REVIEW

From Alice to Frankenstein, Holden Caulfield to Lisbeth Salander, two books dig down into the greatest literary characters

  • The 100 Greatest Literary Characters, by James Plath, Gail Sinclair and Kirk Curnutt. Rowman & Littlefield. $74.99.
  • Fabulous Monsters: Dracula, Alice, Superman, and Other Literary Friends, by Alberto Manguel. Yale UP. $36.99.

What are your favourite literary characters? The answer is always going to be subjective. The 100 Greatest Literary Characters, chosen by American academics James Plath, Gail Sinclair and Kirk Curnutt largely come from the canon of Western, and particularly, American and British literature. Alberto Manguel in Fabulous Monsters identifies literary friends but from a wider personal and global perspective.

Alice is one of the great literary characters. Picture: An illustration from Alice in Wonderland, supplied by Macmillan Publishers.

Alice is one of the great literary characters. Picture: An illustration from Alice in Wonderland, supplied by Macmillan Publishers.

Plath says he and his co-authors had difficulty in defining "their 100 greatest fictional characters". The title in that context is misleading, as the authors indicate that they are only covering fictional characters. Literary would imply much more, so there is no drama or poetry, no Macbeth or Beowulf or Odysseus. Then within the fictional framework, Plath and his co-authors state, "We decided to include not just the usual suspects but also lesser-known characters that are so psychologically complex or richly drawn that they deserve to be in a volume such as this".

That decision makes their selections more eclectic and personal, and may well attract a wider audience, but it will be a little confusing for readers who buy on the title alone. Readers will find Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games and Daenerys Targaryen from Game of Thrones alongside Anna Karenina and Holden Caulfield.

Characters covered include Aladdin, Jay Gatsby, Hercule Poirot, Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter, Don Quixote, Lisbeth Salander, Jean Brodie, Jean Valjean, and John Yossarian. Many will be surprised to see Philbert Bono, from Powwow Highway by David Seals. Plath says, "The reason I could justify including him and not other colourful characters is that they made a movie out of the book, and Roger Ebert commented that it was probably one of the best characters he's ever seen in a film". A rather curious selection procedure using Roger Ebert as a selection tool, and, surely, surely, in that context there would be many other movies to come into consideration.

Plath and his co-authors adopt an A-Z approach, beginning with Captain Ahab and ending with Yuri Zhivago. Each character is given two to three pages of commentary, although the quality of the analysis varies considerably in approach and depth. The entry on Captain Ahab has an early paragraph referencing the Bushes and Saddam Hussein, Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky and NFL quarterback Peyton Manning!

Plath is President of the John Updike Society, so his entry on Updike is more extensive than others. Bibliographical material is minimal for most entries, but for Updike there are 11 bibliographical references. The authors conclude by hoping that their selections encourage readers to seek out the cited books in their local libraries and bookshops, an always laudable motive.

Author, librarian and renowned bibliophile Alberto Manguel provides a richer and more reflective commentary to accompany his 40 characters in Fabulous Monsters. The title, taken from Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass, is, however, another misleading one, as not all of the characters could be termed, by any means, monsters or fabulous.

Manguel examines how literary characters live with us from childhood onwards, a format which provides fascinating insights into Manguel's own life and thinking. His coverage is globally wider than those of Plath. For example, Manguel covers Karagoz and Hacivat from the popular Turkish shadow play, and Hsing-chen from Kim Man- jung's Korean literary classic, The Nine Cloud Dream. Manguel's analysis of Hamlet is taken from the standpoint of Queen Gertrude, while Don Quixote is seen from the perspective of the Moor, Cide Hamete Benengeli.

Each of Manguel's chapters include a doodle drawing of the character. Some characters overlap with those of Plath, such as Long John Silver and Dracula. On several occasions, however, different characters are chosen from the same book. So, Manguel chooses Jim from Huckleberry Finn, whereas Plath chooses Ma Joad. Manguel chooses Monsieur Bovary, rather than Emma. Manguel chooses Phoebe Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye, while Plath chooses Holden, which all adds to the subjective fun.

Manguel uses the characters to indirectly reflect on the contemporary political world. He examines the desire for money and fame in his coverage of Faust, while Lewis Carroll's Alice is a springboard for superficial rationality masking contemporary madness.

For Manguel, G K Chesterton's Man Who Was Thursday "magically helps me cope with the absurdities of everyday life", while "Priam teaches me to weep for the death of younger friends and Achilles for that of my beloved elders". Manguel, in his chapter on Satan, says we resort to Satan "to try to understand the infamous events that plague us daily, now and always". He believes that reading can keep us sane. Amen to that.

This story Literary greats down to character first appeared on The Canberra Times.