The Most Divisive Characters in Literary History

By
Share:

This week, we read an article which sought to answer one of life’s most troubling questions: “Is Holden Caulfield Obnoxious?” Though the Flavorpill office is largely split on this point, your humble author has been squarely in the “yes” camp since she picked up the book at age 13 and put it down ten pages later, brushing off Holden as a pretentious jerk unworthy of her attention. However, I have to admit that this article swayed my feelings a little bit — quite a feat, with such an old grudge on the table.

Regardless, Holden Caulfield remains one of the most controversial literary characters of all time — some love him, some hate him, and some love to hate him. There may even be some people out there who hate to love him. However, Holden’s sheer divisiveness is one of the things that makes him such an interesting character and cultural icon, so we started thinking about a few more of the literary characters we’re destined to keep fighting over for years to come. Click through to read our list, and make sure to let us know which side you weigh in on for each figure in the comments — or, if we’ve missed your favorite controversy, feel free to go on a rant below.

Holden Caulfield

As Austin Allen points out in his aforementioned article, everyone has an opinion on Holden Caulfield. As he puts it, “Either you found him a kindred spirit in your youth and continue to sympathize with him — less blindly, more wistfully — as you age; or else you found him a whiner then and you find him a whiner now.” And according to a 2009 New York Times piece, modern teenagers may fall more and more into the latter camp: “what once seemed like courageous truth-telling now strikes many of them as ‘weird,’ ‘whiny’ and ‘immature.'” This may have something to do with the now-dated language, or maybe our reality TV-saturated kids have less time for admonitions of phoniness. Then again, maybe they should listen up.

Humbert Humbert

Rather predictably for a book where you’re supposed to sympathize with a pedophilic narrator, Vladimir Nabokov’s novel stirred up all kinds of controversy — at the time of its 1955 release and ever since. Even the French banned it. However, the public was dying to read it: when the novel was finally published in the US in 1958, more than 100,000 copies sold in one week. But controversy over the book’s content aside, people are conflicted about its main character: some people just can’t get behind the sad, squalid creepiness of poor Humbert Humbert, who we’ve always read as a sort of doomed tragic hero in a constant state of emotional flux. We think part of the genius of the novel is in getting us to sympathize with someone who we don’t really hope achieves his goals, but we totally get how someone could be too grossed out to love him.

Romeo

Hey Romeo — what ever happened to Rosaline? He claims to be completely in love with her, then throws her over in a heartbeat for this hot new thing with the added intrigue of being from the relative wrong side of the tracks. Not that Rosaline cares, but still. Readers are split on Romeo — some consider him the swooning romantic ideal, and some think he’s a total stalker and a dumb teenager who brings a whole bunch of people down with him. Well, couldn’t he be both?

Scarlett O’Hara

Another character held up by some to be a personification of a romantic ideal — a spirited beauty fueled to great lengths by her one true love — there are other readers who think she may have some kind of personality disorder. Selfish, vain, spoiled, and sometimes manipulative to the point of sheer cruelty, all she does is done in the name of love… but is that good enough?

Bella Swan

Oh, Twilight. This novel probably has the most vocal and adamant critics — both rabid fans and detractors — of any contemporary piece of literature we can think of, but even fans of the books are split on Bella herself. Many cherish Bella as a modern-day Juliet, but some think her weak, vain, and obsessive, and, especially after her transformation into a vampire, almost impossible to identify with. She gives up everything to be with her man, and while that may seem the height of romance to some, others complain that she allows herself to be completely infantilized by Edward, who is ever carrying her around on his back and protecting her.

Heathcliff

Emily Brontë’s Heathcliff is often considered the archetype for the tragic, tortured romantic hero, and that may be true — for the first half of the novel, at least. People often forget how he turns into this vengeful, malicious man in the second half, not able to rest until he has destroyed every last person who slighted him — not to mention all of their heirs. Don’t get us wrong: Catherine Earnshaw’s no peach either. However, the pair is thought of by many as the perfect tragic romance. Fun fact: Heath Ledger and his sister were named after Heathcliff and Catherine, so we know there’s at least one super fan out there.

Emma Bovary

As Francine Stock wrote, “I first read Madame Bovary at 18 and loathed her. I have since come to admire Flaubert’s masterwork of romantic delusion — and to recognize her faults as mine.” Emma Bovary is indubitably a selfish, childish woman, but some would say that there is romance in the way she lives in her own little world, and a sweet tragedy in the way she dies for it. Others would say no, she’s a two-timing, bipolar sensationalist. C’est la vie.

Patrick Bateman

Now, while we don’t think there’s anyone who really likes this guy, his persona — and particularly the fashion sense and workout routines so elegantly executed by Christian Bale in the film adaptation of the novel — has inspired many admirers and copycats. At least, there are an unusual number of “how to be like Patrick Bateman” articles on the Internet. Should we be worried, America?

Lily Bart

In an article for The New Yorker , Jonathan Franzen writes, “On the surface, there would seem to be no reason for a reader to sympathize with Lily. The social height that she’s bent on securing is one that she herself acknowledges is dull and sterile, she’s profoundly self-involved and incapable of true charity, she pridefully contrasts other women’s looks with her own, she has no intellectual life to speak of, she’s put off from pursuing her one kindred spirit (Selden) by the modesty of his income, and she’s in no danger of ever starving. She is, basically, the worst sort of party girl.” He goes on to say that the reasons we do sympathize with her are that readers are especially sensitive to money concerns, and that her real downfall comes from her own bad decisions. Those may be two of the reasons that those in the pro-Lily Bart camp give, but there are many readers who simply love her without fetters, who see everything she does as something she is forced into by her circumstance, who believe in her never ending dance for her ingrained idea of happiness.