Bad is Good: Downfall in Literature

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?

Virgin/Whore Revisited

In the humanities in the Western world, there exists a dichotomy between two archetypes of women that stems from Catholicism and Christianity in general – the dichotomy between the virgin and the whore. At its most literal level, this refers to perceiving women as pure and untainted by sex (or at least sex outside of marriage), or as a woman who engages in her bodily acts with multiple men for money or for pleasure outside of marriage. One may come across a variant of this, virgin/Madonna/whore, where the middle persona represents a mother, but a sexless mother whose conception was a divine miracle, and not something carnal of the flesh. Feminists and others have long decried this dichotomy as sexist, patriarchal, and denying of a woman’s right to pleasure.

Others might argue that women’s sexual freedom – or anybody’s for that matter – is a recent phenomenon, born out of Enlightenment philosophies of individualism and developments in technology that led to birth control. In American culture, we still hold certain expectations and even double standards for women. Traditional cultures still largely espouse this view, even ones that are not Christian, as we have seen with the tragic death of Pakistani social media star and television personality Qandeel Baloch, who was murdered by her brother in an “honor killing” to avenge the shameful behavior she exhibited in public and the dishonor she brought upon her family. No woman should be punished or harmed for expressing her sexuality or sensuality, nor should she ever be blamed for rape.

But is there any truth to this dichotomy? Are there “good” and “bad” women? Among women in America, do we not sort of classify or look down at certain types of women, though we might be reluctant to admit it?

In modern, secular America, generally speaking, we do not dichotomize women based on sexuality. Classifying a woman according to whether or not she is a virgin is passé. So by this belief, the entire argument is rendered useless. But – perhaps there is another way to look at sexuality and women that comes from a woman’s point of view and not from a man’s or patriarchal one.

As a friend put it, before the sexual revolution, women felt they had to say no to sex, and after the revolution, they felt they had to say yes. Anyone who is very aware of millennial and modern hookup culture knows that women are put in a very difficult position. But there are many women who make bad choices, and perhaps that is the root of the problem. Our sexual culture allows a woman to enjoy a sexual life like a man, but without being treated with the respect previously accorded to a woman. Given that men have not yet, as a whole, worked on redefining the roles vis-à-vis how women’s have changed over the last few decades, we still have a lot of problems with how women are perceived and treated. Much of the uproar over the “French open letter” (where dozens of women, including Catherine Deneuve, objected to the #MeToo movement) illustrates both the problems women have in dealing with men, as well as the differences among women. The French letter seemed to disregard The French letter seemed to disregard the fact that the #MeToo women enjoy their sensuality and attention from men, just not when coupled with an abuse of power as it was in the situations Harvey Weinstein and Charlie Rose and countless unnamed men in the world today.

I would like to suggest what defines the modern “dichotomy” in women is self-esteem. A sense of self-worth and acting from a place of strength and dignity, rather than from outside motives. Notice that I did not define this as acting independently from men. As I have frequently written, I believe a large part of the failure of the feminist movement born in the 60s and 70s was its failure to view women in relation to men, and thereby improve the dynamics between genders.

Any woman with a sense of self-worth is proud of her choices in expressing – or not expressing – her sexuality and sensuality in public. A woman with a sense of self-worth is proud to look like a woman, proud to be who she is, be very feminine if she chooses, or not. Her sexual pleasure comes from a place of personal desire, not societal expectations. She will not be treated badly by a man, and if she is, she will refuse to put up with it. (The #MeToo movement has been a wonderful regenesis of women who are proud of their womanhood and sensuality, but very willing to set boundaries). A woman with self-esteem will not allow herself to fall victim to peer pressure and alcohol, and will not allow herself to get in situations that can potentially result in harm. This type of woman will do everything she can to not allow herself to become a victim, but she will rush to the defense of any woman who is victimized.

If we set this as a new standard, we can see that there will be a wide variety of types of women, not just the virgins/Madonnas on one end of the scale. This includes the Qandeel Baloches but also the women who wear their hijabs proudly and fashionably as they push their strollers. This includes the brilliantly accomplished Hillary Clintons as well as the brilliantly accomplished Amal Clooneys, who are proud to be style icons. This includes women from all walks of life, be it doctors and other professionals, as well as minivan-driving moms in small-town Saline, Michigan. This includes women around the world, of all ages, shapes, sizes, classes, professions, and orientations.

So who, among us, do we (guiltily and wrongly) look down upon? Women who don’t operate from a sense of dignity. We see them on Friday and Saturday nights – the (sorority) girls who are tarted up in disgustingly revealing clothing to get drunk at bars or (frat) parties, not knowing who they are waking up with. Women who have given the sexual revolution a bad name by going wild and acting badly. The “Barbie doll” types of all ethnicities in Southern California or wealthy suburbs everywhere, who must conform to a look — blonde highlighted, over glossed, over perfumed, overdone – who even go so far as to make radical alterations on their bodies to fit in. The women who stick themselves in bad relationships, who use men just to get pregnant, or even those who hate men. The “easy women” who are happy being a trophy wife to a man who is unable or unwilling to grow up, and would rather trade his first wife in for a new model. Women from traditional cultures who refuse to speak up for their needs in their marriage, perpetuating the cycle of bad behavior from men who feel they are entitled to do whatever they want and not be a good husband. Women who are Puritans, who cannot enjoy their femininity, who act like men. (Many people saw the undoing of Hillary Clinton as the result of this, however wrong and sexist as it may have been.) Women who are strong, but still buy into the hookup culture, who still feel they have to say yes. Fashion victims. Vogue editor Anna Wintour has really done very badly toward her own sex, as have the others who support the destructive aspects of the fashion and beauty industry. Women who do not speak up when sexist things are said.

Is it wrong for women to judge other women? Yes, perhaps it really is. But I suppose it is an inevitable part of our behavior as women, because we are so closely bonded by nature and wired to be collective. Maybe it is inherent in any group for people to look critically at its members. But we cannot make social progress unless we first look at the weakest links, so to speak. And most importantly, we must first look within, look at ourselves, and see where we need to improve in progress before we criticize others. That is the ultimate sign of a woman with inner strength and dignity.