The Absence of Their Presence: Mythic Character in Fiction

Steven Schwartz | December 2011

Steven Schwartz


Under most circumstances the goal of fiction is to illuminate character, whereas in these cases it is equally to disguise.

The mythic, to borrow a phrase, are different from you and me. As characters, they are more controversial than universal; we often don't admire them as much as marvel at their behavior. They provoke more than they reassure; they're better at keeping their distance than coming closer. They play less on our sympathy than our curiosity, and though they can delight, it's a charm born of a wary embrace. We would not necessarily call them well-rounded characters, but they surpass being flat ones. You might call them hyper-externalized.

To know them has its limits.

Who am I speaking of exactly? Not Huck Finn, Becky Sharp, Holden Caulfield, Lily Briscoe, Anna Karenina, or Bigger Thomas, memorable characters all as they may be. Rabbit Angstrom, for instance, in tribute to the late John Updike, is an expansive creation who fuels four destiny-charting volumes, but he is not the sort of character I would consider mythic. Exhaustively defined, with Updike's descriptive gifts and signature precision-as Roger Angell has said, Updike invented HD-Rabbit may be the most human of literary protagonists, but he remains resolutely familiar. Rather, the characters I intend are decidedly less knowable. Marlow is the narrator of Conrad's darkest novel, but the mythic Kurtz is the cryptic heart of it. Flannery O'Connor's story "A Good Man is Hard to Find" features the irrepressible yakking grandmother, but it's the diabolically tongued Misfit who defies simple villainy and achieves mythic status. At the center of Joyce Carol Oates's unsettling and frequently anthologized story, "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" waits the innocent and attractive teenage Connie for her sinister seducer, the deceptively named Arnold Friend, a mythic presence who mesmerizes her-and us.

How do we recognize these characters in fiction? By their acts, yes, but perhaps more importantly by their narrators. Point of view is critical to their existence, as it is to the telling of any story. Why through this character's eyes? And just as crucial, a question that often gets overlooked in fiction, why opt for staying out of a character's head? What strategic narrative advantage does absence gain versus introspection?

Consider what happens when a stranger, a middle-aged man, approaches a sixteen-year-old girl in a bookstore and tells her that he's just moved to town and would like to find friends for his daughter. Can she come to his house and bring a friend? Of course we assume the worst-that is, until several pages later, as happens in Joy Williams's novel The Quick and the Dead, when we enter his thoughts and find out he's harmless. Our fears are assuaged. Mystery gives way to connection. Knowing a character's thoughts and feelings tempers suspicion, curbs speculation, and creates sympathy and identification, or sometimes the opposite-repulsion, but of the knowable sort. In the cases of Kurtz, Bartleby, and Jay Gatsby, however, we know them only through the reports of their first-person narrators. What might seem less than more at first-an external perspective versus an internal view-turns out to be the necessary narrative device for creating their unique myths.

Gatsby has Nick Carraway as his historian, Kurtz has Marlow, and Bartleby has his elderly employer. By the very presence of an observer-narrator between us and these characters' direct thoughts, we're immediately placed in the position of an audience about to hear testimony. In other words, we have a witness. And the position of witness in any piece of fiction means that the story has a survivor, someone who has taken on the task of chronicling, interpreting, and personally verifying what is a priori offered up as peerless saga. One can't easily mythologize his own life: such self-referential accounts feel suspect and open to charges of unreliability. Giving credence to the mythic happens more readily when an outside observer purports to have witnessed and recorded the unparalleled events. Socrates's brilliance owes much to his student Plato's skills in exalting it. And of course, many of these mythic characters, not coincidentally because their myth often depends on it, die in the course of their tales. They need a living speaker to immortalize their lost lives. But before any direct observation can occur, an introduction must be made. Seventy-eight times, Kurtz's name comes up in Heart of Darkness without his actually entering the story yet. And the context in which it arises inevitably includes an anticipatory fervor:

1) "A very remarkable person."

2) "An exceptional man of the greatest importance."

3) "I heard the name Kurtz pronounced."

4) "Tell me, pray, who is this Mr. Kurtz?"

5) "I had heard Mr. Kurtz was in there, yet somehow it didn't bring an image with it-no more than if I had been told an angel or a fiend was in there."

6) "I seemed to see Kurtz for the first time. It was a distinct glimpse: the dugout, four paddling savages, and the lone white man."

7) "His name, you understand, had not been pronounced once . . . he was 'that man.'"

8) "'Don't you talk with Mr. Kurtz?'" I asked. 'You don't talk with him,' he said, 'you listen to him.'"

9) "I tell you this man has enlarged my mind."

10) "You can't judge Mr. Kurtz as you would an ordinary man."1

And so on for sixty-eight more mentions. Traders, company officials, and other witnesses all offer Marlow angles on the mysterious Kurtz-idealist, genius, politician, musician, humanitarian, journalist, megalomaniac. But the more views we have of a character in this case do not necessarily add up to knowing him better. The kaleidoscope of responses enlarges Kurtz's reputation without necessarily providing us any definitive information about identity. That's an important distinction, because under most circumstances, the goal of fiction is to illuminate character, whereas in these cases it is equally to disguise. When we finally do meet Kurtz, after Marlow's long and symbolic journey up the Congo, it's a disappointment. I am not the first reader to note that he turns out to be greater in expectation than appearance. For all the anticipation, we see little of him. "A voice! A voice!" Marlow tells us. "It was grave, profound, vibrating, while the man did not seem capable of a whisper."2 Even after Kurtz appears in person, we continue to get Marlow's reactions to the idea of Kurtz more than Kurtz himself, as if the infamous man cannot possibly live up to the introduction-or myth-that precedes him.

Indeed, characters such as Kurtz, Bartleby, and Gatsby are not so much introduced as make an entrance. They don't just drop into a novel; they're well announced in advance. And this introduction is often tinged with perplexed rumination, as if these narrators are still trying to determine the true nature of what they've witnessed. Take this introduction of Bartleby: "What my own astonished eyes saw of Bartleby, that is all I know of him, except indeed one vague report, which will appear in the sequel."3 (Melville is a virtual factory of such mythic figures, including Billy Budd, and Ahab, who does not appear in Moby Dick until Chapter 28, and of course the great leviathan himself). Gatsby, admittedly more knowable than Bartleby, is nevertheless first brought to our attention when Nick Carraway tell us, "Gatsby, who represented everything for which I have unaffected scorn. If personality is a series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away."4 Somerset Maugham opens his novel The Razor's Edge, another first-person observer narrative featuring the enigmatic Larry Darrell, by declaring, "I have never begun a novel with more misgiving."5

For these narrators, a febrile urgency beats beneath the surface; they've taken on the task of faithfully recording their impressions so others might understand-and believe-what they've seen. And often this is why we find an audience within the story itself, as if this integrated audience must stand in for the unseen reader. Marlow is telling his story to a crew of shipmates at a later time after Kurtz has died. The anonymous actual narrator of the tale, who rarely speaks and lets Marlow hold the floor, occasionally directly addresses the reader to reinforce the mystery: "It had become so pitch dark that we listeners could hardly see one another. I listened, I listened on the watch for the sentence, for the word that would give me the clue to the faint uneasiness inspired by this narrative that seemed to shape itself without human lips in the heavy night air of the river."6

The portentous "without human lips" and "heavy night air" create a thickened atmosphere redolent of an oral tale. This is no ordinary story and no familiar person I speak of: this is from my lips to your ears. Not only will I tell you this story, I will initiate you into its mystery. One of the most famous lines in literature, the imperative "Call me Ishmael," summons an audience to gather around and learn of an improbable quest undertaken by a maddened individual of biblical wrath, the incomparable Ahab. Had the opening been the more prosaic "I am Ishmael," it certainly would have, in addition to being a lame note, created different expectations. Despite the transmogrification of Ishmael's first-person viewpoint into an omniscient and encyclopedic perspective as the novel progresses, there remains the suggestion of an audience attending to and confirming a report of an adventure that might otherwise be only the stuff of legend. With more conventional characters we may feel cheated when their motivations remain opaque, and their psyches, like Ahab's, ultimately unknowable. But we do not make the same demands of mythic characters, often because the prearranged audience in the story reflects our own bafflement. By their surrogate reactions and scrutiny, they preempt our silent protests. That is, we need a first-person recipient to act as our agent of disbelief. Because in these cases, we don't identify with the mythic characters; we identify with the narrators fixated on them.

In fact, intention must be distinguished from motivation for mythic character: we may clearly see what they do but not why, and it's the why that creates a chilling gap of suspense. Arnold Friend, in Oates's "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" knows everything about his teenage victim Connie's life: her friends' names, what she did the night before, the barbecue her parents are attending, but Connie-and the reader-know little about him: "He had driven up her driveway all right but had come from nowhere before that."7 While his intentions become clearer-he will hurt her family unless she submits to him-his identity as well as his motivations beyond these intentions are murky. The more threatening he becomes, the more the author makes him indecipherable: his age is questionable; he's of indeterminate height; he appears as if to wear makeup; he may or may not be drunk; he speaks in sayings; he has odd catchphrases scrolled on his gold convertible. The more we're shown, the stranger the picture. By letting us see more than we will ever understand, the writer's sleight of hand distracts us from any answer that would ruin a character's mystery.

How far can you exaggerate character before it becomes caricature and leaves the realm of the plausible for that of the purely satiric or stereotypical?

We are never clear at all, for instance, about Bartleby's condition: is he mentally ill? Sure, but he resists being reduced to a psychological diagnosis. It would not do to have a postscript that said Bartleby with the help of his social worker found gainful employment. Bartleby may be a chronic depressive with schizoid tendencies, and the Misfit may suffer from an antisocial personality disorder, but they transcend such clinical labeling through the artistry of their creators. Bartleby haunts us because we can't explain away his behavior as pathological. We sense it's motivated by some inexplicable need, but what exactly is this void for a character who will say nothing beyond "I prefer not to"? Writers have to be careful not to portray such characters as case histories. Being outsiders and often behaving abnormally, mythic characters invite psychological assessment. But if presented only as a collection of symptoms they lose their exceptionalness as well as their catalyzing effect on the fiction's other characters.

Examining these narratives closely, one sees that the authors through their observer-narrators are careful not to explain away their characters in any familiar regard. They speculate to some degree; certainly the lawyer in Bartleby professes his amazement at every turn that Bartleby will not cooperate, but they never minimize the complexity nor the significance of the strange. And although Bartleby may seem one extreme and Gatsby a far more comprehensible character, they still have what's unknowable at their core. Gatsby? A bootlegger? Yes, but he would not be as fascinating a subject for this alone. Fitzgerald finds in Nick the perfect conduit to allow Gatsby with his lavish parties, his opulent mansion, and his adoring hangers-on to achieve a mythic status through the paced interactions with the observer-narrator. And though that myth becomes uncloaked-"Great" in the title will come to have invisible quotation marks-it never entirely disappears once it's been created. Thirty-three pages into the novel and still in our "introduction" phase-Gatsby won't actually appear until page 47-this exchange about Gatsby occurs between Nick and Catherine, Myrtle Wilson's sister:

CATHERINE: 'They say he's a nephew of the Kaiser Wilhelm's. That's where his money comes from.'
NICK: 'Really?'
She nodded.
CATHERINE: 'I'm scared of him. I'd hate for him to have anything on me.'8

Nick must play a covert role as an agent for the author. While he unravels the mystery-and myth-of Jay Gatsby he must also hold back from telling us all he knows when the story begins. It's one thing for Nick, in his sober and discerning manner (unlike his creator, Nick claims he's only been drunk twice in his life), to postpone any revelations-for he is telling us the story as it unfolded for him-it's another for the author to be guilty of contriving such a withholding. Nick slowly takes the reader into his confidence as he tells his own story embedded in Gatsby's. But his self-effacement as a viewpoint character also serves a larger purpose. What might seem arbitrary at first-couldn't any number of people tell Gatsby's story?- proves much more strategic. In fact, such pairings are often antithetical and arranged for their contrast. Gatsby, of dubious background, has as his confidant the unimpeachable and discreet Nick; Bartleby in his refusal to comply with his employer's demands is the antithesis of his elderly boss whose life is predicated on order and obedience; the responsible if conflicted Marlow dedicates himself to salvaging the degenerated Kurtz's reputation by informing Kurtz's fiancee that the tormented man's last words were of his love for her, not the actual and viral "The Horror! The Horror!" Paired together, all these characters give credence to and complement each other's role in the story. In a sense, they enlarge the myth by sharing its demands from opposing perspectives.

And if Fitzgerald works Gatsby over from mythic inflation to deflation, Melville starts with deflation and squeezes out any trace of air, taking every opportunity to keep Bartleby barely alive. The most frequent words other than "I prefer not to" are "cadaverous" and "dead." Bartleby's spectral existence tests the very bounds of how much privation a character can suffer. Bartleby might be said to experience a mythical negative capacity. He falls within a long tradition of such burdened characters: Akaky Akakievich, the impoverished government clerk in Gogol's "The Overcoat," scrimps and saves so that he might buy a new overcoat. He gives up drinking tea, burns no candles, uses his landlady's room to work by her light, takes off his clothes as soon as he comes home so he might not wear them out, and walks as lightly as possible on the street to conserve his heels. Threadbare becomes the literal description of his entire existence. The overcoat does indeed briefly change his life, earning him all the respect he has never enjoyed-until it is stolen from him, and along with it any newfound admiration. None of what happens to the poor ridiculed Akaky Akakievich would touch us if it were not for the mythic measures he takes in depriving himself for the sake of his new coat. Knut Hamsun's novel Hunger likewise is a devastating account of the toll that poverty and starvation extracts on a young man's psyche, and his phenomenal-mythic-ability to survive it. And in Nathaniel West's more satirical work, A Cool Million, the luckless Lemuel Pitkin gets robbed, cheated, arrested, and beaten, not to mention loses an eye, his teeth, his thumb, his scalp, and a leg. Such characters are disassembled to the point that their suffering subsumes their identity. The mythic arises, as with Kafka's Hunger Artist starving himself for the pleasure of his public, from being subjected to a test of extremity that attenuates character to pure pain-or oblivion. Job, after all, in his anguish and endurance, in his negative capacity for diminishment, is every bit the mythical personage, if the inverse, of an Odysseus or Achilles with their empowering gifts.

The surfaces of mythic characters form their refracted images. The cut-glass descriptions of their physical features often make them appear more alien than human.

One could argue, but aren't all characters unknowable? In his essay "The Magic Show," Tim O'Brien writes, "The object is not to 'solve' a character-to expose some hidden secret-but instead to deepen and enlarge the riddle itself."9 Robert Boswell as well observes in The Half-Known World that "you can measure how successfully you've revealed a character by the extent to which his acts, words, history, and thoughts fail to explain him, creating instead a character that is, at once, identifiable and unknowable."10

Very true, and it would be disingenuous of me to pretend any well-conceived character does not fall somewhere along this continuum of the mysterious. But mythic characters are in a category all their own and at their core can be downright opaque. For these characters, the better descriptor might be sub-known. Light bounces back from them. The lack of access to their thoughts and feelings makes them ideal targets for the projections of others. The means of revealing them are by inference and implication. Other characters talk about them. Other characters observe them. Other characters guess at their motivations. Other characters overhear their conversations, sometimes awkwardly (think of Chief Broom in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest narrating Randall P. McMurphy's adventures from inside a broom closet). When they speak it's not so much digestible content as clues to more clues about them. Tim O'Brien exhorts us as writers in his essay not to give away our characters' secrets. "Once a trick is explained-once a secret is divulged-the world moves from the magical to the mechanical."11 With mythic characters the secret is turned inside out and looks all the stranger for the reversal.

Steven Millhauser's short story, "The Knife Thrower," meets all the aforementioned criteria but uses a rarer point of view to do so: first-person plural. The "we" viewpoint is particularly suited to the mythic because it invariably represents the status quo, while the object of its scrutiny is frequently an outsider-or an insider who has deviated from its norms. The natural distance between this viewpoint and its subject allows for the unusual to appear even more so.

In "The Knife Thrower," the "we" serves as both narrator and audience watching the controversial Hensch as he visits for a one-time performance: "Hensch, the knife thrower! Of course we knew his name. Everyone knew his name, as one knows the name of a famous chess player or a magician."12 With the introduction made, the collective voice builds on Hensch's repute before he enters the story. "Some of us seemed to recall reading that in his early carnival days he had wounded an assistant badly; after a six-month retirement he had returned with a new act. It was then that he had introduced into the chaste discipline of knife throwing the artful wound."13 And the stage is set. Hensch's performance is pure showmanship-or is it? The narrative leaves open the possibility that during his act Hensch mortally wounds an audience volunteer, a girl who wishes to be marked by Hensch and undergo, as Hensch's assistant terms it, "the ultimate sacrifice." "Some of us heard the girl cry out, others were struck by her silence, but what stayed with us was the absence of the sound of the knife striking wood."14

Never speaking himself, allowing his assistant to do all his bidding, Hensch inspires both praise and uneasiness: "(A)s we pounded out our applause, we felt a little restless, a little dissatisfied, as if some unspoken promise had failed to be kept... hadn't we deplored in advance his unsavory antics, his questionable crossing of the line?"15 The narrative "we" marvels, worries, rationalizes, but such responses are generalized and disembodied. The viewpoint has no identifying characteristics to give it a personality or a past. The town and this first-person plural viewpoint are conflated. All of which makes for a strangely normative viewpoint that in its plurality gives additional weight to its judgment of Hensch. On the other hand, this impersonal "we" relies on rumor and hearsay and is even more incapable of penetrating Hensch's mystery than an individual observer narrator such as Nick Carraway or Marlow would be in gaining confidences, creating an extra layer of insulation from the subject. And Millhauser clearly wants it that way to promote the morally ambiguous atmosphere and mythic tone.

As in Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," Millhauser is careful not to date his story; there are no horses and buggies, but there are no computers either. Though a governing morality is suggested, it is vaguely elusive. Who exactly is in charge here? Indeed, the story exists in that timeless dimension of the fable, except its realism and the laws of cause and effect are never in doubt. As he does in much of his fiction, Millhauser works the razor-thin line between reality and illusion, keeping his story from being explained away as a fantasy. Like all writers who understand that the mythic persuades by depending on the tactile, he details the surface of the narrative to a keen descriptive texture until seeing is believing. Hensch's assistant, for instance, like Hensch himself may be shrouded in mystery, but she is never out of focus:

The pale yellow hair, the spangled cloth, the pale skin touched here and there with shadow, all this gave her the remote, enclosed look of a work of art, while at the same time it lent her a kind of cool voluptuousness, for the metallic glitter of her costume seemed to draw attention to the bareness of her skin, disturbingly unhidden, dangerously white and cool and soft.16

The eroticism suggested here is clear-the relationship between sex and violence, pleasure and pain-but also we have the viewpoint focused on surfaces. For it's the surfaces of mythic characters that form their refracted images. The cut-glass descriptions of their physical features often make them appear more alien than human. Arnold Friend peers out from his one-way sunglasses that mirror a "tiny metallic world slowing down like gelatin hardening." His eyes, when he does remove his mirrored glasses, are described as "chips of broken glass." His eyebrows are "a black tar-like material." And "his whole face was a mask."17 The greater the attention to the outside of these characters the deeper the curiosity about their inside, and the stronger the tension becomes between the two. The "we" in "The Knife Thrower," for instance, pressing with all its authority for clarity about what has happened on stage, is counterpointed by the author just as strongly obscuring Hensch's performance-his art-so as to restrict any definitive explanation. At the conclusion of "The Knife Thrower," illustrating the elusive nature of the mythic, the collective viewpoint voices its frustration: "The more we thought about it, the more uneasy we became, and in the nights that followed, when we woke from troubling dreams, we remembered the traveling knife thrower with agitation and dismay."18 This could well stand as a summary of all mythic characters. Fascinatingly inconclusive, they trick us into remembering them by the absence of their presence.

Though Bartleby, Gatsby, Kurtz, and Hensch all have their in-house narrators to tell their stories, the observer viewpoint is not the sole vehicle for mythologizing character. In Katherine Anne Porter's Noon Wine, a mysterious stranger shows up one day at the Thompson farm. Mr. Thompson and his wife have found themselves on hard times, as much due to Mr. Thompson's laziness as to poor farming conditions. According to Mr. Thompson, farm labor for the most part is "woman's work." This doesn't stop him from hiring Mr. Helton at the cheapest possible rate to work for a dollar a day while sitting back to watch his new farmhand transform the place to a productive and profitable enterprise.

This could well stand as a summary of all mythic characters. Fascinatingly inconclusive, they trick us into remembering them by the absence of their presence.

Notably, the third-person point of view is shared only by Mr. Thompson and his wife. Mr. Helton's thoughts and feelings are concealed from the reader in order to create heightened intrigue. Who is this man of such improbable abilities and eerie silences? To say that Mr. Helton is reticent is like saying Bartleby is shy, an immense understatement. Mr. Helton's monosyllabic replies approach being grunts. "Now, what I want to know is," the stingy Mr. Thompson asks before hiring him, "how much you fixing to gouge outta me?"

"'I'm good worker,' said Mr. Helton as from the tomb."19 Porter's "tomb" reference is not incidental. It turns out Mr. Helton has, in a sense, come back from the dead. Later, very much later, we learn that Mr. Helton has escaped from an asylum and is being tracked by the unsavory Mr. Hatch, a bounty hunter, who in a classic reversal proves to be far more dangerous and poisonous of character than the hard-working Mr. Helton.

Throughout the short novel, the Thompsons mull over the mystery of Mr. Helton, why he talks so little, why he doesn't smile, why he solely plays the same tune over and over on his harmonica. Never once do we enter Mr. Helton's viewpoint itself. Again, everything is conveyed by inference and implication. Here, in this extended passage, we learn of Mr. Helton's prodigious powers as a worker when Mr. Thompson muses about his new hire:

Sometimes Mr. Thompson felt a little contemptuous of Mr. Helton's way. It did seem kind of picayune for a man to go around picking up half a dozen ears of corn that had fallen off the wagon on the way from the field, gathering up fallen fruit to feed to the pigs, storing up old nails and stray parts of machinery, spending good time stamping a fancy pattern on the butter before it went to market ...but he never gave way to this feeling, he knew a good thing when he had it. It was a fact the hogs were in better shape and sold for more money. It was fact that Mr. Thompson stopped buying feed, Mr. Helton managed the crops so well. When beef-and-hog-slaughtering time came, Mr. Helton knew how to save the scraps that Mr. Thompson had thrown away, and wasn't above scraping guts and filling them with sausages that he made by his own methods. In all, Mr. Thompson had no ground for complaint.20

The characteristics of a fairy tale are present: the archetypal lazy Mr. Thompson versus the frugal and resourceful Mr. Helton; the marginal farm transformed into a thriving rewarding business by the inexplicable Mr. Helton, who never asks for anything in return, not even a raise, as if he's granted three wishes to Mr. Thompson; the disturbing twist in the narrative at the end in which Mr. Thompson will finally pay the price for his otherwise good fortune at hiring Mr. Helton. But this story and all the fiction I speak of are essentially realistic narratives, and as such they require a special sort of finessing that would be unnecessary in works of fantasy or other genres with their accepted conventions regarding suspension of disbelief. The characters here have to obey the laws of gravity, eat regular meals, make their beds, or hire someone to do it. They cannot snap their fingers to make anything fly or morph into robots; they're part of the clearly credible circumstances that surround them. They have to conform to our notions of realistic behavior while at the same time stretching that notion to mystifying degrees. As such, the question arises: How far can you exaggerate character before it becomes caricature and leaves the realm of the plausible for that of the purely satiric or stereotypical? Whatever else you might say about them, Gatsby, Kurtz, Hensch, Mr. Helton, and Bartleby are not comic characters or simplistic types. They defy simple explanation in terms of good or evil, a positive or negative charge. Arnold Friend can be seen equally as sorcerer or savior, leading Connie into womanhood or snuffing out her girlhood. The Misfit may believe in "no pleasure but meanness," yet his obsessive search for salvation marks him as more than evil incarnate. Neutered of either devious or felicitous intent, Bartleby is a character of a hundred interpretations, as much symbol as man. Though not exactly substance-no one would accuse Bartleby of being an action figure-neither is he shadow. Keeping these characters novel while not making them novelties requires great skill in the staging. In the case of Noon Wine, Porter's vivid knowledge of farm life anchors Mr. Helton in a reality devoid of gimmickry:

He milked the cows, kept the milk house, and churned the butter; rounded the hens up and somehow persuaded them to lay in the nests, not under the house and behind the haystacks; he fed them regularly and they hatched out until you couldn't set a foot down for them. Little by little the piles of trash around the barns and house disappeared. He carried buttermilk and corn to the hogs and curried cockleburs out of the horses' manes. He was gentle with the calves, if a little grim with the cows and hens. Judging by his conduct Mr. Helton had never heard of the difference between man's and woman's work on a farm.21

The sensory details amidst the motion-the churning of butter, the feeding of hogs, the grooming of horses, the chasing of hens-keep Mr. Helton on an earthly tether even as he single-handedly performs seemingly mythic feats. He's not just any worker; he appears to enjoy a special connection with farm creatures, to the point of "persuading" the hens to nest their eggs properly, and he disregards gender status, caring not if it's woman's or man's work. In short, he transcends the typical for the extraordinary.

We... are the audience presented with the mythic conundrum of character; we can only get so close and understand so much even in a point of view that appears at first to offer the illusion of intimate knowledge.

Because such characters are reluctant or unable to explain themselves, and because they depend heavily on supposition, they're frequently associated with some tangible element in the narrative. Such correlative elements are standard in fiction, but in the case of these characters, the associative element functions not only as symbol, but also to help emphasize and even exaggerate mythic aspects of character. Nineteen times in "Bartleby, the Scrivener," the unnamed narrator draws our attention to the screen which hides Bartleby in his work area, in such moments as these: "I procured a high green folding screen which might entirely isolate Bartleby from my sight"; "'I would prefer not to,' he said and gently disappeared behind the screen"; "I looked around anxiously, peeped behind his screen"; "For long periods he would stand looking out, at his pale window behind his screen"; "Behind his screen he must be standing in one of those dead-wall reveries"; "Yes, Bartleby, stay behind your screen, thought I."22

This screen, which isolates Bartleby from the rest of the law firm's workers, also freezes our perspective of him, like a still shot. And as with Bartleby's screen, the backdrop of Gatsby's mansion represents the exaggeration of his ill-gotten wealth; the Congo river snakes through Marlow's narrative like a constrictor squeezing the sanity from Kurtz; Arnold Friend slouches against his brightly painted gold convertible; and Mr. Helton in Noon Wine, coveting his precious harmonicas, sits stoically at the Thompson dinner table, never speaking unless spoken to, for nine years. It's impossible to think of any of these characters without an associative element or two holding them in place. The overall effect is to make them appear at moments as two-dimensional figures, reminding us we can only contemplate them from a calculated distance as if in a tableau. It also emphasizes the unchangeable nature of their character; that is, they have a mythic permanence. We don't ask that these characters "grow" any more than we would that the Greek gods become well rounded. We don't expect The Misfit to reform his ways, Kurtz to say "The Happiness! The Happiness!" or Bartleby to declare it's the first day of the rest of his life. Mr. Helton, sorry to say, will never play a different song on his harmonica. They are their immutable selves, paradoxically fixed and vital at the same time.

In "Teddy," J.D. Salinger uses a third-person point of view that at first appears to be from within the mind of the mythic character. The eponymous Teddy is the most preternatural of Salinger's child prodigies. Ten years old and clairvoyant, he's returning home by ship from England with his parents. The story, originally published in the The New Yorker in 1953, is one of the most controversial of all Salinger's works, dividing critics who either sing its praises or damn its contrivance. Many of the ideas that Teddy expounds on are the now familiar and often satirized beliefs of new-age thinking. I'd expected to feel much the same when reading the story again after more than forty years. As an adolescent, I'd been enthralled by Teddy, though at the time I hadn't understood he was one of the mythic characters of whom I write. Frankly, I hadn't heard a lot of what he had to say, and especially not-and this is the trick of course-heard it from the mouth of a ten-year-old child. To my surprise, rereading the story, I found myself falling once again under its spell.

Teddy is almost entirely developed through his voice-his direct dialogue. The narration limits itself to observable actions. When we do learn anything about Teddy, it's from his journals or from Teddy's conversation with Nicholson, a teacher on board who questions Teddy about his rare abilities. Teddy's direct thoughts and feelings and any answers from the depths of his consciousness remain private. Teddy, you might say, is between points of view. "Teddy lingered at the door a moment, reflectively experimenting with the door handle, turning it slowly left and right. 'After I go out this door, I may only exist in the minds of all my acquaintances,' he said. 'I may only be an orange peel.'"23 The dialogue may be revealing here, but the narration is basic and limited, as if stage directions, even though we're nominally looking out at the action through his eyes. But the reader gains no privileged information straight from his mind. Teddy would more appropriately be said to have a view than a point of view.

"It's so silly," Teddy tells Nicholson during their shipboard conversation. "For example, I have a swimming lesson in about five minutes. I could go downstairs to the pool, and there might not be any water in it. This might be the day they change the water or something. What might happen, though, I might walk up to the edge of it, just to have a look at the bottom, for instance, and my sister might come up and sort of push me in."24 And of course that's just what happens or is strongly implied at the story's end. But Teddy's death remains a shock because Salinger never gets us anywhere near Teddy's prescient thoughts to tip us off, and he also tactically shifts to Nicholson's point of view for the last five paragraphs to preserve the ending's ambiguity. Nicholson only hears a scream and is left to wonder what it means, as is the reader. We, along with Nicholson, are the audience presented with the mythic conundrum of character; we can only get so close and understand so much even in a point of view that appears at first to offer the illusion of intimate knowledge.

Of course having a child spouting mystical ideas in a story doesn't guarantee believability let alone fascination. But Salinger doesn't start the story with Teddy philosophizing. He carefully places Teddy among his all-too-common family, where his parents bicker at one another and take Teddy's gifts for granted, or more pointedly don't understand them-"I'll Queen Mary you, buddy, if you don't get off that bag this minute," his father scolds as Teddy, the regular boy, jumps on a suitcase.25 It's this preparatory work, a form of the introduction found in the other texts previously mentioned, that allows the flesh-and-blood, typical-boy Teddy to be transformed later in the story to a ten-year-old mystic. We never doubt he's a child espousing these lofty phenomenological tenets. Teddy riffs on poets ("Poets are always taking the weather so personally. They're always sticking their emotions in things that have no emotions"); he explains his less-than-bonded connection to his parents ("I have a very strong affinity for them. I want them to have a nice time while they're alive, because they like having a nice time"); he offers parables on oneness ("My sister was only a very tiny child then, and she was drinking her milk, and all of a sudden I saw that she was God and the milk was God, I mean she was pouring God into God"); he discourses on death, reincarnation, time, and space.26 He does this all methodically and with the detachment that characterizes his view of transient existence. The unfaltering register of his speech is the pitch-perfect one of a precocious child. Every question from his interlocutor Nicholson he answers with forbearance, indulging his less-than-enlightened listener. True, he's a bit impatient to get to his swim lesson which he knows, and we don't because we never enter his thoughts, might be the site of his death and necessary fate. But the mythic making of Teddy happens less because his ideas themselves are remarkable than because Salinger convinces us a child is capable of them. That is, character comes before concept. "It's so silly," Teddy tells Nicholson. "All you have to do is get the heck out of your body when you die. My gosh, everybody's done it thousands and thousands of times."27 With his "my gosh" and "get the heck out," Teddy speaks in the colloquial voice of a 1950s kid. But the ideas belong to an ancient soul with a portal on eternity and a touching resignation about his death.

What makes all these characters unforgettable is that they are foremost human. They have a vulnerability that touches us, buried as it may be in the recesses of their unfamiliarity.

Even forty years later, in a culture now pervasive with such mystical chatter and aware that Teddy has been dismissed as just a mouthpiece for Salinger's then ideas on Zen Buddhism, I still succumb to the story's sad fascination and humanity. So frequently writers mistake pure invention for extraordinary or mythic character. They believe exotic ideas, bizarre fantasies, or outlandish behavior alone will create unique characters. But what makes all these characters unforgettable is that they are foremost human. They have a vulnerability that touches us, buried as it may be in the recesses of their unfamiliarity. The secret to their development lies in not just making them unusual but in teasing out this fragility.

Mythic characters arise from a suspension of disbelief in the improbable. They don't come along often, and as a writer you're better off trying to capture the flash of insight that heralds them than trying to reason them out. At their best, they are inimitable, sui generis, enthralling travelers from the other side of our imaginations.


Steven Schwartz is the author of the novels Therapy and A Good Doctor's Son, and the story collections Lives of the Fathers and To Leningrad in Winter. He teaches in the MFA writing program at Colorado State University and in the Warren Wilson MFA low-residency program. A version of this essay appears in the anthology A Kite in the Wind: 20 Fiction Writers on Their Craft.

  1. Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (New York: W.W. Norton, 1988), 22-60.

  2. Ibid, 60.
  3. Herman Melville, "Bartleby the Scrivener," (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997), 20.
  4. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (New York: Scribner's, 1925), 2.
  5. Somerset Maugham, The Razor's Edge (New York: Vintage, 2003), 3.
  6. Conrad, 30.
  7. Joyce Carol Oates, Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been: Selected Stories (Princeton: Ontario Review Books, 1993), 129.
  8. Fitzgerald, 33.
  9. Tim O'Brien, "The Magic Show," Writers on Writing, Ed. Robert Pack and Jay Parini (New Hampshire: Middlebury, 1991), 175-83.
  10. Robert Boswell, The Half-Known World (St. Paul: Graywolf: 2008), 11.
  11. O'Brien, 182.
  12. Stephen Millhauser, The Knife Thrower and Other Stories (New York: Vintage, 1999), 9.
  13. Ibid, 10.
  14. Ibid, 23.
  15. Ibid, 14.
  16. Ibid, 15.
  17. Oates, 128.
  18. Millhauser, 24.
  19. Katherine Anne Porter, The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter (New York: Harvest, 1979), 224.
  20. Ibid, 235.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Melville, 30-65.
  23. J.D. Salinger, Nine Stories (New York: Little Brown, 1953), 174.
  24. Ibid, 193.
  25. Ibid, 169.
  26. Ibid, 187-189.
  27. Ibid, 193.

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