As Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy has recently reminded us, one of the most attractive features of a work of literature is a strong central character. Compelling or not, however, some protagonists are just too strong for their own good. Here are three classic examples of characters whose unwillingness to compromise leads to their personal downfall.
Example One: The Romantic Politician. He’s sensitive, he’s idealistic, and he’s just found out what everyone means by that whole politics-is-like-making-sausage thing. It’s Prince Hamlet, and he doesn’t appreciate the fact that Uncle Claudius murdered the king and married the queen in order to inherit the kingship. Other guys in Hamlet’s situation might be peeved that Claudius cut them in line for the throne. Not so with this Danish prince; what really irks him is that his mother stops wearing her mourning clothes and remarries just weeks after her husband’s death.
Although his standard of personal integrity is admirable, Hamlet seems to have forgotten that he and his royal family members have certain responsibilities to the kingdom. Instead of simply A) avenging his father’s death and taking charge of the country or B) making peace with the situation and let his uncle deal with the impending war with Norway, Hamlet chooses to C) goes down in flames and takes the entire royal court with him. The fact that a politically-savvy, do-what-it-takes kind of guy like Claudius might just be what Denmark needs never even crosses Hamlet’s mind. Shakespeare’s Hamlet goes to show that sometimes, integrity and politics just don’t mix.
Example Two: The Love-Struck Dreamer. He’s young, he’s ambitious, and he just can’t get over his childhood sweetheart. It’s Jay Gatsby, and he wishes he knew how to quit you. In the meantime, though, he’s reinvented himself, made a fortune through bootlegging, and bought himself a mansion near yours because he “happened to be in the neighborhood.” What we can’t emphasize enough is that, in spite of all this unbelievably good fortune, Gatsby’s worldly trappings are simply the means to an end: the real prize is and always has been the beautiful Daisy Fay.
…Except that Daisy Fay is now Daisy Buchanan – and Mr. Buchanan is an abusive jock who’s never had to work a day in his life. Gatsby can’t wrap his head around the fact that: A) Tom Buchanan isn’t going to give up his trophy wife without a fight; B) Gatbsy’s ill-gotten money is “new” and therefore inferior to the kind that splashes around in the same family for ten generations; and C) Daisy is a shallow and self-absorbed woman who isn’t worth Gatsby’s trouble to begin with. Even in the final moments before his death – which, incidentally, is also Daisy’s fault – Gatsby doesn’t stop believing that she’ll run away with him one day. The Great Gatsby is a great reminder that first love doesn’t necessarily mean best love.
Example Three: The Aging Bachelor. He’s lonely, he’s balding, and he can’t seem to work up the nerve to tell that special someone how he feels. It’s J. Alfred Prufrock, and he’s the antithesis of Fitzgerald’s Gatsby. If you’re wondering how on earth Prufrock fits into this list, bear with us. Admittedly, he’s not the most inspiring of characters. His rambling, muddled verse mirrors his uncertainty and lack of confidence, and his eventual decision not to woo his lady love sure doesn’t kickstart our day. But given the flavor of his time, Prufrock actually makes a pretty bold – if sometimes incoherent – statement.
A lot of Prufrock’s poem has to do with tea, cakes, ices, skirts that trail along the floor, men without shirtsleeves, brooches, neckties, and coffee spoons. That’s because it’s 1915 and, let’s face it, the party isn’t starting for another few years. In the meantime, Prufrock feels trapped by absurd social conventions that belittle any feelings that are grand, spontaneous, or true. Over and over he considers expressing himself to his mystery woman before finally deciding that no words could do his emotion justice. Rather than attempt to make a relationship work in a boring, bourgeois, oh-so-earthbound way, Prufrock keeps his feelings to himself in their original, undiluted form. Oh yeah, and resigns himself to being the male equivalent of an old spinster. The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is a testament to the fact that no relationship happens without compromise.