There is nothing worse than the feeling of closing a book and coming to terms that you’ve wasted your time because you hated it. However, there’s also nothing worse than someone hating an entire work simply because they didn’t like the main character.
For many readers, having a protagonist be some horribly despicable or unbearable character is enough to turn a positive review of a story into a negative one. However, the purpose of any great piece of literature, whether it be a novel, short story or even the occasional epic poem, is to pursue larger themes and concepts, let the reader experience a flurry of emotions and cause them to question their world view or even themselves. Sometimes, to accomplish that goal, the author must make the protagonist someone completely awful.
This doesn’t mean the hated character has to be loved because of what their traits or background bring to the overall story. But readers should keep in mind just how much their role has to offer in some of the best works and approach pieces with a more open mind. After all, the unlikable protagonists are there to serve a greater purpose than being someone you’d want to get a drink with.
Take for example Holden Caulfield in J.D Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye.” The novel follows a teen’s two days after being expelled from a private elite preparatory school. In it, Holden is not only a hated protagonist, but he’s also the narrator for this entire piece.
As the narrator, we see everything through his eyes, and we are provided a twisted perspective of a teen’s life as he navigates the process of wanting to grow up yet remaining immature. No one has to like how Holden views the world around him or agree with his decision making. It should be acknowledged, though, that the book provides a perspective that most readers (hopefully) would otherwise not have, yet get to experience in the time they read the novel. Additionally, for Salinger to develop a character with so many struggles and a rich background, along with the capability to convey Holden’s distaste for the “phonies” around him – that has to be something any reader should appreciate.
The same defense can be made for short stories as well. In Henry James’s iconic novella, “Daisy Miller: A Study,” the expatriate Winterbourne is oddly obsessed with Daisy Miller, viewing her as an enigma in a stiff and dreary expatriate society in Europe. His desires for assimilation however, lead him to not be interested in Daisy, ultimately leading her to find fun and acceptance from others, along with her death from malaria.
While Winterbourne is not at fault for Daisy’s death, his cowardliness and follower mentality serve to symbolize the societal issues that strip Daisy of her spirit. His undesirable character shows how individuals who desire to belong are easily swayed to follow the group opinion. Beyond that, it becomes even more applicable to different situations, with his very character being the catalyst to question the point of standards and morals of a society. And these are just some of the interpretations to extract from this novella. The hated character can provide us with more concepts that leave us questioning the societies before our time, as well as today.
There are some stories too, where the protagonist wasn’t even designed to be a hated character. For that very reason, it has led to numerous uses of lenses to read these pieces through.
In George Orwell’s “1984,” readers meet the depressed and awakened Winston Smith. Living in the repressed society of Oceania, Winston one day lays eyes on his love interest Julia. Filled with misery, he ends up having thoughts of wanting to assault and kill her. The romantic subplot is troubling for any reader, but regardless of whether Orwell intended on crafting such a despicable character, it has led to great feminist readings of the piece.
“1984” in this case would then be depicted as more than just mere oppression by an opponent-less party. The biggest losers in this world are the women. Additionally, for everything Winston stands against, a feminist reading would show that he in fact fits right in with the male expectations and desires. It is through applying these literary lenses, acting as the interpretation of literary art, that provides readers with a specific reading that can answer their questions and allow them to approach the book in so many different ways.
So, you can still hate the horrible protagonists. But, you should also understand how important their role is in creating depth and beauty in the great stories we read.