Possessed by the Unliving: Five of the Most Striking Characters in Literature

Don Quixote by Gustave Dore

Sometimes in your readings, you stumble across a character who seems to stay with you, as if you absorbed some of their substance from the pages on which your fingers found momentary repose. Their idiosyncratic language colors your own native thought-tongue; you take up their own philosophical concerns in mid-stride as if they were inheritances, and therefore your own all along. Such characters come to represent the work they appear in. They are no longer elements of a story; they are the story itself.

This is one of the many weird spells that literature can cast. What is more strange than finding yourself inhabited by someone who not only doesn’t exist, but never existed, at any point in history? Yet you know them so well, better than any of the people sharing rent space in your sphere of being. These characters, however, don’t know you, cannot know you, because they are not a “they” after all, but an accumulation of ink on a page.

You have been possessed by the unliving. Of all the ghosts in the arts, these are the most ghostly. Below are five such ghosts that I’ve stumbled across in my readings. They have yet to set me free, and I thank them for their (hopefully) ongoing stay.

Alonso Quijano from Cervantes’ Don Quixote

Of course, while most readers of Don Quixote won’t even recognize the name Alonso Quijano, since it’s mentioned only a few times, all will recognize him by his pseudonym, Don Quixote, The Night of the Sorrowful Countenance. This is, perhaps, my favorite book of all time. I’ve begun writing about it countless times, only to give up, finding myself unable to adequately represent any given aspect of this glorious masterpiece. In no small part is Don Quixote’s greatness due to the beauty of its central character, Don Quixote. The man is blind, insane, foolish, wise, lucid, happy, and miserable all at once. He is, then, a man like all of us, a human. His sidekick, Sancho Panza, also deserves a mention in this list, although it’s tempting to posit them, as Kafka famously does, as different folds of a single subject. One thing is certain: Quixote will inhabit you like a madness, filtering your perception of the world through his own hallucinatory beauty and imbuing each mundane occurrence with a sublime nobility fit for only the most untenable of delusions. Don’t prematurely arm your enlightenment prejudice at the mention of “delusions” until you’ve spent some time with the Sorrowful Knight and seen for yourself how brilliantly true a delusion can be.

Hans Castorp from Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain

And who can forget the protagonist of Mann’s sprawling masterpiece? Jungians, including Joseph Campbell, have written extensively regarding the completeness of Castorp’s spiritual and psychological transformation as depicted in this magnificent novel. Such archetypal analyses of Castorp’s individuation, however, fall desperately short of conveying the powerful experience of reading Magic Mountain. It’s not that they are wrong, but that such analysis tends to flatten the nuance of mundane experience under overly generalized headings. Castorp isn’t merely a fool on the cusp of the hero’s journey. He’s a psychologically nuanced young man, living out a path of maturation much different from the avenues offered by the world outside of a tuberculosis asylum, which remains the main setting throughout the novel. Castorp doesn’t simply find himself “enlightened” (whatever that means). Castorp enjoys his illness, revels in the deterioration surrounding him, and discovers a luxury in death far more seductive than the material comforts of the “world below.” He’s repulsive, lazy, sensitive, and self-pitying. He’s also a mindful adventurer, sure to follow you into endless fevered daydreams to come.

Prince Lev Nikolayevich Myshkin from Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot

Prince Myshkin has a tendency to baffle readers, as well as the other characters in Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot. Much of Dostoyevsky’s charm lies in his imperfections, including The Idiot’s imperfection of featuring a perfectly Christ-like protagonist. Myshkin is unbelievably innocent, rightfully earning his status as “the idiot.” But like all holy fools, including Don Quixote, his idiocy is truth. So many truly painful scenes fill this book–Myshkin makes an ass of himself at a meal of esteemed big-wigs, exhausts himself on a calloused woman simply because she suffers, continually ends up on the wrong end of scandals and financial schemes thanks to his unflagging good nature. Perfection never looked so botched and imperfect. But beneath it all lies a deeply relatable desire to correct the many wrongs of this world, coupled by the ubiquitous helplessness in the face of such immense darkness. Why does our world dissolve its Myshkins like a pinch of salt in boiling water? I don’t know. Perhaps without this very frailty, however, Myshkin wouldn’t be as beautiful. A Christ, counterintuitively, always resides in a heightened state of mortality. It is the irony of a god made of glass that makes Myshkin so dear.

Hal Incandenza from David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest

Hal is certainly no Christ, but there’s something tragic about him nonetheless. His opening scene in Infinite Jest is one of the strangest in literature, and one of the most unsettling as well. From this scene, Hal never recovers. He remains trapped throughout Wallace’s massive tome, a slave to many things, and most of them by choice. What Hal isn’t, however, is boring. Intelligent, jaded, and somewhat self-centered, Hal Incandenza perfectly embodies the sprawling, ADHD-infused narrative that unwinds across a surreal tennis academy, a halfway house, and a crazy Canadian espionage plot. Hal is, somehow, the central axis for Wallace’s strange, surreal ramblings, like Vishnu dreaming the universe. His relationship to his father and mother is poignant, obsessive, and frequently disturbing, and while it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where he ties into specific subplots, he remains in the back of your mind throughout your reading of Infinite Jest, and long after. There’s just something about Hal both deeply flawed and intimately relatable, particularly in his eventual dissolution into a state of deep alienation from his surroundings. To say more, however, would be to spoil the singular experience of reading this magnificently weird book yourself.

Judge Holden from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian

This book is certainly finding itself “in vogue” with the literary weird community. I constantly hear from people reading it from the first time, and the thought of embarking on such an unsuspecting journey without knowing the terror that lies ahead gives me chills. Calling this book “dark” is a gross understatement, and much of this is due to The Judge. Deeply intelligent and equally savage, Judge Holden is one of the most complex and mysterious fictional characters I’ve come across. His conflicting characteristics evoke something almost cosmic in their undialectic nature. Brutality gives no ground to intellect, while reason fails to counteract the most vile lusts surging through the soulless, inhuman judge. No one knows exactly what motivates the creature; it is not money, science, or pain. It seems to be a boundless ecstasy in the face of being, including, and perhaps, especially, the darkest aspects of it that most of us would rather leave in the dark. For Holden, the dark is joy, as well as the light, and he endeavors to imbue his surroundings with his bloody mystery at whatever the cost.

Of course, a second part of this list is necessary, since we have barely scratched the surface. What characters have followed you from their pages into the daylight? Tell me in the comments below.

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