Laughs are at a premium these days, what with the pandemic still going on as a second Christmas approaches.
That being so, I thought I’d use my recent renewed interest in personality disorders by subjecting some classic characters in fiction to a bit of the dreaded lay analysis.
If this post gives a few readers a laugh, it will have served its function.
Lets see: which characters are clearly unbalanced in classic novels? The answer surely is: a of a lot of them. Reasonable, rational people hardly make for interesting reading. That is, they only do if they are taking on someone who is fairly impossible, or at least, dealing with a crisis which brings out the worst in all sorts of people.
For instance, in Dracula everybody is eminently reasonable but Dracula himself, who doesn’t give a hoot about anybody except as a source of refreshment: ‘Umm, pass over that comely wench, fellow, along with the plum brandy…’ He is, of course, a monster.
Unless I have missed something, what made the count decide to be one, or how exactly he became one himself, is never made clear, lost in the mists of the mediaeval history he recounts to his guest Jonathon Harper. Whether Bram Stoker actually explained the process – which for all I know may have involved black magic, and the publishers decided that it would be regarded as too strong meat for a Victorian audience, I don’t know.
Clearly, to have made that decision, he can’t have been exactly a normal person to begin with. Perhaps he had a superiority complex of some sort to feel that he ought to live forever? Besides, to achieve great things, we need to have a fairly inflated view of our own talents, and the same must apply when we see ourselves as treading a new path which discounts ethical considerations. Here is some of the count’s invective to Mina Harker:
‘First, a little refreshment to reward my exertions…Whilst they played their wits against me – against one who commanded nations, and intrigued for them, and fought for them, hundreds of years before they were born, I was countermining them, and you, their best beloved one, are now to me, flesh of my flesh…’
Making all due allowances for Dracula’s monstrosity, I have always thought it rather odd myself that vampires – or any paranormal being, for that matter – who is meant to have a history dating back centuries, is depicted as regarding people who have only been alive for a short time as either worthy opponents in a battle of wills or as a fascinating love object.
I gather this was one of the many criticisms aimed at the YA ‘Twilight’ series, but as I haven’t read that, I couldn’t comment on that.
Another was that Edward Cullen was some form of stalker. This is a condition which seems to affect various romantic heroes, and even the one in Pushkin’s classic unfinishyed robber novel ‘Dubrovsky’.
In fact, had Dubrovsky not played with Maria as a boy, he might be said to show signs of suffering from ‘Clairmont’s Syndrome’ in his attitude towards her. Having caught a glimpse of her at the distance, he falls madly in love with her. Soon, he risks going to work as a tutor to her half-brother in his deadly enemy, her father Kiril Petrovitch’s house, merely in order to be near her:
‘I was prowling round the house, deciding where the fire was to break out, from where I should enter his bedroom, and from where I should cut him off from all means of escape. At that moment, you passed by me like a heavenly vision and my heart was conquered…I followed you in your careless walks, stealing from bush to bush…At last an opportunity occurred: I established myself in your house: these three weeks were days of happiness for me: the memory of them will be the joy of my melancholy existence… ’
Well, perhaps love at first sight might be a tipping over into the personality disorder of Clairmont’s Syndrome (though many might say it is evidence of meeting someone from a previous life). It is certainly a wonderfully melodramatic plot point (When I wrote my own spoof highwayman romance ‘Ravensdale’, I used the above scenario in a comic series of episodes).
There’s quite a few narcissists in classic novels. For instance, Arthur Huntingdon in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall seems to be an almost classic one, which I suppose in a classic novel he would be…
He has every chance of happiness and the chance to reform his empty life of careless hedonism when he falls in some form of love with the virtuous heroine Helen – or anyway, seems to be in love as much as someone ‘in that spectrum’ can be.
However, the cad soon begins to sabotage things:
‘His favourite amusement is to sit or loll on the sofa beside me, and tell me stories of his former armours, always turning upon the ruin of some confiding girl or the cozening of some unsuspecting husband, and when I express my horror and indignation, he puts it all to the charge of jealousy, and laughs till the tears run down his cheeks. ..’
He returns to his heavy drinking and debauched lifestyle. Helen finally gives up her attempts to reform him when he takes up with the hatefully attractive Arabella Lowborough, wife of his supposed friend Lord Lowborough. He and his friends engage in drinking bouts where his friend Hattersley uses Huntingdon’s head for target pracice using a wooden stool, while Lord Lowborough attacks Hattersley’s wrists with a lighted candle as he tries to force him to join in.
The novel seems to imply that Huntingdon worst points are brought out by drink, and no doubt it deadens his conscience. Still, Arthur Huntingdon clearly has serious defects of character from the first, which all seem to revolve around self-indulgence and egotism: for instance, when he tortures the infatuated eighteen-year-old Helen before their engagement by ignoring her and flirting with others whenever she deflates his vanity. He even expects her to declare her love first – a thing a Victorian would regard as outrageous.
In a light romance, the hero can behave as callously as that towards the heroine, then going on to treat her dotingly forever afterwards, but no such suspension of belief is allowed in the love affair of Arthur Huntingdon and Helen. Sadly, the predictions of Helen’s starchy and joyless aunt prove all too accurate.
Of course, many heroes of romantic novels seem to suffer from Don Juan complexes of some sort.
Still, few can match the energy of Rinaldo Rinaldini in compulsive womanising, which he combines effortlessly with running the most dreaded robber gang in the Appinines and resisting the efforts of a mysterious and magical guru to change his attitude towards the unknown (this guru is revealed in the end to be his father and a prince). It has to be said in his favour that, unlike many philanderers, he generally falls in love with his female conquests: – in fact, he usually manages to be in love with several at the same time.
It is lucky for him, and for the women’s feelings, that generally the mechanics of the plot mean that one love object disappears just as another appears, rather like the mechanical figurines on an old fashioned weather house.
Rinaldini seems to suffer not only from a Don Juan complex, but from Histrionic Personality Disorder besides. Here are his first words, spoken in his cave, during a storm: “I sleep! I like such weather: it rages here and there, around us, close to us, in this breast of mine, and everywhere! ”
Heathcliff, created by Emile Bronte about fifty years later (Wuthering Heights was published in 1848) is by contrast, completely untroubled by his conscience, and in fact, seems psychopathic in not having one. He certainly can’t be accused of Rinaldini’s addiction to falling in love repeatedly: he is obsessed with Catherine, and cares for nobody else (save for a mild affection for Hareton and Nelly). When Hindley’s defiance of his late father’s wishes leads him to force Heathcliff into doing a servant’s chores, he loses his chance with Catherine, and runs away to better himself.
Returning with ‘the appearance of a gentleman’ to find Catherine married to Edgar Linton, he swears revenge on Hindley and his descendants. In fact, from this time on, and particularly after Catherine’s death, he seems to have no other interest in life or topic of conversation. He is, in fact, frankly boring, like all obsessed people, and I have always wondered how anyone could find him an intriguing character. The author is astute in keeping him largely offstage, as if we saw more of him than occasional dramatic entrances, we would soon become tired of his monomania.
He does, however, share in common with Rinaldini a taste for melodramatic speeches:
‘He seized, and thrust her from the room; and returned muttering—‘I have no pity! I have no pity! The more the worms writhe, the more I yearn to crush out their entrails! It is a moral teething; and I grind with greater energy in proportion to the increase of pain.’
Some other anti -heroes seem to be pathological liars, and none of them can rival Samuel Richardson’s Robert Lovelace here. But this blog post is getting rather long, and I must put off writing about his peculiar personality disorder until next time.