikable” female characters (remember Amy from Gone Girl?) who, in their awfulness, actually critique the stereotypical expectations of how women should behave. Tayari Jones considers how Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon forces readers to consider the dissonance of perception: What happens when the person you’re rooting for isn’t actually as good as he thinks he is?
The authors who craft these flawed characters can’t be ignored either. Stories that put people through the worst of situations, such as in Flannery O’Connor’s “Revelation,” can demonstrate a writer’s capacity for understanding the uglier sides of humanity, the author Paul Lisicky argues. And in the case of Henry David Thoreau—whose most famous work, according to one writer, might actually, well, “suck”—there’s something to be gained in trying to parse out what exactly Walden is trying to tell readers.
Each week in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas, and ask you for recommendations of what our list left out.
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What We’re Reading
What’s so ‘American’ about John Milton’s Lucifer?
“Milton’s Lucifer can be read as a kind of modern, American antihero, invented before such a concept really existed. Many of the values the archangel advocates in Paradise Lost—the self-reliance, the rugged individualism, and even manifest destiny—are regarded as quintessentially American in the cultural imagination.”
📚 Eikonoklastes, by John Milton
📚 Areopagitica, by John Milton
The psychology of Voldemort
“In this tale of good versus evil, it would be easier to just let Voldemort be a tautology—he’s evil because he’s evil. Instead, [J. K.] Rowling grounds his evil in comprehensible human flaws, and shows that to defeat evil we not only have to fight it, but to try to understand where it comes from in the first place.”
Writing a feminist novel with a man’s point of view
“Despite [the main character] Milkman’s understanding of himself as a person under siege, he is also an unwitting or careless tyrant in his own home. He believes himself to be a nice person [but] he doesn’t respect [his sister] Lena enough to know that she is capable of telling him this fundamental truth about life.”
📚 An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones
In defense of Thoreau
“Henry Thoreau was a genuine American weirdo. He did not believe in niceness, or even civility, but in justice. He believed his soul was at stake in it, even though he was not sure his true self was part of this world at all.”
The promise of flawed characters
“Yes, [Flannery] O’Connor destroys some of her characters—subjects them to humiliation, degradation, violence. But maybe that’s because she understands human stubbornness, how we cling to our limitations until events of great force alter us.”
📚 “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” by Flannery O’Connor
📚 The Narrow Door, by Paul Lisicky
Female characters don’t have to be likable
“More than being ‘unlikable,’ these female characters directly challenge the institutions and practices frequently used to measure a woman’s value: marriage, motherhood, divorce, and career.”
📚 Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn
📚 The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins
📚 Luckiest Girl Alive, by Jessica Knoll
📚 After Birth, by Elisa Albert
📚 Fates and Furies, by Lauren Groff
The Reference Desk
This week’s question comes from Joseph in Maryland: “Now that Game of Thrones has ended and nobody knows when George R. R. Martin is going to finish the book series, what should I read to occupy my newly free Sunday evenings?”
If you’re not ready to leave a realm like Westeros filled with dragons and warring kingdoms, Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn is a great option that’ll give you a break from having to learn new invented languages or refer back to a drawn map to figure out where the characters are. While still being a fantasy novel, Beagle’s work focuses on the connection between reality and magic. For a quicker Sunday-night read, J. R. R. Tolkien’s “Leaf by Niggle” is a short story that still offers plenty of escapism. But if you’d like to revisit the classics, The Atlantic’s Vann Newkirk makes the case for the tremendous influence of Tolkien’s The Hobbit on other fantasy tales: “There’s a little Bilbo in Tyrion, a bit of Smaug in Eragon’s dragons, a dash of Aragorn in Shannara’s Shea Ohmsford, and a touch of Gandalf in the wizards of Discworld,” he writes.
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