Thursday, June 4, 2015

Hermione is Not Real

So said my professor this morning.

She was responding to her 14 year old daughter's outrage that J.K. Rowling describes her heroine as having mousy brown hair.  There is no way that character could have anything mousy about herself, the young reader wailed.  Hermione is her favorite character in the series she has read and reread and reread again.  It is obvious that such a thing cannot stand.

Her mother, understanding her pain, was gentle as she noted that Hermione was actually nothing more than words on paper.

The child was not amused... and neither was I when, in response to a question I asked in class, I was told the same thing.

Dorothea is not real, so asking about her reaction to being an orphan is a less than valuable question. George Eliot didn't address the issue. The character does not exist beyond Eliot's reach.  We can impute motive to our hearts' content, but Dorothea is not real.  Our deductions are simply that - deductions.  There is no basis for them in fact.

That's a hard truth for me to swallow.  I'm not sure that I believe it.

I carry Little Women's Jo March in my heart and as a talisman as I write to you.  I imagine her sitting in her attic hideaway, scribbling manuscripts, and I know, in that moment, that she exists.

If she doesn't exist, I've been sharing my thoughts on writing with no one.... and that cannot be.

There are other characters I know are real.  Theodore Decker, the lonely boy at the center of Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, is hanging out with me this week as I plan a trip to New York City.  I'm with him as he rides the elevators and catches taxis and walks the streets.  He is as real to me as my nieces, actual 20-somethings who are walking the streets of Manhattan as I type this.  I hear from them as I heard from Theodore - through words written on a page or typed on a screen.  I imagine their thoughts as I imagine his.  They all feel equally real to me.

Jack Reacher, Lee Child's ubermensch, is real to me, too, albeit in a different way.  There are times in my life where a savior descending from the ether sounds like a really good idea.  I like imagining that these men exist, even if none have ever appeared before me.  I've created a personal story for him, untold by the author but real, if only for me, nonetheless. I need a hero, and they are in very short supply in animate form.  If Jack Reacher can fill that hole for me, I see no reason to doubt his existence.

If James Joyce's Leopold Bloom isn't walking down the streets of Dublin, then no one is walking the streets of Dublin.  Joyce brings us into all the facets of Bloom's life, painting a picture of one day which captures his soul.  They may be written on the page, but Bloom and Molly and Buck and Blazes exist outside of those words, in my life.

Am I unusual?  Do I have such a flaccid reality that I must populate it with literary beings?  Am I deluding myself?  Perhaps, perhaps, and perhaps.  Still, at the end of an afternoon spent thinking about this, I find that I have to disagree with the teacher.

I need these characters to exist in a hazy sort of reality, invisibly by my side, able to be consulted or relied upon or thought about without the intercession of their creators.  They are mine, by virtue of having been read.

That's my story and I'm sticking to it.


  1. Jo is up there scribbling just as much as she is a part of my (former) and my daughter's name. A teacher who would instruct otherwise is not one from whom I'd like to learn a lesson.

    How dare a teacher tell a young girl who finds joy in a story that her heroine doesn't exist. Characters created by authors are extensions of the authors themselves and the readers as they absorb the tales and lessons in their own lives and help to form the humans they will become. If that's not real I don't know what is.

  2. My opinion is they become as real as any memory can be. It's why I advocate people being very thoughtful regarding what they take into their brains. It might seem innocuous to read something where evil triumphs or all the characters are revolting but if you think it stays with you, it might not seem so harmless.

  3. I can't argue with either one of you.


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