I’m reading The Casual Vacancy, J. K. Rowling’s 2012 debut “adult” novel, with the intention of having read all of her published works before I really get started writing my dissertation. (I’m going to wait another week or two to see if inter-library loan can get me The Cuckoo’s Calling before I give up and order it from Amazon.) I had heard multiple versions of two different, but compatible, assessments of The Casual Vacancy: that it was “racy” (invariably that was the word used) and that it was depressing because the characters were hard to like.
I’ve just finished Part One and found both of these evaluations to be true. But I’ve also found something I didn’t expect: The Casual Vacancy reminds me strongly of a George Eliot novel. What tipped me off to the resemblance was the name “Fairbrother”–it’s the last name of the man who dies at the beginning of Rowling’s novel, setting the story in motion, and it’s awfully close to “Farebrother,” the surname of a character in Middlemarch. But this is just one of many resemblances between The Casual Vacancy and the Eliot canon, especially Middlemarch; others include themes of small-town life (and the pettiness that often accompanies it), sharply accurate depictions of mismatched marriages, long descriptions of characters’ interior thoughts, discussions of the problems of urbanization, and a particular focus on characters moving up or down the English social class scale, which appears in Vacancy to be fascinatingly (and depressingly) little changed since the nineteenth century.
What I don’t see in The Casual Vacancy, at least not yet, is any attempt on the author’s part to help us identify with the characters, especially the ones we don’t like. Eliot did this a lot, and she did it masterfully, though not very subtly, often using direct second-person commands (“Ask yourself whether you would. . .”), all in an effort to develop the quality of “sympathy” (a key term for Eliot) in her readers. Sympathy here is not feeling sorry for someone, and it’s not a naive ignorance of anyone’s faults. It’s the ability to put ourselves imaginatively into another character’s situation and come to the conclusion that we would probably be inclined to act in a very similar way. The point here is not to make a moral judgment about what would be the right thing to do in the situation, although that would be a logical next step. The point is to be honest about ourselves. I think all good realist novelists want their readers to develop sympathy; they just aren’t all as deliberate about it as George Eliot. I think J. K. Rowling wants that for her readers too; she just isn’t making it very easy in The Casual Vacancy. But a hard-won sympathy is probably more lasting than the knee-jerk kind anyway. I’ll reserve my final judgment until I finish the book.
Let me make two more quick points about sympathy in a shameless effort to drag Charles Dickens and Harry Potter into this post:
1. It often takes multiple readings of a book to develop sympathy for a particular character. When I first read David Copperfield, I thought David’s “child-wife” Dora was an annoying little twit, but now that I’ve read it several times I can see that she is remarkably self-aware in her own way and that she has a better grasp of the flaw in their marriage than David, apparently the more analytic one, does. You gotta watch out for those first-person narrators. They think they know everything. (KATNISS EVERDEEN)
2. One valid reason for writing fan fiction is to try to develop sympathy with an unlikable, “minor,” or even villainous character. Possibly this may be why there’s a lot of Draco Malfoy fanfic. Certainly, some of it is of the shallow sort (“He looked extremely sexy and vulnerable as he knelt there weeping onto his elegantly cut black suit”), but I would also imagine–I haven’t actually read any Draco fanfic–that there’s some good stuff that explores, for example, what growing up in Malfoy Manor as an only child with those parents would do to a kid psychologically.
I promise I didn’t intend to write a literary criticism post this week; my original intention was to post pictures of my cute decorations for the afternoon party I hosted yesterday. But I forgot to take pictures, so this is what you get. I hope you’ll give me some sympathy.