Do protagonists of great novels have children?

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.


Comments for this post are closed