I recently finished rereading Anna Karenina, and I am currently watching the latest Clint Eastwood film, “The Mule,” which is based on a true story. And it is absolutely delightful! A charming Midwestern octogenarian horticulturalist becomes a drug runner for a Mexican cartel, and finds himself more and more embroiled in their world, unable to escape for fear of retaliation or death. Though initially a means to earn money to help pay for his granddaughter’s wedding and other expenses once he is foreclosed, “Grandpa Earl” seems to slowly relish the life he has now attained, complete with gold bracelet, Lincoln pickup truck, and easy women.
This led me to think about the theme of downfall in literature: what makes it so compelling? Why is it such an interesting and oft-repeated trope or topic?
In Anna Karenina, we can’t entirely say Anna is a fallen woman; that would be too simplistic. We initially feel sympathetic for her, a vibrant woman stuck in a loveless marriage to a stuffed-shirt bureaucrat. However, her passion and her desires lead her to lose sight of what is important, separate her from her son, and make her so jealous that she commits suicide. We see this downward trajectory throughout the course of the novel. Her narrative arc is the key driving force of the novel. Roxanne, by Daniel Defoe, is another such example, and probably one of the best. A woman of virtue, she resorts to any means she can find to support herself and her children, which includes becoming a mistress. And lest we fault women, we can also remember that the juicy, Gothic classic The Monk by Matthew Lewis is also from this time. A lustful monk ends up committing murder, and there are all kinds of other peccadilloes along the way, including pregnant nuns.
In modern times, we can look at Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, a novel so over-the-top that it is truly singular in its first-person narrative voice. Alexander Portnoy is a nice Jewish boy from a good family, but his sexual appetite becomes his undoing. And as the reader, boy, do we enjoy the ride! One of my favorite stories, Sherman Alexie’s “What You Pawn, I Will Redeem,” one could argue, also deals with the theme of downfall. Jackson Jackson is a homeless Native American who needs to obtain money in 24 hours in order to buy back his grandmother’s regalia. But rather than judiciously saving the money, he squanders it in the course of the day. The ironic–and funny–twist is that (spoiler alert) despite his misbehavior, he ends up getting the regalia in the end. And of course, we can’t go without mentioning another doubly named antihero, the infamous Humbert Humbert of Nabokov’s Lolita. An intelligent, cultured man, the protagonist not only seduces his landlady’s daughter, but then kidnaps her and takes her on a wild ride. He meets his due, captured by the police at the end. The rich prose is a hallmark of Nabokov, who creates such a rounded character in Humbert Humbert that we cannot help but be engaged with the novel.
What do these novels and stories have in common? I would argue that they harken back to the most fundamental of Christian themes: the fallen angel. Also, by setting up a protagonist on some sort of moral high ground–something that is implicitly of the basis of our Protestant/Anglo cultures, the author creates the expectation of morality, that the lead character should behave in some sort of ethical way. We have our societal expectations of how people should or shouldn’t act, and when a character deviates from that, there is the cognitive dissonance between the expectation and the action. This gap makes for great literature and a great story. Also, what is the trajectory that this character goes through? What are the trials and tribulations? Is s/he justified? Is s/he really a victim of society, or does s/he have agency to make rational decisions? Finally, is there any redemption for the protagonist, either through external means, or self-redemption? These are significant questions an author must answer. Also, the author must establish a certain degree of virtue in the protagonist at the beginning, create her or him as likable and establish a rapport with the reader.
The journey of this character on the downward spiral is what makes for great reading. Yes, we may know the outcome or answer already, but how we get there is what is so delightful. Rich prose, a variety of obstacles, thwarting expectations, acting out of the need for survival–these are just some of the elements we might find in a downfall novel or story.
There will always be prudish readers who dislike these anti-heroes, who lament their lack of virtue. But shouldn’t literature and art be a fantasy world in which we can act out or explore our baser emotions in an enjoyable way?