You Don’t Have to Date Them to Understand Them

Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky, pictured in 1871.

Dostoyevsky had more than his share of character flaws

I remember one of my professors in college trying to explain to a student why we should read about characters we don’t like. It was the main character in Dostoyevski’s  “Notes from the Underground“, or was it one of Saul Bellow‘s ineffectual protagonists, in either case, a thoroughly pathetic and mostly unpleasant character. The exchange went like this:
“Well, why do we have to read about this loser anyway. I don’t understand?”
” I don’t want you to date him. I just want you to try to understand him a little.”
Some of the best stories I have read are about people I wouldn’t want to date, but were written well enough that I could understand them a little and see something human in them. I think that is what good literature does; it gives us glimpses of humanity and chances to understand pieces of what it is to be human as well as engaging and entertaining us. Most of the characters in Dostoyevsky novels are like this. Like Dostoyevsky himself are usually quite humanly flawed. Maybe I wouldn’t have liked people who lived in Russia around 1860, but thanks to Dostoyevsky, I can see connections between these people and myself as well as everyone else I meet and talk with every day. In the last few years, I have been reading a lot of a Japanese author, Haruki Murakami. It is fascinating to see the inside of another culture presented so clearly through the characters and how they respond to the fictional world. It is like being an internal tourist. He describes the feeling of being Japanese in the late twentieth century so well through the thoughts and interactions of his characters. I feel like I understand what it is to be Japanese at least from the authors point of view. Or consider what Ursula LeGuin does with totally fabricated cultures, not only making up worlds but making believable aliens to inhabit them.
I am off to work  with some real characters. They are little and young and filled with ideas. I wonder what we will be doing today. I have my vague plans, but I am sure theirs will be better.

This entry was posted in conversations, make your own world, Other peoples words, Questions and riddles, Teaching and Learning, Telling Stories, thinking in words, time travel, working world and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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