Dina AH loves books so much that she dedicated her college years to studying all about them. Once a fangirl, always a fangirl.
Have you ever read a classic and wondered about a side character? I experience this often as I think of modern calls for representation and revising old narratives regarding minorities. Here are three characters I want to read more about in new novels or retellings.
Why Representation Matters
In “Why On-Screen Representation Matters,” authors Sara Boboltz and Kimberly Yam unpack the effects of a lack of representation to a given group within society. Part of the article refers to a concept known as “symbolic annihilation,” a term coined by researchers George Gerbner and Larry Gross. It is a clear image of the destructive nature of dismissing a group from being represented in stories. Boboltz and Yam argue that representation affects the way people view themselves and others. Because of that, stories need to be more inclusive.
As classic stories tend to focus on white privileged men or women, I feel like we should go back and revisit classic stories and weave in the voices of the unheard and unsung heroes. We can then get started on frank conversations about what is accurate about a group’s experience throughout history. Let me tell you about my three favorite characters I’d like to hear more from in literature.
Unheard Voice #1: Susan Pevensie of the Narnia Novels
Meet Susan: Second-Oldest, the Gentle, the Skeptic
Second oldest of the Pevensie children, Susan starts out as someone integral to the storyline. She is shown as a sensible and intelligent young lady. For instance, she does not follow the White Stag the family sees after many years in Narnia. The stag was the ticket leading the Pevensies back to the real world.
Imagine my surprise when she is not included in The Last Battle. Practically every other Narnian hero shows up in that final book. Her own siblings explain that her fascination with nylons and lipsticks caused her to not be a friend to Narnia. While this is not entirely unprecedented in the series, it is still sad to read of her dismissal. Susan, the voice of reason, is skeptical throughout the series. In Prince Caspian, she is unsure of Lucy’s belief that she’d seen Aslan. However, Peter was also skeptical and refused to follow Aslan at first. Yet, he appears to be a leading figure in The Last Battle.
What Do You Think?
Unfair Depictions and Missed Opportunities
Lewis makes the case for a skeptic who loses her belief as she grows older and more involved in mainstream society. Reading about Susan online is hard because there is not much of a discussion of skeptics who identify with her. If anything, many people call her depiction in the series sexist.
Author Mari Ness reflects on the unfairness of this depiction. She shares that Susan was ultimately punished for celebrating her femininity. Ness steps into the injustice of such treatment. She writes, “[..] this is the same series where a magical lion was painfully sacrificed just because a kid was enchanted by magical candy; where the entire country of Narnia had to endure years of winter with no Christmas just because Digory felt like showing off, and so on.”
Besides, it is an oversimplification of what constitutes a good Christian. I am not a Christian—Muslim person here. From my own experience with faith, sometimes losing your belief for a while can fortify a deeper connection to your religion later on in life. The fact that Lewis has completely removed Susan from Narnia by Prince Caspian’s end is problematic. Aslan tells her she cannot come back. Wouldn’t that affect any child/teen? Shouldn’t there be space for her to return? Everyone else got that chance.
The most interesting journeys are of the atypical heroes. Why can’t we have stories of young skeptics who find faith through their skepticism? It would have been powerful to include Susan, a girl at a very sensitive age with a lot of societal pressure, in that final Narnia book.
Unheard Voice #2: Daisy Buchanan
More than Meets the Eye
When I first read The Great Gatsby in high school, I remember the strong reaction my fellow classmates had toward Daisy. There was disdain aimed at her. The more I consider novel, the more aware I become of Fitzgerald’s blatant and heavy-handed sexism behind portraying Daisy as a vapid person. In the most recent film adaptation of the story, actor Cary Mulligan plays the part of Daisy Buchanan with a certain perspective in mind. She explains, “It’s that kind of feeling: I’m-so-little-and-there’s-nothing-to-me, watch-me-have-nothing-to-me. She feels like she’s living in a movie of her own life. She’s constantly on show, performing all the time. Nothing bad can happen in a dream. You can’t die in a dream” (Gray).
Actress Carey Mulligan Describe Daisy
It’s that kind of feeling: I’m-so-little-and-there’s-nothing-to-me, watch-me-have-nothing-to-me. She feels like she’s living in a movie of her own life. She’s constantly on show, performing all the time. Nothing bad can happen in a dream. You can’t die in a dream” (Gray).
— Carey Mulligan in Emma Gray's article
Daisy Buchanan and the Patriarchy
She had a detached view of the world around her. But, can she be blamed for this? The truth is, Daisy did not have a lot of choices. She was used to a certain lifestyle and she did what she could to maintain it. Besides, was Gatsby’s triumphant return into her life something she could have predicted? He had a wild ride in life. Plus, I think his lifestyle still felt a little unstable compared to Tom’s. This certainly comes across throughout the phone calls he makes throughout the book. Besides, all his dubious meetings with other shoddy characters further demonstrate the instability of his fortune.
Charlotte Moore writes a compelling essay on Daisy Buchanan in The Odyssey. She explains, "However, while she is defined as Fitzgerald's way of dismissing gender, her character is perhaps representative of the patriarchal society that has forced women to decide whether or not it is to their advantage in all perspectives to undervalue their own intelligence."
Would Daisy have been able to attract a partner if she’d shared her thoughts? Even Gatsby, the man who supposedly loves her, does not have a true awareness of what she’s like as a person. Rather than getting to know her, he hangs his dreams on her.
Daisy Buchanan as a Cautionary Tale
Moore argues that Daisy can be seen as a cautionary tale. By choosing the role of the foolish pretty woman, she surrenders her power and agency. Moore writes, “It is a test of courage to be assertive about one's decisions and identity, but wonderful to find that it reveals valuable opinions and a unique personhood."
It would have been awesome to focus the story on Daisy. While I do like Gatsby as a focal point, I also reckon Daisy Buchanan could have her own adventures to find herself as a person. Particularly in such a frivolous social circle that she’s in, Daisy could easily become a heroine that everyone vies to learn more about.
Unheard Voice #3: Bertha Rochester from 'Jane Eyre'
The Original Madwoman in the Attic
The most haunting thing about Bertha Rochester is how prevalent her story is. The idea of the madwoman in the attic perseveres through cultures across the globe. As someone with some mental illnesses, I certainly avoided confronting my issues out of fear of becoming like Bertha.
Bertha is set up as an almost-supernatural force looming over Jane and Rochester’s love story. She is a woman of color dealing with mental illness. Charlotte Bronte labels her with terrifying language. Her laughter frightens Jane. Bertha is destructive; she burns down the house she lives in, tears Jane’s wedding veil, and even attacks her own brother.
Part of the problem in this depiction is that Charlotte Bronte places the blame on Bertha. After all, Rochester talks about being tricked into marrying her. He is trapped by her. This is the most damaging aspect of Bertha’s portrayal, I would argue.
Alternative Perspectives on "Madness" and "Lunacy" in Bronte's Time
Samantha Ellis dedicates her essay “Baddies in Books” to Bertha. She writes of a retelling titled The Mad Woman in the Attic by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. In it, Bertha helps Jane gain her independence in her relationship with Rochester. Ellis reflects on the relationship between these two women, “[Gilbert and Gubar] cast Bertha as a passionate, untrammeled [sic] woman who acts out Jane’s darkest, most secret desires.”
Yet, the story does not seem to have an important aspect of Bertha’s character: being a woman of color who is living with mental illness at a time where mental illness did not have enough representation. In her “The Figure of Bertha Mason,” Carol Atherton discusses the “othering” of Bertha. This is something I had read about while reading Edward Said’s Orientalism and just colonial text in general. Atherton references the discourse around mental illness in Bronte’s time. To be more precise, she cites that there were changes in society’s perception of mental illness and patients with these diagnoses. She explains that people were starting to see that mental illness does not negate a person’s humanity and that they should be surrounded by cheer and support. It is unclear if Bronte made a conscious choice to not consider this as part of Bertha’s experience.
Leave it to Bertha
It would have been amazing to see Bertha’s experience as a migrant woman of color who is married off to a stranger from a different culture. She deserves more stories where she is less of a sound effect and more of a personality to be reckoned with. I want stories of Jane and Bertha connecting and supporting each other. They can go on adventures together. While the possibilities aren’t endless if we were to bother with a historically accurate retellings, I still think we have so many stories to tell.
Atherton, Carol. “The Figure of Bertha Mason.” British Literature. 15 May 2014. Accessed 11 Jul. 2018. https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/the-figure-of-bertha-mason
Boboltz, Sara and Kimberly Yam. “Why on Screen Representation Matters.” Huffington Post. 24 Feb. 2017. Accessed 16 Jul. 2018. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/why-on-screen-representation-matters_us_58aeae96e4b01406012fe49d
Ellis, Samantha. “Baddies in Books: Bertha Rochester, the Mad Woman in the Attic.” The Guardian. 6 Jan. 2015. Accessed 18 Jul. 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2015/jan/06/baddies-in-books-bertha-rochester-charlotte-bronte-jane-eyre
Gray, Emma. “Daisy ‘The Great Gatsby’ 9 Opinions about Fitzgerald’s Ms. Buchanan.” Huffington Post. 10 May 2013. Accessed 15 Jul. 2018. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/10/daisy-great-gatsby-buchanan_n_3253742.html
Moore, Charlotte. “The ‘Beautiful Little Fool’ of the Great Gatsby.” The Odyssey. 16 Feb. 2016. Accessed 14 Jul. 2018. https://www.theodysseyonline.com/the-beautiful-little-fool
Ness, Mari. “At the Ending: The Last Battle.” Tor. 3 Mar.2011. Accessed 17 Jul. 2018. https://www.tor.com/2011/03/03/at-the-ending-the-last-battle/
Dina AH (author) from United States on August 19, 2018:
Oh, nice! I will have to keep an eye out for it. Did you feel like it explored Bertha's story in an authentic way? I know it's really hard to write from a side character's point of view, so I probably wouldn't be too harsh on the author. I read Jane Eyre way back in college and, at first, disliked it so much because I felt really connected to Bertha. So, who knows if Wide Sargosso Sea speaks to me or not. It's nice to hear that someone actually took the time, though, to give Bertha a chance. :)
Outland Thursday on August 18, 2018:
There actually is a book written from Bertha Mason's perspective: Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. It didn't do what I expected, but I would probably like it better now than I did in high school. It was very interesting and I recommend it.