Do protagonists of great novels have children?

by on September 3, 2010 at 7:36 am in Books, History | Permalink

In his new book Encounter, Milan Kundera writes:

I was rereading One Hundred Years of Solitude when a strange idea occurred to me: most protagonists of great novels do not have children.  Scarcely 1 percent of the world's population are childless, but at least 50 percent of the great literary characters exit the book without having reproduced.  Neither Pantagruel, nor Panurge, nor Quixote have any progeny.  Not Valmont, not the Marquise de Merteuil, nor the virtuous Presidente in Dangerous Liaasons.  Not Tom Jones, Fielding's most famous hero.  Not Werther.  All Stendhal's protagonists are childless, as are many of Balzac's; and Dostoyevsky's; and in the century just past, Marcel, the narrator of In Search of Lost Time, and of course all of Musil's major characters…and Kafka's protagonists, except for the very young Karl Rossmann, who did impregnate a maidservant, but that is the very reason — to erase the infant from his life — that he flees to America and the novel can be born.  This infertility is not due to a conscious purpose of the novelists; it is the spirit of the arc of the novel (or its subconscious) that spurns procreation.

Toss in Melville and Conrad while you're at it.  What I find striking, however, is that contemporary writers seem more likely to give their protagonists children (Roth, Franzen, Updike, for a start, plus the rise of female authors helps this trend).  And that is precisely at a time when more people are having no children at all.  The decline of the heroic ideal in literature, and the decline of the journey of adventure, seem to be stronger forces in predicting fictional family size.

When is the first good Western literary characterization of a child?

I enjoyed reading this book, especially the two chapters about the still-underrated Janacek.

Darren September 3, 2010 at 7:46 am

“Scarcely 1 percent of the world’s population are childless”

I am very skeptical of this claim.

saintsimon September 3, 2010 at 8:02 am

No mention of Joyce? Virtually everything he wrote was about family, progeny and procreation in all their many forms – both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake can be seen as epic paeans to fertility.

KML September 3, 2010 at 8:04 am

Many moments with children are either playful or mundane, and these do not easily make for what is recognized as good literature. Novelists prefer to write about adults pondering adult themes or talking with other adults. Kundera’s point is interesting. For that matter, why are there not more child protagonists?

Dan R September 3, 2010 at 8:28 am

“When is the first good Western literary characterization of a child?”

I’d say ‘The Life of Gargantua and of Pantagruel’ by François Rabelais.

Jim Milles September 3, 2010 at 8:45 am

“When is the first good Western literary characterization of a child?”

The Aeneid?

Ian Lotinsky September 3, 2010 at 8:52 am

This is one of the reasons why “To Kill a Mockingbird” is so great.

bbbeard September 3, 2010 at 9:11 am

For some reason Barry Lyndon occurred to me. It seems likely to me that novels that deal with short periods in the protagonist’s life are more likely to avoid involving children than novels with an epic story arc, like Barry Lyndon or Vanity Fair or The World According to Garp.

Ted Craig September 3, 2010 at 9:24 am

Most Jane Austen protagonists were childless, as well.

chris September 3, 2010 at 9:41 am

What about stories where the protagonist has a child at the end, or it is strongly implied at the end that they will have one? Children get in the way of a lot of storylines (especially the ones that require the protagonist to take insane risks), so a lot of stories are told about people in a pre-reproductive phase of their lives, but that doesn’t necessarily imply that those characters will stay childless forever. Sometimes the contrary is quite firmly established, or the lack of birth control technology in the setting means that the establishment of a stable heterosexual relationship is enough to imply future parenthood.

FWIW, the first outright counterexamples (as in, they already have children at the time the events of the story are taking place) that came to mind were Aubrey and Maturin. _The Odyssey_ also qualifies, if you consider it sufficiently similar to a novel. In both cases, the protagonists are separated from their families for much of the action, which I’m inclined to think significant.

Six Ounces September 3, 2010 at 10:13 am

Oliver Twist, Iphigenia, Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer, Jean Louise Finch (Scout)

As far as I could tell, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged was a childless society. She talks briefly about Dagney and Frisco as teenagers and a nameless character called “boy” who could have been anywhere from 16 to his mid-20s.

anonymous September 3, 2010 at 10:17 am

Children are part of the “… and they lived happily ever after”, which by definition occurs after the novel is over.

The French version of “happily ever after” even makes the children explicit: “Ils se marièrent et eurent beaucoup d’enfants” or “Ils vécurent heureux et eurent beaucoup d’enfants”

halleck23 September 3, 2010 at 10:38 am

My first thought was Romeo and Juliet but I think the question is better limited to pre-pubescent children. Teens dealing with entry into adulthood (R&J, Lear’s daughters, Telemachus) are really just little adults dealing with adult issues like love and sex, inheritance, familial loyalty, war, etc.

I think the rise of child characters and indeed child protagonists in the 19th century (Dickens being the best example of course) makes sense, since with the industrial revolution and kids going to work or living on the streets in cities, they were becoming more visible in society.

The one good earlier example I though of is the children of traditional folk and fairy tales. And similarly, it makes sense that in that oral tradition, children were more central, because they were both a more integral part of that low society (as opposed to high society, where childrearing was done out of sight by governesses and other servants), and part of the audience for the stories as well.

econprof September 3, 2010 at 10:39 am

Most of the people in Atlas Shrugged are childless – Ayn Rand had rather strong views on this subject.
AFAIR, however, Ragnar Danneskjold had a family (with the actress) and a few kids…

OneEyedMan September 3, 2010 at 11:01 am

I don’t know the modern number but between infertility and choice I don’t see how the 1% could be right. He is a quote from the historical record (link follows):

“The first big, basic difference has to do with what I consider to be the most underappreciated fact about gender. Consider this question: What percent of our ancestors were women?

It’s not a trick question, and it’s not 50%. True, about half the people who ever lived were women, but that’s not the question. We’re asking about all the people who ever lived who have a descendant living today. Or, put another way, yes, every baby has both a mother and a father, but some of those parents had multiple children.

Recent research using DNA analysis answered this question about two years ago. Today’s human population is descended from twice as many women as men.

I think this difference is the single most underappreciated fact about gender. To get that kind of difference, you had to have something like, throughout the entire history of the human race, maybe 80% of women but only 40% of men reproduced.

Is There Anything Good About Men? Roy F. Baumeister”
http://aspe.hhs.gov/hsp/07/births-to-men/rb.pdf

Miguel Madeira September 3, 2010 at 11:44 am

“I don’t think it’s children per se that are the literary problem, it’s the parent child relationship. After all, in children’s literature the first thing you have to do is get rid of the parents, either by making the child an orphan (Harry Potter, the Water Babies, Oliver Twist, Star Wars, Great Expectations) or by exiling the children (Narnia). ”

A similar case could be Walt Disney comics, where you have uncles and nephews instead parents and sons

mgs September 3, 2010 at 11:54 am

I think protagonists of great novels are usually childless because parenting is boring. Maybe not for the parent, but definitely boring for the people to whom they talk.

Its the same with stand up comedy. As soon as a comedian starts writing material about being a parent, that comedian becomes uninteresting.

Thelonious_Nick September 3, 2010 at 12:07 pm

I had thought Jane Eyre might get the nod, but I checked just now and it was published in 1847, so Oliver Twist preceded it by 10 years.

Austen’s heroines, being teen-age girls themselves, were not quite old enough to have children yet, but I seem to remember at least a couple of them (Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey) having plenty of nieces and nephews running around.

Nabokov is another with childless protagonists. But considering what his protagonists did when they found kids, that’s probably just as well.

Alger September 3, 2010 at 12:17 pm

As someone (Anon) posted above, the real problem with children in modern novels, which hinge on finding love, is that they come after most books end.
In older narratives I would suggest that what constitutes good parenting has changed. Would we call Odysseus a good father because he decided not to plow through Telemachus and then spent decades trying to get home?
I would agree with Bel, there are many examples of children and their devoted parents. It is how you set the bounds.

Isn’t a better question (also suggested above) to ask why children cannot exist in the same frame as parents in our narrative style? Disney kills so many parents to tell a story that it is now a standing joke in our house.

matt September 3, 2010 at 1:45 pm

i second (or third), the point about Joyce being full of family relationships. another reason he could be the greatest realist and experimentalist, both at the same time?

jjjj September 3, 2010 at 2:50 pm

Modern parenting/family styles (as in the last 2 centuries) are a centerpiece of bourgeois ideology. Modern novels and plays and movies are inherently anti-bourgeois. Hence, children make more sense in pre-modern literature.

It also makes sense that Dickens and Balzac — being less reflexively anti-bourgeois — would be more capable of featuring children and the family without necessarily making kids the protagonists.

John Mansfield September 3, 2010 at 3:13 pm

Conrad addresses this in The Rescue with Carter a young man who leaves the yacht he was on to become Tom Lingard’s mate on the Lightning. Describing the yacht’s crew to explain why he didn’t belong there, but instead in the middle of a Conrad novel: “All the others there are married, or going to be, or ought to be, or sorry they ain’t. Every man jack of them has a petticoat in tow—dash me! Never heard in all my travels such a jabber about wives and kids.”

Steve Sailer September 3, 2010 at 4:16 pm

And what fraction of characters are orphans?

In cartoons, for instance, you tend to have more uncle – nephew relations (Uncle Scrooge McDuck – Donald Duck – Huey, Louie, and Dewey) than father- son relations.

Jon September 3, 2010 at 7:38 pm

Are we talking juvenile children? Or do adult children count? A great many fictional (and mythical) characters do have at least adult children.
One reason that literature does not include a lot of major characters with young children is because they create a drag on the ability of the hero/heroine to have adventures (including romantic ones). When such children do exist, the adventurous parent often ends up shamefully neglecting them (e.g., Moll Flanders outright abandons several sets of children with her various in-laws; and Scarlett O’Hara leaves hers with Mammy or Prissy.)

Will September 3, 2010 at 8:11 pm

In The Secret Agent, Conrad has a developmentally challenged child, under the care of a…protagonist-ish person, accidentally kill himself while attempting to bomb a symbol of science. That is, the only case I can think of where Conrad introduces an actual “dependent” — in the IRS sense of the term — he blows him up in a terrorist plot.

Both Conrad and Melville, in my opinion, talk about children (and women for that matter) as objects to be protected: loved by noble characters and manipulated by sinister ones. For most of Conrad’s characters it seems to me that the men almost always do both; in Nostromo, Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim, most of the male characters start out as caring and compassionate before ultimately revealing their vileness in really nasty ways.

I can think of a few examples where Conrad and Melville use the treatment of women and children to describe a male character as noble or ignoble, but very few cases otherwise.

theodorerud September 3, 2010 at 9:33 pm

I just checked the end of Tom Jones. “Sophia hath already produced him two fine children, a boy and a girl. . . .”
so in the end Tom is not childless.

dearieme September 4, 2010 at 4:37 am

Two other 19th century novels worth a mention are Swiss Family Robinson (1812) and Children of the New Forest (1847). Later, but better than Dickens, is R L Stevenson: Treasure Island was published first in parts, starting in 1881.

bob roberts September 5, 2010 at 7:45 pm

Add Ignatious Reilly of “A Confederacy of Dunces – Toole” to this mix.

Dan Bowen September 6, 2010 at 3:30 pm

There are data sources out there to study the statistical possibility of this claim, but simply reading this post, I’m inclined to agree that there is likely a disproportionate measure of heroic characters that are without progeny – or whose progeny take a very minor role in the story telling.

Off the top of my head, I know that my life appears much more interesting than what I would be free to explore if I were not single, and even more so if I had a child. Sure, there are things worth writing about for characters that have children, but I’m inclined to think that it’s more difficult to incorporate that sort of substance into a characters development, than it would be given the freedom of a character as an unattached individual. I also get the impression that the “exciting” events that my friends with families tell me about are exciting because they are outside of the regimen that a family and kids require – i.e., my buddy with a wife and a 1 yo child are not going to tell me about their family skydiving outing, but would more likely mention the exciting conversation he had with a friend at the supermarket. I guess the creative possibilities of unattached characters may appear greater than that of characters with familial obligations – maybe that’s what I’m getting at.

Of course, there are other creative opportunities that characters with children open up, but yeah… the heuristic presented in this post makes sense to me.

Quasi-related:
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James Kabala September 6, 2010 at 5:31 pm

Yes, the solution to this alleged mystery is pretty easy: marriage and settling down are usually the climax of the story, not the beginning. Tom Jones does have children in the final pages, as noted above, and Austen protagonists presumably will have them after the book is over. Maybe even Pip and Estella will have a kid or two (if we accept the revised ending).

Twain joked in Tom Sawyer (paraphrased from memory) that “when writing about grown-up people an author knows how to end the book – with a marriage – but when writing about children he must leave off as best he can.”

P.S. No way is the 1% childless figure accurate.

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