Friday, November 13, 2015

In Praise of Grumpy Characters

I've always had a considerable soft spot for grumpy characters. In fact, more often than not they prove to be my favorites. Their grumpiness only makes them more lovable, more endearing, and it's often a mask for a deeper emotional engagement, a more mature intellect, and a profound love for those in their care. Grumpy characters also, in contrast to their real-life counterparts, attract a degree of affection, both because they make us laugh, often at our own, newly recognized foibles, and because they remain steadfast to their own temperaments. Grumps are nonconformists and dissidents; they speak what they see as the truth whether it is popular or not, and they're willing, if not delighted, to put a dark cast on the world as they see it. And, perhaps most importantly, grumpy characters tend to be those that come through in the end, complaining, lamenting, cursing, and protesting, but there they are, at the side of our heroes.

In T. H. White's The Once and Future King, especially the first volume, The Sword in the Stone, there is not one but two delightfully grumpy characters: Merlyn ("Castor and Pollux blow me to Bermuda!") and Archimedes ("For heaven's sake, stop flying like a woodpecker."). Merlyn's gruffness is due partially to living backwards in time, which is confusing, uncomfortable, and liable to put one in a very bad temper, but he's also sensitive enough emotionally to realize that tenderly expressed sympathy isn't always the kindest response. As for Archimedes, being Merlyn's familiar, the highly educated owl is prone to peevishness and a pedantic, rather prim insistence on formalities. He is most offended when the Wart ventures to call him "Archie." In the Disney animated film, Archimedes is perhaps even grumpier than Merlyn and is without question my very favorite character in the Disney canon. When the Wart tells him he can't read (the Wart is literate in the novel), Archimedes nearly has a fit of apoplexy and then grimly asks, "Well, what do you know? Oh, never mind."

There is no greater grump in literature than Puddleglum ("And you must always remember there's one good thing about being trapped down here: It'll save funeral expenses."), the lugubrious marshwiggle who accompanies Scrubb and Pole on their quest to save Prince Rilian in C. S. Lewis's The Silver Chair. Despite a constant stream of morbid projections onto any and every possible outcome of their quest, Puddleglum is actually quite positive in his way, precisely because he always gets pleasantly surprised that things didn't work out so badly after all, he's a fierce friend, an incorruptible champion for his beliefs, and the success of the children's mission is due in no small part to his efforts as their guide and guardian.

The Psammead ("What place is this?" - "It's a sitting room, of course." - "Then I don't like it.") of E. Nesbit's trilogy, Five Children and It, The Phoenix and the Carpet, and The Story of the Amulet, is a sand fairy, a rare creature that must grant any wish it hears expressed, puffing out its body and loudly voicing protest at its ill-use, as wish-granting is quite draining. Nevertheless, it develops warm affection towards the children it sends on such fabulous adventures and will deign, if treated with the proper respect, to give excellent advice, with a lecture or two thrown in.

Templeton ("Let him die. I shouldn't care."), the voluptuously gluttonous rat that shares Wilbur's sty in E. B. White's Charlotte's Web, proves rather more difficult to like, but he's invaluable to Charlotte's mission to save Wilbur, since he can leave the barn and seek out exciting new words to describe the anxious porcine in Charlotte's web. The acme of Templeton's life is his visit to the fair where he indulges his gluttony to a near life-ending extent - by the time he returns to Wilbur, he has swollen several times his normal size. What saves Templeton from being a rather disgusting character is precisely the sharp edge of his tongue. He is always selfish and always finds some advantage for himself, and yet, and yet, in the end, he becomes a constant, if crabby, companion for Wilbur in an odd, but binding friendship.

Badger ("Badger hates Society, and invitations, and dinner, and all that sort of thing.”), from Kenneth Grahame's masterpiece The Wind in the Willows, is a rather mysterious character, one that inspires awe as much as anything else. He is unfailingly loyal to his friends, and mindful of their best qualities, but that doesn't stop him from being sternly uncompromising when they behave badly. His solitary life renders him somewhat remote, but when the animals are called to arms to liberate Toad Hall, he proves a deft fighter with his cudgel. He may not care for the lazy, sociable tea parties and picnics of his friends, but his gruffness takes nothing from his capacity for friendship.

It would be remiss to write about grumpy characters without mentioning Grumpy ("And all females is poison! They're full of wicked wiles!" - "What are wicked wiles?" - "I don't know. But I'm agin 'em!") from the landmark Disney film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. As one would imagine given his moniker, Grumpy is forever in a foul mood, skeptical, suspicious, somewhat prejudiced, and impatient. Yet, of all the dwarfs, he proves to be Snow White's greatest champion, as well as the most perceptive and decisive of any of the characters in the story.

And, while I've concentrated on the grumps of children's fantasy literature and film, one of the most entertaining grouches of literature is Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot (“I find most of the human race extraordinarily repulsive. They probably reciprocate this feeling.”) Hyperbolically fastidious and fussy, snobbish to a fault, Poirot has little patience for bad cooking, sloppy attire, or less than cultivated manners, yet he can hardly be faulted for dereliction of duty, even when, as seems nearly always to be the case, he is en vacance. Then there is Sherlock Holmes, Carl Fredricksen (Up), Oscar the Grouch, Bagheera, Archie Bunker, and many, many others.

It's well worth noting that all of these characters are male (with the exception of the Psammead, who is unique and an "it" but reads as male), and indeed, it is difficult to find many such grumpy characters that are female. As a woman who is more often than not singularly grumpy, the dearth of characters that are both female and given the latitude to complain and lose her temper without being chastised or rendered hopelessly unsympathetic is a terrible frustration. The unfortunate truth is that most "feminist" characters are allowed as little scope to be unlikable as their more misogynistically portrayed sisters. If a feminist heroine must be an ideal, or "flawed" in such a way to make her slightly imperfect but still likable, then feminism itself avails us little. Most of all, grumpy female characters are often ridiculed, laughed at and not with, and their grumpiness is often explained as the result of past pain, often of a sexual or romantic character (spinsters, ladies jilted at the altar, cuckolded wives - Miss Havisham types), in contrast to the characters above who are grumpy purely and simply because that is who they are.

It's true that in the realms of feminist literary fiction, such a paradigm has been questioned, pulled apart, reinterpreted, and inverted on its head. But these books are hardly mainstream. The examples of grumpy characters cited above are drawn from books and films that are widely read and seen, that have a wide and diverse scope of influence. The best example I can call to mind of a lovable grumpy female character is J. K. Rowling's Professor McGonagall ("You look in excellent health to me, Potter, so you will excuse me if I don't let you off homework today. I assure you that if you do die, you need not hand it in."). Though the gender paradigms of the Harry Potter series are staunchly patriarchal, it does offer, for once in a mainstream context, an unapologetically and unrepentently brusque woman, but the fact remains that much of her grumpiness is rooted in the exercise of a fundamentally maternal role, and thus, not so different from the explosive upsets of Molly Weasley, provoked by her fear for her husband and children. Though it is not explicitly stated in the books, her tragic background of romantic disappointment and heartbreak, revealed through writing on the Pottermore site, makes her teeter on the edge of grumpy by circumstance rather than nature.

However, perhaps mainstream television might succeed where mainstream books do not. In Parks and Recreation, April ("We have a new policy, parks can only be reserved for witch covens and slip 'n slide competitions. Which one are you?") essentially does not smile, though she takes a certain creepy delight in morbidity, she is supremely and purposefully incompetent - one could say that she is peerlessly competent at incompetence - and willfully obstructive, and she claims to hate everything and everyone, but she's perhaps the most loyal, perceptive, caring person in the whole crew, as understanding of Ron Swanson as she is of Lesley Knope, which is why Andr Dwyer, with his puppy dog demeanor and relentless positivity, ends up marrying her. The best part of April though is that she is grumpy because that is who she is. There's no tragic backstory, no unmet appetite. As such, she's a welcome counterpart to the unabatedly sunny, eyes-on-the-prize, and far more culturally acceptable feminism of Lesley Knope. It's certainly possible to have lovable grumpy female characters, but their grumpiness should be organic to who they are, not what they've suffered at the hands of men, not ridiculed, and not dismissed.


  1. I was always secretly entertained by Toad (of the Arthur Lobel "Frog and Toad" books). His grouchy comments were just so wonderful and such a refreshing note in the generally saccharine world of children's books. "The whole world is covered with buttons, and not one of them is mine!"

    1. Sophie and I loved the "Frog and Toad" books when we were kids! And I am unabashedly entertained by Toad - I definitely related to him.