In Lake Woebegone, all the women are strong and all the men good looking. Last Monday I listed my ten favorite strong female characters in literature—or strong women that I thought were my favorites until readers mentioned several I had missed, such as Janie in Their Eyes Were Watching God, Lucy Snowe in Villette, Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, Betsey Trotwood from David Copperfield, Countess Ellen Olenska from Age of Innocence, and some I didn’t know.
In balancing out the genders, I decided I’d better not go with good-looking men because then I’d have to include Wickham. So instead I focused on sensitivity. By sensitive I mean strong sensitive, not hypersensitive (like Holden) or morbidly sensitive (like Alceste in The Misanthrope) or crazed sensitive (like the narrator of “The Telltale Heart”). As with the women, there are plenty of very interesting characters who are not in the running. Sherlock Holmes is famous for his insensitivity, as are the Byronic protagonists in novels by the Bronte sisters. I’m also struck by the fact that I couldn’t think of anyone in Shakespeare. Hamlet came to mind for a moment but I quickly realized he had too many strikes against him (his treatment of Ophelia, of Rosencranz and Guildenstern, of his mom).
Again, I offer my choices in no particular order. And again I’m counting on readers to chime in with obvious oversights:
Edward Ferrars – More than any male character in Jane Austen, Edward is sensitive to the needs of women.
Alyosha Karamazov – Alyosha cares about his fellow human beings in a deep way and knows how to talk to them about their anxieties (witness how well he talks to Kolya, the young and brittle prodigy). He’s may be my favorite male character in all of literature.
David Copperfield – There’s a reason why everyone is always confiding in David, even when he’s a child. He knows how to listen.
Sonny – The jazz musician and younger brother in James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” gives his uptight older brother a way to open up.
Tom Jones – Tom isn’t the most prudent of characters and can be oblivious to plots against him. But when it comes to caring for the feelings of others, Tom always shines. He even cares for his villainous stepbrother Blifil.
Nick Carraway – Nick is on this list because he’s the only person who gets Gatsby.
Jesus (in Paradise Lost) – It’s probably unfair to have Jesus on the list but he obviously cares a lot about Adam and Eve.
Billy Budd – It’s not every day you see such good-natured innocence. Billy is positively Christ-like. Which of course brings out the dark side of Claggart.
Jim Casey – I left out Ma Joad (from The Grapes of Wrath) last week so I better not omit Jim Casey. This friend of the poor is another Jesus figure (as signaled by his initials).
John Grady – The protagonist of Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, Grady is the poster child for principled integrity. He loves humans and he’s also great around horses.
Again, send your own selections and feel free to question any of the ones above.