Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and thank you for returning to our scheduled programming. I have a long list of Seriously Serious Subjects to post about in the near future, but I’m embracing a bit of levity tonight – as in, good cheer, not floating (sadly) – because I’ve got a bar of chocolate and some colouring books. So, I’m treating you all to one of my famous and somewhat arbitrary lists… keep your hands off my chocolate! Tonight’s topic, inspired by the fact that I’ve had the opportunity to read a lot of fiction lately, is: literature’s most annoying characters. Not the villains, necessarily, or the most hateful; but the ones who make you want to throw the book across the room in sheer frustration at their stupidity, stubbornness and/or ignorance. Presenting, in no particular order, Fiction’s Most Peevish Protagonists…
#1 Catherine Earnshaw/Linton (Wuthering Heights)
HEATHCLIFF! IT’S ME, CATHY, SO COOOOOOLD! LET ME IN AT YOUR WINDOOOOWWW! Please, someone, let the damn woman in so she’ll shut up. Truly, there are few characters more downright irritating than Cathy Earnshaw – spoilt, selfish, stubborn and hysterical. After years of fannying around on t’moors with Heathcliff, she eventually rejects his love as ‘degrading’, choosing instead to marry the wealthy and educated Edgar Linton. Heathcliff promptly buggers off in a huff for three years, during which time Cathy and Edgar set up home at Thrushcross Grange. When Heathcliff returns, however, Cathy throws the eighteenth-century equivalent of a hissy-fit, entangling herself with Heathcliff in a reunion that is as spiteful and twisted as it is passionate. When, eventually, it becomes obvious that her desire for Heathcliff is to be thwarted by Edgar, she becomes ill and dies (in a tantrum, presumably). This leaves her ghost free to wander round t’moors again, annoying everyone for the next twenty years, apart from a short re-appearance as a corpse when Heathcliff decides to dig her up because he misses her. Yeah. That’s a healthy relationship right there.
#2 Briony Tallis (Atonement)
It’s her fault James McAvoy died. ‘Nuff said. Seriously, though, Briony makes the cut for obvious reasons. As a precocious but slightly silly teenager, she sends Robbie Turner to jail with a false accusation of rape; because she embellishes and misinterprets the things in front of her without bothering to use common sense. Later, as an adult, she never manages to work up the courage to set right her mistake by telling the truth or apologising to her sister Cecilia, Robbie’s lover – and then it’s too late, because they’re dead. That’s the weepy twist at the end that makes you
sob uncontrollably cry decorously. Only as an old woman and successful novelist does she manage to make some kind of half-arsed atonement (see what I did there?); by writing an autobiographical account of her errors with a fictionalised ending that exonerates Robbie and reunites him with Cecilia. “Oh, hi Robbie. Sorry I called you a sex maniac rapist, which meant that you ended up in the Army and died horribly at Dunkirk. Tell you what though, in 70 years’ time I’ll pretend that you survive and live happily ever after. So, we’re cool, right?”
#3 Jonathan Harker (Dracula)
This is a slightly unfair choice, because Harker comes off badly compared to the super-macho members of the Anti-Dracula Club: Van Helsing (pro vampire assassin!); Quincey Morris (American cowboy!); Dr Seward (top psychiatrist!) and Arthur Holmwood (an English lord!). Whereas Harker is a…. solicitor from Exeter. Exciting. He’s basically the office administrator of the Anti-Dracs, using his Solicitor Skillz to track down Dracula’s property portfolio while Van Helsing and the others do some awesome ninja stuff with garlic and holy water. And the kick-ass Mina Harker deserves better, methinks… it’s pretty telling that Mina, not Jonathan, ends up in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. To top it off, if only Harker had listened to the Transylvanian villagers in the first place (you know, the ones who said ‘OMG DON’T GO TO THE CASTLE FOR A TERRIBLE FATE AWAITS YOU, HERE’S A CRUCIFIX, YOU’LL NEED IT’) then Dracula would have stayed in his creepy fortress and England would have been safe from vampires. Thanks a bunch, J.Harkz.
#4 Emma Bovary (Madame Bovary)
You know how you occasionally spend a bit too much money on clothes and shoes to escape the realities of everyday life? And you know how you sometimes slip up and do the dirty with someone who isn’t your husband? And you know how you end up rejected, in debt and killing yourself with arsenic? No? Oh. Well Emma Bovary does. Imagine if they’d had Net-A-Porter in the 1850s. She would have been all over that like a rash. A rash which her incompetent doctor husband wouldn’t have been able to cure. You can sympathise with EB up to a point – emotionally neglected, imaginative and appreciative of beauty in the drab and monotonous world of rural Normandy. But the answer to woe is never to be found in a new dress and some nice scatter-cushions (believe me, I’ve looked). Nor is it to be found by jumping into bed with the apothecary’s lodger (hmm, I’ve not looked there). If EB was around today, though, she wouldn’t have had to bother committing suicide – she’d probably snag a Premier League footballer and get a reality fashion TV show called Make-Overy!
#5 Newland Archer (The Age of Innocence)
Oooh, Newland Archer. You are a grade-A rat, and I shake my fist in your general direction. Archer is torn between two women, and naturally he manages to piss off both. In the blue corner, weighing in at 130 pounds (110 without corset and bustle) we have May Welland, Archer’s fiancée, product of the New York upper-class, representing a life of wealth and social convention. In the red corner, Countess Ellen Olenska, scandalous divorcée and generous free spirit. Archer falls in love with Ellen while stringing May along, but in the end chickens out of a life of unconventional happiness and marries May – who figures out what’s going on and sacrifices her own happiness to maintain their marriage. Only after May’s death, decades later, does Archer actually realise how much she gave up to keep him happy. Dude needs a swift kick in a delicate area.