Liking the “Unlikeable”

Recently, the writer Claire Messud attracted attention for her response to an interviewer’s question about the likeability (or unlikeability) of the female main character of her most recent novel.  Messud rightly pointed out a long list of mostly male unlikeable but iconic characters and noted, “If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble.”  A flurry of commentary on sexism and likeability ensued.  ImageI relate this recent anecdote as preface because it underlines the achievement of Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout’s 13 connected short stories about a small town in Maine, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009 despite our literary culture’s apparent aversion to prickly or “unlikeable” female characters.  Olive, the title character, who is central to some of the stories but appears only peripherally in others, is angry, depressed, disagreeable, and short-tempered, yet she also proves to be loyal, wise, kind, and sympathetic, a woman with a rich inner life that is frustratingly out of accord with her outer one.

In addition to telling Olive’s story, the book tells the story of the town and many of its inhabitants, linked in complicated but quotidian ways.  Nothing much happens, but a lot always seems to be happening.  Marriages form and break up, people get sick and die, make friends, move away, remember their childhoods, which invariably include memories of Olive Kitteridge, who for many years was the math teacher at the local junior high school.  This links Olive to virtually every other inhabitant of Crosby, Maine, and makes her in some small way indispensible to many of the characters.  We learn of her hidden wisdom, sympathy, and understanding through the eyes of former students, who remember years later advice or comfort she once gave.

But these moments of softness are only punctuation marks to Olive’s aggressive, biting personality.  When her son gets married and she overhears her new daughter-in-law complaining about her, you feel sympathy for Olive but know that you would think the same if you were her daughter-in-law.  In fact, right after Olive hears her daughter-in-law making some  mildly critical comments about her son’s upbringing and the dress she’s worn to the wedding, Olive goes into her closet and draws on one of her sweaters with a black marker, then steals one shoe and one bra, just to mess with her head.  It’s incredibly childish, ridiculous even, but also very Olive.

So why do we want to read about Olive, or any other unsympathetic character?  For each of them there is probably a different reason.  Humbert Humbert’s a pedophile, but he’s a literate, passionate lover of Lolita; Raskolnikov’s a murderer, but he’s thoughtful about his crime; and Olive Kitteridge is a bitter woman disappointed in life, but one whose human capacity for emotion surfaces at exactly the right moments.  In a way, her own sadness allows her a measure of empathy with other suffering characters that offer them support or help no one else could.  She inadvertently interferes with the suicide of one of her former students when she happens upon him as he is on his way to shoot himself in the woods, slowly changing his mind, it seems, as she speaks frankly and presciently about her own father’s suicide.  In another story, when a number of the town residents encounter an anorexic girl who needs help, it’s Olive who gets through to her, recognizing that her own overeating comes from the same place as the girl’s need for starvation.  Like many tender moments in the book, this one is encapsulated in an almost inexplicably moving image: “Hesitantly, she [Olive] raised her hand, started to put it down, then raised it again, and touched the girl’s head.  She must have felt, beneath her large hand, something Harmon [the main character in this story] didn’t see, because she slid her hand down to the girl’s bone of a shoulder, and the girl – tears creeping from her closed eyes – leaned her cheek on Olive’s hand.”


Elizabeth Strout receiving the Pulitzer for Olive Kitterirdge in 2009.

It’s quite an achievement to humanize a character as difficult as Olive, but Strout manages to make her both sympathetic and likeable by the end, perhaps because she grows and changes, despite her age.  One of the lovely things about this book is its depiction of the inner lives and relationships of the late-middle-aged and elderly without sentimentality.  Like Olive’s character, the other, mostly older, characters in the book are shown to be fully human, not simple or doddering or having lost interest in life over time.  Like Olive, they don’t just want to live, but they want to live fully, despite the infirmities or inevitable losses of age.  Age is perhaps the least sympathetic character of all, yet in Olive Kitteridge, like Olive herself, it’s treated with honesty and respect.

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