I pity the predetermined scapegoats of fiction. Currently, my son and I are listening to Anne of Green Gables, the first book in Lucy Maud Montgomery’s series about an imaginative red-headed orphan. When reading L. M. Montgomery’s books, I find myself feeling sorry for the Pye family: why do they have to get stuck with being “Pyes”? Why does everything go so well for Anne and her buddies? True, Anne has to deal with major problems like Matthew’s death and Marilla’s failing eyesight, while some of Anne’s friends, like Ruby Gillis, come to tragic ends. No matter what trials Anne experiences, however, she still gets to be pretty—her red hair does darken to a “real handsome auburn”—and thin and smart and gifted. I love the Anne books as much as anyone, and more than most. But it bothers me when certain characters get branded as “annoying” or “show offish” by an author, and there is no chance of that character ever developing or growing.
Similarly, listening to Louise Fitzhugh’s book Harriet the Spy reminded me of how much we pigeonhole one another. Poor Beth Ellen, Pinky, and the boy with the purple socks: Harriet, Sport, and Janie have put these other kids into boxes from which they can emerge only with great difficulty. Harriet the Spy is fiction, but presumably it is being written—as most books are—with input from the author’s own experiences. Criticizing or belittling other people enables Harriet and her friends to feel better about themselves. And therein lies the problem.
During my graduate school days, I was guilty of snubbing or laughing at other students myself (I say this with shame). Strangely, I don’t remember doing that at college; maybe going to a Christian college with students who were seeking to live life in a Christlike way made a difference. But, in grad school, we did the sort of thing that Harriet and her friends do: in self-defense, we found flaws in the students who were most dedicated to their work, most outspoken in class, most to be admired—and, therefore, most to be ridiculed by those of us who were threatened by their competency.
What I became—in those days of belittling others to assuage my own conscience—was a scoffer. When you are treated unfairly or overlooked by the system, it’s easy to become a scoffer; perhaps it’s even a defense mechanism of sorts. Unable to reach the tempting grapes, Aesop’s fox concluded, “Eh, those grapes were sour, anyway.” But were they, or was it the fox’s failure that made him conclude so? In a situation where one has encountered failure, it is extraordinarily difficult to praise those who succeeded. Such is my experience, anyway.
Psalm 1 warns us not to sit in the seat of the scoffer: “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers” (ESV). (Pardon the use of the word “man” here; clearly, this applies to everyone who is seeking to walk in the way of the Lord.) My observation has been that scoffing, mocking, or belittling others ultimately hurts the scoffer as well as the scoffee. True, the one being targeted, whether behind her back or to her face, most likely suffers the most, but what does that sort of sneering nastiness do to us inside?I’ve wandered a ways from my original topic, haven’t I? The best sort of writing incorporates multidimensional characters who aren’t completely bad or completely good. Perhaps this is one of the qualities that makes J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series so good: even Draco Malfoy isn’t beyond redemption. For that matter, even Voldemort, the unloved orphan whose bitterness leads him into a life of revenge and malice, isn’t beyond redemption. And Harry, who would like to avenge his parents, in the end extends mercy to Voldemort, just as Gandalf offers a second chance to Saruman in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Two Towers.
Don’t think I’m not tempted to belittle the achievements of others: as a parent, I frequently have to remind myself to be positive when someone other than my child wins the chess tournament or gets the starring role in the ballet. But kindness and encouragement are better life companions than meanness and criticism.
Author’s Note: I wrote a draft of this post in 2014 when my son and I were listening to an audiobook of Harriet the Spy, which I had not read as a child, even though it was published in 1964. I found the book fun in many ways but sad because of the meanness of the children (both the insiders and the outsiders). Recently, we started listening to Anne of Green Gables, so I decided this was as good a time as any to publish my post.