One of the interesting contradictions in human thinking has to do with what I’ll call larger-than-life figures. On the one hand, we want the people in our lives to be, well, human. And that means they make mistakes and fall short at times. On the other hand, we want heroes to look up to, as well.
This contradiction’s very clear, at least to me, in the way we read. On the one hand, one consistent thing I learn from other readers is that they want their characters to be believable human beings. So do I. ‘Superheroes’ aren’t really credible. On the other hand, people do want to look up to someone. That’s one reason why, for instance, Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey has been such a popular protagonist. Plenty of readers think that he’s ‘too perfect.’ You may very well be one of them. But plenty of readers love the fact that he saves the day.
We certainly see this contradiction in crime-fictional characters. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours), we are introduced to Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow. He and his wife, Gerda, are invited to spend the weekend at the home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. Gerda very much doesn’t want to go. Not only is she put off by the Angkatells, but she loves her regular, routine life, and she is devoted to her children. But, John wants to go. And, for Gerda, that’s enough. She hero-worships her husband and feels a great need to look up to him. So, the Christows go to the Angkatells’ home. On the Sunday, John Christow is shot. Hercule Poirot is staying nearby and was invited for lunch as it was. So, he gets involved in the investigation. At first, it looks like a very straightforward case. But it turns out to be not very straightforward at all. One of the interesting aspects of this novel is Christow’s contradictory views about being hero-worshipped. He wishes Gerda didn’t look up to him as perfect, the way she does. On the other hand, he admits to himself that he likes his own way, and that he married her in part because she hero-worships him.
John Alexander Graham’s The Involvement of Arnold Wechsler introduces readers to Classics professor Arnold Weschler, who teaches at Hewes College. One day, he is summoned to the office of the college’s president, Winthrop Dohrn. The college has been rocked by student unrest (the book was published in 1971), and Dohrn believes that Wechsler’s brother, David, who’s been involved with radical student groups, may have knowledge of subversive activities. Dohrn wants Wechsler to contact his brother and have him get whatever group is involved to stop what they’re doing. Wechsler isn’t a particularly political person, so he’s reluctant to get involved. It doesn’t help matters that he and David are estranged. But he agrees, and contacts David. Then, there’s a kidnapping. And a bombing that causes a death. David is implicated, although he claims to be innocent, so the brothers have to work together to find out who’s behind these incidents. Without spoiling the story, I can say that wanting to look up to someone as a hero plays an important role in the novel.
It does in Beryl Bainbridge’s Harriet Said, too. As the story begins, the thirteen-year-old unnamed narrator is waiting for her fourteen-year-old friend, Harriet, to return to Lancashire from a holiday in Wales. As it happens, the narrator encounters Peter Biggs, who is middle-aged and unhappily married, during a walk one day. The two strike up a friendship of sorts, and the narrator feels the first stirrings of hormones. But she dares not do anything about it until Harriet gets back. When she returns, Harriet says that they’ll use this as one of the many experiences they’ve been documenting. So, the two decide to spend some time spying on Biggs. One day, they see something they weren’t meant to see, and things start to spin out of control, and the result is horrific. The narrator has interesting contradictory feelings about Harriet. On the one hand, she is well aware of Harriet’s faults. In fact, she has times of thoroughly disliking her. On the other hand, she feels the need for a friend, and for someone to look up to as well. So, Harriet becomes a sort of hero. And it doesn’t work out well…
James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential explores this same sort of contradiction. One of the main characters in the novel is LAPD detective Edward ‘Ed’ Exley. He is the son of the much-revered Preston Exley. In many ways, he hero-worships his father, as many children do. So, since Preston Exley wants his son to go to the top of the LAPD ladder, that’s what Ed tries to achieve. And it impacts his conduct throughout the novel. On the other hand, Ed has good reason to resent his father, too. And he’s very much aware that his father is anything but a perfect hero. It makes for an interesting exploration of Ed Exley’s character as the novel goes on.
And then there’s Emma Cline’s The Girls, in which we meet fourteen-year-old Evie Boyd. It’s the summer of 1969, and she is feeling restless for something – anything – to happen. Then, she meets a group of young girls in a park, and feels drawn to them, especially to one of them, who’s named Suzanne. Through Suzanne, Evie meets Russell, the charismatic ‘hero’ of these girls. As the novel goes on, Evie gets more and more involved with this group, and more and more obsessed with Suzanne. And we see how hero worship can lead to some very dark places.
But most of us do not blindly worship heroes. Instead, we prefer people who are more realistic. And that means they make mistakes and sometimes fail. At the same time, we want our heroes, too. It’s an interesting contradiction…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from David Bowie’s Heroes.