Nora Webster: Unflinching (Lessons in appreciating unlikeable characters)

grumpy-catThere are no cats in Colm Tóibín’s Nora Webster. But there is an awful lot of grumpiness. My cat, Titus, makes this sound (I call it playing her like an accordion) when properly prompted, that sounds much like the titular protagonist, like this: *harumph, grump, grump, grump *harumph, grump grump grump

Oh sure, Nora has many good reasons for being a total grump: her husband dies, she’s left to raise four difficult (and well drawn) children, she has to scramble to earn a salary after years of being comfortably supported, in making the salary she has to give up reading for fun, she’s a Catholic sorting out Irish politics. And then, what seems to pain Nora the most is having to rely on others. No, she doesn’t have to actually ask anyone for help, but perhaps just as bad (worse?) she has to accept help that’s offered to her. She’s entirely self-interested and self-obsessed, convinced always that other people are judging her appearance, her spending habits, her parenting style, her grief. For instance, when her daughter goes missing she spends as much time wondering how others will view her reaction as she does worrying about where Aine might be.A self-interest that raises challenging questions about the role of a parent. She rationalizes that her indifference or purposeful silence in response to the obvious needs of her children spares her children humiliation or more pain; the reader is left to wonder whether this silence is yet further evidence of her selfishness in that she doesn’t engage their pain because she’s too busy thinking about her own. To what extent must parents subsume their own feelings to protect/respond to/engage the feelings of their children?

Is it a pleasure to read such a grumpy-grump character? Well, it’s as much pleasure as it is to play Titus like an accordion. A kind of voyeuristic enthusiasm for seeing someone else get it all so perfectly wrong. Someone who could have more friends, greater satisfaction from her relationships, more confidence and comfort in her own skin, but who… doesn’t. Elects not to. Or does she? I suppose it’s not a conscious choice for Nora. She sees it all as put on her. The judgement of others. The circumstances of her life.

When she does make choices – to take singing lessons or to decorate her living room – these choices are couched as concessions to others. She’s not doing these things for her own pleasure or enjoyment, but rather to satisfy others (her singing teacher, her children).  No escaping the guilt.

It makes for a somewhat claustrophobic read. All the same, it’s a fascinating character study and a triumph of writing when this reader stayed with the rather wholly unpleasant Nora and continued to hope she’d do something surprising (like smile) (or care for someone else) while knowing that the book is a reminder that as readers we make unrealistic demands of authors. We expect likeable characters. We ask for a character development that will make our characters better, more heroic, more likeable. What Tobin presents instead is a rich character, who does develop over the novel, but becomes no more heroic, no more noble or likeable. She remains reproachable, unpleasant and grumpy. And instead of complaining about how frustrating and sad (and grumpy) she is, this reader was thankful for the long and deep engagement with the unlikeable.

And because I’m such a delight to be around myself, it was a chance to embody and empathize with the deeply flawed and unpleasant of the world.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Nora Webster: Unflinching (Lessons in appreciating unlikeable characters)

  1. I didn’t find her grumpy, I thought she was considerably restrained, she rarely acted on her own impulses or thoughts, but because of the narrative perspective, we couldn’t get any other point of view except Nora’s internal one, with the off exception when there was enlightened dialogue which gave us a little more of an idea of how she was perceived by others.

    I didn’t really understand the cause of her reticence, I thought it was her character more than the effect of grief, but since reviewing it, I have been amazed at the comments by people who knew 1960’s Ireland or who had a parent who came from that era, all of whom recognise the behaviour and see it as something belonging to that era in Ireland. I am more fascinated by it, for having had these experiences hinted at by people and to learn that this was a very personal novel for Toibin to write, based on something of his own experience growing up.

  2. Hi Claire,
    I agree on the ‘restraint’ of Nora, though I think it’s a restraint of what can/can’t (or won’t be said) – scenes where she visits Donal, for instance. It’s a theme carried through with other characters – as Donal’s stuttering suggests the limits of what can be spoken (and likewise the turn to photography). I don’t think restraint and ‘grumpiness’ are mutually exclusive though. I think in some ways Nora’s refusal (or inability) to connect/reach out/speak to those around her generates the characterization I perceived as ‘grumpiness.’

    I take your point that the third person limited narration means that we get a limited view of Nora and her actions/reactions. That said, the glimpses we see from her children and relatives are, to me at least, of people nervous, annoyed and frustrated with Nora and her ‘restraint’ (think of the scene where the sisters realize she’s been living with Maurice’s clothes and their frustration that she didn’t ask for help earlier).
    Thanks for engaging!
    Erin

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