Our Broke and Bookish blog hop for May 10 is: "Top Ten Jerks In Literature (all those jerky guys in books..those who truly WERE *!? ^?! and those who just acted like one but could be quite lovable)."
First, let me say that it'd be way too easy just to list all the villains in the novels I've read, so I'm going to differentiate the term "jerk" as a person with who's rude or mean to others OR who's unthinkingly self-absorbed & obtuse in a way that may even cause harm, but who's not truly evil. They may be charming in some ways, or even well-intentioned sometimes, but ultimately it's their self-centeredness and disregard for others in favor of themselves that causes most readers to feel vexed, annoyed, or angry with them, even when they're charming. Dudley Dursley is a jerk, so is Uncle Vernon. Voldemort is not. That sort of distinction.
AND I'm only going to mention books that are well worth reading (IMHO), in which jerks enrich the plot, themes, and general enjoyableness of the whole. So consider these "good jerks" in that regard.
OH, and I'm not going to limit jerks to "guys", for obvious reasons.
So, OK, here's the parade of jerks worth reading about...
4 & 5. And how about the traitorous Aunt Evelyn in Philip Roth's The Plot Against America? And her collusionist husband, Rabbi Bengelsdorf too. In Roth's alternate history of the late '30's through early '40's, the two jerks (at first separately, then as a married couple) collaborate with isolationist/Nazi sympathizer President Charles Lindberg (yes, he of the flying fame and the kidnapped baby), the former to feed her all-consuming, solipsistic lust for fame and status, the latter seemingly just for status and perhaps for power and potentially because he actually thinks his participation is the Jews' best hope for survival in the U.S. in this darkened fictive world. For more on The Plot Against America (and hence the reason these two jerks are still on my mind), check back tomorrow for my review of the audio book (and the actual book - I 'read' them in tandem), masterfully performed by the incomparable Ron Silver.
7 & 8. Both Tom and Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby. Now I suspect this one will cause controversy for two reasons: 1. Some people will say that Daisy's just a helpless victim, torn between two men. 2. Other people will say that these characters are so annoyingly jerky that it's not worth reading the novel. With both of these points, I disagree. Daisy has choices, and her stance does considerable damage. The language and ideas in Gatsby make the purposeful jerkiness of some of the characters well worth getting over, and once one reads it with an understanding that the narrator, Nick, is himself a bit of a jerk and not to be trusted, the whole book opens up and becomes quite enjoyable indeed.
National Short Story Month, let's try one of my all-time favorite characters, who just happens to be a jerk:
9. Mrs. Dutta from "Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter" by Chitra Divakaruni in Best American Short Stories 1999. Our recently widowed title character's moved from India to the San Francisco Bay Area to live with her son, daughter-in-law, and two grandchildren. As she recounts her life to her best friend back home, she critiques just about every element of American culture she encounters and criticizes her daughter-in-law mercilessly while spoiling her son and grandchildren. Mean-spirited, myopic, and conniving, Mrs. Dutta may indeed be a jerk, but the stunning beauty of this story is that by the end we are so moved on her behalf that we will never forget her. Find out why by reading it: It's one of my all-time favorite short stories. I use it alongside Tim O'Brien's "Speaking of Courage" because both utilize the compacted framework of a single dawn-to-dusk narrative to such jaw-dropping psychological advantage.
Musing on my selections here, one thing comes clear: Thinking about jerks is quite enjoyable, and we've plenty of them to choose from in literature. Apparently, they're as ubiquitous in modern stories as happily-ever-after endings are scarce.